OUTGOING Election Commission (EC) Chairman, Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, 66, has been through thick and thin. Besides having voted in every general election since 1964, he has served the EC for almost 25 years, starting as Secretary (1979-1995) and as later as Chairman (2000-2008).
Abdul Rashid, who will relinquish his post on Dec 30, highlighted the urgent need to revamp existing electoral laws in an interview with Sunday Star.
You have been in the EC for almost 25 years. Are you going to miss it?
AB. RASHIDI don’t think I’m going to miss it. I was supposed to go last year but my contract was extended for another year. I already knew then that I was not going to play this role any more. It’s not that I am leaving with sadness. In fact, I’m quite happy to go at this age; you don’t want to be actively engaged in things that require a lot of energy and movement.
What do you make of the one-year extension?
AB. RASHIDIt was meant for me to cover the last election. The Government asked me to stay on for another year because it was not fair to get a new person to handle the election as he might not be able to handle the problems.
Your extension was met with a lot of outcry, especially from the opposition.
AB. RASHIDThey are not happy with anything. You have got to study why they are not happy with so many things. To be fair to them, they were struggling to change a lot of things and became very frustrated. Then they started to brand everyone as not being transparent.
Was the opposition not happy with you or with the EC?
AB. RASHIDI don’t know, but looking at things, they don’t seem to be happy with me. You have to understand that there’s nothing personal here. The EC is not personal property that I can handle in any way. Elections are 100% about the law. We are talking about laws which define the Malaysian brand of democracy. People might not be happy with how democracy is being developed in this country and we are dragged into that arena by virtue of the EC being directly involved in upholding democratic activities.
Are you happy with the democratic practices in the country?
AB. RASHIDWithin the framework of electoral activities, I am not. However, the laws are given and put in place. You cannot do what you like.
Is there a need for a change of laws?
AB. RASHIDThe powers of the commission have to be reviewed by reviewing the law. Give the commission the power to handle money politics and abuse of powers. These are all missing components. If there is any review at all, I’m willing to assist in the areas that should be looked into such as weaknesses in the present law and the problems the EC is facing. We have to look into many things before going into that aspect. We have got these laws today. When were the laws enacted or introduced? The EC was formed when panel members strictly complied with Articles 113 and 114 of the Federal Constitution. We have to run elections according to the laws of the country, nothing more and nothing less.
What do you think of the results of March 8 elections?
AB. RASHIDIt changed the perception (politically). You cannot do what you like and you have to listen more to the people. You cannot afford to be arrogant. In terms of elections, it was the best because it was very peaceful while the process and participation was very good. I don’t care about the outcome. Of course, there was a lot of dissatisfaction here and there which pointed out to some kind of misunderstanding or non-understanding.
What was the dissatisfaction?
AB. RASHIDPeople were not happy with the electoral roll and they talked about cheating. They talked about phantom voters but when we asked them who they were, they couldn’t answer. They talk generally because some political parties politicise such issues. The dead are on the roll, they said. These are non-issues. Dead people don’t vote.
Generally, our laws are 50 years old and at the time they were introduced they may have been very suitable for the country because we were young. The laws were made such that the EC shared powers with others to run the elections.
People think we are completely independent. We are independent all right but not completely in charge. We have to share power with the police and Information Ministry for media matters. These are all critical matters relating to election.
What kind of independence is the EC looking for?
AB. RASHIDThere are a number of missing components. You have to be completely in charge because we have to deliver a free and fair election. I am not saying it’s not. Where we are concerned, we have delivered a free and fair election but I can see that people want more than what we can deliver and want a level playing field. They are looking at what is happening outside the country and asking why there are differences.
That means it is not at a level playing field now?
AB. RASHIDWhere we’re not in charge, it is not level. For example, we are not in control of the media during the election. The EC in most developed countries will make sure the media is shared and they are fair to all. The media cannot take sides, or even if they do, there are limitations determined by the EC. And then we are talking about campaign security generally. Maybe this was admissible 50 years ago. But if you talk too much about security now, people will laugh at you. People are talking about the freedom of expression, movement and freedom to organise.
But security was one of reasons cited for the cancellation of the use of indelible ink.
AB. RASHIDThat is one of the reasons. We didn’t cancel it, but we just couldn’t proceed. We never rejected it until today. We will implement if we can but we were told by the Government and the Attorney-General that it was against the spirit of the Federal Constitution. So we took heed of this. I had told my secretariat to take it to the Fatwa Council and find out where they sell the ink. All this was put in place except for the law. I thought that it would not be a problem and it was only a small thing. I think until today that was not really an issue.
