After last year’s historic elections, which saw Malaysia’s ruling party voted out of power for the first time in 61 years, there is now a window of opportunity to deepen democracy via smart reforms to the country’s electoral processes. To this end, with six primarily local partner organisations, the Kofi Annan Foundation just concluded a historical roundtable discussion on electoral reform in Kuala Lumpur. Below are a few reflections on this historical movement from Alan Doss, President of the Foundation.
Three years ago we were invited by Global Bersih, one of Malaysia’s most prominent civil society organisations, to join a discussion on electoral reform. I never expected then that we would end up sitting here in Parliament with the Election Commission and an electoral reform committee.
Malaysia has come a long way! Most of our friends debating electoral reform in Parliament over the last couple of days were more accustomed to demonstrating outside Parliament rather than sitting inside it. Our presence here was highly symbolic, because Parliament is supposed to be the house of the people. The people of Malaysia have reclaimed their house. Now they must reclaim their destiny.
Naturally, the political transition that occurred in May 2018 generated great euphoria. But transitions are a process, not a single event.
It will take time to reform Malaysia’s electoral system to meet the expectations that fuelled the demand for change. People expect quick results, so there is a risk they will be disappointed and disillusioned if that does not happen as swiftly as they would wish. Vested interests may well resist reform efforts. Transitions are vulnerable; they are not linear processes and, empirically, they often falter.
None of this is said to lessen Malaysia’s achievement, or to discourage it, but merely to highlight the challenges.
That is why it is so important that Malaysia has already set up an election reform committee with a clear deadline. Reform has to be implemented while there is momentum. But let’s remember that reform is not primarily a technical issue – it is a deeply political challenge. The roundtable stressed inclusive, deliberative participation, recognizing that the process is vital to the result.
The options chosen will have to be anchored in a political consensus and energized by the political will to implement them. Following this historic gathering in Kuala Lumpur, I am quite optimistic that Malaysia can rise to the occasion. The intelligence, wisdom and goodwill are here.
Politics is all about timing, and the time for electoral reform in Malaysia is now.
President, Kofi Annan Foundation