KUALA LUMPUR, April 6 — Political will from the government is the only missing element keeping 18 to 20-year old Malaysians from being registered and recognised as legal voters, several youth activists said.
These young leaders who spoke to Malay Mail said the announcement by the Election Commission (EC) delaying implementation of the Undi18 movement indicated the current government’s lack of commitment to see these amendments through.
“Parliament passed the Bill almost two years ago in 2019, so the EC should already be able to implement the lowering of the voting age,” Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) secretary-general Amir Abdul Hadi said when contacted.
“Yes, we definitely think it is an issue of political will because the EC can already implement lowering of the voting age. If you ask me, our stand is for the government to have the political will to lower the voting age,” he added.
Amir noted the deafening silence from both the EC chairman Datuk Abdul Ghani Salleh and de facto Law Minister Datuk Seri Takiyuddin Hassan on the matter, adding that if neither offered proper explanations for the delay, another street demonstration like the one on March 26 may happen.
“We will continue to pressure the government and the EC and those within the civil society will also continue to pressure them.
“We all believe in Undi18 and if the government still decides to turn a blind eye towards this issue, we might be forced to take to the streets again,” he said.
Parti Pejuang Tanah Air information chief Ulya Aqamah Husamudin held the same view about the lack of political will.
He said the EC needs to respect the legal processes of the country, in this case, Parliament’s approval, and work towards solving the problems at hand instead of giving excuses.
“The EC’s priority should be to allow the youths to vote as we were promised and to respect the parliamentary decision whilst working to improve the system.
“This is why the excuses by the EC should not be accepted. The government should also play an active role because reforms and changes to the system need political will,” he said.
Undi18 movement’s co-founder Tharma Pillai said the decision to enforce the lowered voting age is purely the prerogative of those in power, adding that they were prevaricating now.
“For Undi18, there are no missing steps for the implementation. The Bill has already been gazetted by Parliament.
“There is only a final decision from the Executive, to implement the amendment and allow Malaysians who are 18 to 20-years-old to start registering for the elections,” he said.
Tharma accused the EC of being vague about the steps necessary to implement Undi18, saying the announcement of the postponement flew in the face of previous statements by the government.
“We have not received any clarity from EC on the remaining steps that they have to do and what they have managed to do over the past two years.
“According to the deputy chairman Azmi Sharom and Takiyuddin, the implementation of automatic voter registration was on track until recently.
“Hence it is unclear what was the real cause of the delay for a full one extra year,” said Tharma.
A change of government
In July 2019, both the Houses of Parliament, Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara unanimously voted to approve the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2019 to amend the Federal Constitution to allow Malaysians to vote once they became 18 years old. It was a rare show of bipartisan unity.
The amendments which were gazetted as law in September that same year as the Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019, involved changes to Article 47, Article 119, and the Eighth Schedule.
Section 3(a) of the 2019 Amendment lowered the legal voting age from 21 to 18, while Section 3(b) enabled voter registration to be made automatic, which means that Malaysians immediately become eligible to vote once they come of age, freeing everyone from red tape.
However, both Section 3(a) and Section 3(b) which was passed during the Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration have not been gazetted, which means it is not yet in force as law.
And then the Perikatan Nasional replaced the elected PH government.
In November 2020, Takiyuddin disclosed that the age lowering and the automatic registration system has not even started, and is only expected to kick off in July 2021.
Fast forward to March 2021, the EC announced that both will not be implemented this year as scheduled.
The EC chairman blamed the delays on the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent movement control orders. Instead, he said a more realistic starting date would be after September 1, 2022, which drew widespread backlash from the public, lawmakers, and even federal ministers.
So what can and should be done right now?
To Ulya, the EC had conflated implementing two separate issues ― lowering the voting age and automatic registration ― thinking it had to do both processes simultaneously.
“This is what I believe is being used by the EC to justify the delay, by saying our system is not ready and such,” he said.
Both Ulya and Amir recommended the government and EC distinguish the differences between the policy changes and implement them separately, and that constantly blaming administrative faults for the delay could amount to them denying youths their constitutional right to vote.
“Automatic registration is just a mechanism to help ease this process. Ergo, it is unfair to drag the implementation of a constitutional decision due to a technical hurdle,” Ulya said.
The Pejuang man suggested tackling the two processes separately. The first and more important would be for those who’ve hit 18 and onwards to register themselves as voters, manually if need be.
“Phase two: complete the automatic registration system. Parallel to these phases, the EC should carry on with election education,” Ulya added.
Amir conceded that making registration automatic could be complex as the electoral roll would have to be cleaned up, but said political parties and civil society groups would be more than happy to help.
“I think every political party and civil organisation is willing to help the EC to fine-tune and speed up the process of getting the automatic voter registration system done.
“So, we don’t buy their excuses,” Amir said of the EC’s claim that the automatic registration system needs an extra year to go live.
Amir said there are three areas the EC needs to tackle. The first is requiring all states to amend and synchronise their laws to allow those aged 18 and above to compete as both an MP and assemblyman.
Next, tell 18-year-olds to register as voters. Last, work on automatic voter registration.
“Some states have allowed 18-year olds to be candidates, but there are funny cases that come from this, like in Sarawak where an 18-year old can contest as a candidate but they cannot vote for themselves,” Amir said, pointing out the need to fix the irregularities.
Tharma added that issues like cleaning up, updating, and cross-checking the electoral roll with the National Registration Department’s latest data would surely require more time, but agreed these can be addressed later on after they have included all those who are now aged 18 to 20.
Last Friday, 18 people representing the Undi18 outfit filed a judicial review application to the High Court here, against the prime minister, the federal government and the EC.
The suit is to ensure those aged 18 to 20 can register to vote by July 2021 instead of only after September next year.
They are also seeking 14 court orders, including a declaration that the government's delay in implementing the lowered voting age to be irrational, illegal, disproportionate and amounts to voter suppression.