But can the Government be selective in the articles they want to implement?
AB. RASHIDNo, I don’t think so. If people are not happy, they can take the subject for judicial review and ask the court to review Article 119 (every citizen has the right to vote) on its meaning and what kind of activity it covered. The Government said they were told by their experts that using the ink goes against the spirit of Article 119. If we had continued, there was a danger doing something that would be considered ultra vires the constitution. The whole commission would have to resign then.
But the opposition didn’t listen to this, of course. They forgot that I was the one who pushed the commission to implement the indelible ink in the first place. What’s wrong if we can convince people that we have nothing to hide and there’s no cheating going on?
Could you have gone against the Government’s wishes?
AB. RASHIDI can’t because I could be impeached. If we don’t listen to the Government who else can we listen to? If it is ultra vires the constitution and we disagree, we have to go to court for judicial review. This is not something that I will do. Others should do it. If they can solve this problem for us, we will use the ink.
Could an incident such as this have prompted people to vote for the opposition?
AB. RASHIDI believe some voters were influenced by this because they felt we refused because we wanted to cheat. That issue was being politicised. The campaign that took place after that alleged that we were going on a cheating spree. They even went personal on me.
Some people threw red paint at your house. How do you feel about what happened?
AB. RASHIDI took it in good spirit because I knew people misunderstood the whole thing, especially in the heat of the moment. From day one, I agreed when opposition parties came to see me through Bersih (Coalition for Free and Fair Elections).
But everything in the election is based on law and the Government told us we could not approve it. This is one big problem with the present-day EC, that you cannot legislate.
If I have the power to make laws, the first law I would make is the power to sue people who abuse you. A lot of people were using us as campaign material, and very effectively. They went around bluffing people in the kampung. It’s not fair because when we do anything wrong in terms of law, we are taken to court. But when others do wrong (to us), we have nowhere to go.
If we had this law, they would have to be very careful because if they campaign against the commission, they are telling people this is not a fair organisation.We have to always enjoy the confidence of the public. If we no longer enjoy it, we have to go.
What has been done in terms of electoral processes after March 8?
AB. RASHIDWe cannot propose anything but merely outline the weaknesses of the electoral laws. I have been talking about the need to appoint a committee to look at electoral laws for four years. But the Government is only aware now and has agreed to review several matters. They are talking about the legal system and police force. The opposition opened their big mouth before the election, but why are they not pressuring on electoral matters anymore? These matters are the result of shortcomings in the legal framework which determines the electoral system, electoral process and the enforcement powers of the EC. The powers bestowed by the law on the EC differ between one democracy and the other. Whenever I set foot on foreign soil, particularly the developed democracies, I cannot help but envy my counterparts where the framework of electoral laws place the EC in a position of strength to enjoy sufficient power to earn a reputation of being the provider of free and fair elections.
Do you have any advice for your successor?
AB. RASHIDI won’t advise him because he might not want it. What I’m saying here is the chairman may come and go, so too the panel members, but if you expect improvement, then you are expecting something that can never materialise as long as the law is not reviewed. If you expect the electoral roll to be in a different format, there is no way unless the whole law is reviewed. This 50-year-old law is no longer used in any part the world. You have to give the EC the freedom to put up its own law in order to make sure they can register people conveniently and produce a roll that is acceptable to all.
You mentioned this idea of electoral law reformation in May. What is the development on this?
AB. RASHIDWe need a review but that’s not within our terms. We must have a review committee, but we cannot do that unless we are told to do so because it is not within the terms of reference. We have done a lot of research and put up papers. My opinion is the whole law be put aside and a new one be introduced.
What amendments should be made to the law?
AB. RASHIDIf you want the EC to really enjoy the kind of credibility that such an organisation like this normally enjoys, we need to review not one but all laws related to the electoral process. They (elected representatives) talk so much about reforms and weaknesses, and are criticising me until today. I have already given my view. One simple example is the postal votes. It cannot be helped that most postal votes go to the party in power,. It’s quite natural everywhere in the world. There is no such thing as planted votes where during the count if someone is losing, postal votes are brought in. If there are 200 postal votes, then 200 will be counted. You can’t bring in 2,000 postal votes. All this has been highly politicised and we have lost all our credibility.
But could these postal votes be done away with?
AB. RASHIDIt is not right to do away with postal votes as we have the army, navy and people overseas. Maybe you can look at the manner in which it is being conducted and processed, and suggest some other way. It is an international practice. If there is a need for review, get the opinion of people from all over the country. They are barking up the wrong tree as I cannot change anything.
Could voters be registered automatically instead of manual registration?
AB. RASHIDNo, the problem is that people don’t update their addresses. We register according to the address in the identity card. More than 50% of people will be registered where they will be no longer present and that defeats the purpose.
If you want everybody to be in, there’s no point when they can’t vote. Unless a system can be imposed where you have to change your address when you move. If that can be enforced, we will be very happy to do it. People say the electoral roll is dirty, but it’s not. It doesn’t contain non-citizens. We cannot cut out any names from the roll even if they are not found or not living in the constituency where they registered. That’s why politicians will jump during the elections when they go house to house and cannot find these people. There is this allegation of phantom voters, but they are actually genuine.
But we hear of cases where there are 300 voters registered to one address.
AB. RASHIDThis happened long ago. As long as we have the present law, we cannot remove a person from the roll. We have done a thorough study on this.
These people are alive and have moved but refuse to re-register. They are from the squatters and borrowed an address where all the letters are delivered. If you go there, you can’t find these people, but come polling day they go there to vote. And then we are accused that they are phantom voters. If anyone can prove that we are registering non-citizens, I would like to go to jail for this. Just don’t make any allegations.
That’s why the EC needs more power. If you vote where you stay, we can register voters six months before the election. It will be neater and cleaner. The roll we have today has been rolling for 50 years. One problem is we do not know when the elections are going to be held although we can make a guess.
Would your proposal be practical?
AB. RASHIDMost countries are doing this. Some even do it one year before the election. You get rid of all the dead people and people who are not living in the area. You can go house to house, just like a national census, although a bit of money, almost RM40mil, would be needed.
Coming back to the night of March 8, you looked very emotional and lost for words.
AB. RASHIDI was sleepy and very angry that the results were not coming in on time as expected. At that moment, people thought that I was angry because the party in power was losing. Who cares who wins or loses? I’m not even a party member and neither is my family.
Some of the results were being held back for no obvious reason. I had to call all over the place and I was yelling at the state officers. You get upset because you don’t expect this to happen. I always say that by 11pm it should be finished. But this time even at 2am, many results were not even announced. People will get suspicious, but how can I control 222 parliamentary and 576 state seats. I can’t even control one.
What are you proudest of in your tenure in the EC?
AB. RASHIDThat we managed to deliver in all elections. I am proud that legitimate governments have been formed as a result of our effort. How they govern is a different thing. There have been peaceful transitions of power and peaceful formations of government. I also feel very happy that wherever I go, people shake hands with me.
You were in the EC as secretary and later as Chairman. Was there a difference in both roles?
AB. RASHIDI have always played a major role in elections. The previous panel was confident in me and gave me the freedom to move around. As secretary, I was practically running the show. When I was chairman, people didn’t dare go against me because of my experience.
How do you see the future of Malaysian politics?
AB. RASHIDThere must be proper dialogues and compromises between the Government and the opposition. The Government must be able to accept suggestions towards building something.
For example, if the opposition feels that election laws must be reviewed, then do it for the country. We cannot have laws that work for only one party. Of course, I’m not saying they are, but it is not sufficient for the EC.
Will the two political party system be achieved?
AB. RASHIDWe are moving very fast towards a two-party system and that is a good thing for the country and the people. Political parties are going into partnerships with certain parties. The choices are there – one or the other. You find that during the elections, they get together and what emerges are the two parties. If only the Pakatan Rakyat can continue to carry on as a group, then I don’t see any other political organisation that can match these two.
What are your thoughts on the formation of a backdoor government?
AB. RASHIDI don’t think that is what the people want. It is not morally right because the representatives are chosen through their party unless they are independent. But even then, it’s not right (for independent candidates to join a party). But at least they have more freedom if attached to a party. If they jump to another party for personal gain, that is morally wrong. But in politics, who cares really and it may be good for the country. Crossing over happens everywhere in the world.
What is your next move?
AB. RASHIDI have no plans. I will do things to keep my mind active. I have connections with the college that I founded (Lagenda Group) and I will go there once in awhile. I will find some other activities mostly to do with welfare. I can’t get into business because I don’t know anything about it.
Are you coming out with a book on your experience in the EC?
AB. RASHIDIt is almost completed and I’m in the process of going through it. It is more analytical and academic. I have included the analysis of problems with conducting elections in the country.