Now every adult in Malaysia can vote, Mr Armstrong

JULY 18 — Fifty years and two days ago, a moon-bound Apollo 11 captured the imagination of our species. Inspires still.

Incidentally, two days ago, the Dewan Rakyat unanimously passed a Bill to lower voting and election candidate ages to 18 and — reminiscent of a brilliant starburst in a distant galaxy seen from afar — includes automatic voter registration.

Factor this, 77 per cent of Malaysia’s 32.6 million — present projected population according to our statistics department, fresh numbers as released on July 15, 2019 — will be at least 18 in 2021, when a general election is expected.

The result?

Give or take for deaths, migration and incarceration, there’d be as many as 25 million voters who can wake up on election day and cast a ballot.

A whopping 67 per cent increase in eligible voters from GE14 in 2018, which was at 15 million voters. 

Two of every five names on the electoral roll would be new. Our political future may be a free for all. 

Segambut might slip from DAP’s grip, Kuala Terengganu from PAS’ embrace and Jerlun from Pribumi Bersatu’s fastening? Does it increase the chance for new parties, and their new ideas?

Staggering possibilities. Dreams emerge.

The lower house’s support for the Bill is an otherworldly step for Malaysia’s usually geriatric reform pace. The most youthful ever if it is measured by the courage required and the virgin space it brings to bear in our democracy.

By our modest standards, a giant leap without the need for any preceding small step. A blast into hyperdrive.

A sidebar. While the upper house must pass the Bill before a necessary royal assent, the complete support from the lower house where all the leaders of the political parties with power reside means it is a foregone conclusion the Bill becomes an Act soon.

Two areas require examination.

Must follow

Not the least because of what’s listed above, other policies must accompany the shift.

If the 10 million new voters are divvied up equally to present voter size, the largest seat Bangi at 174,000 balloons by 116,000 to 290,000 — about the population of Barbados. Might as well call it Barbados, then.

The absolute number of seats must rise from 222 to counter voter surge, the proportion of seats per states must reflect relative population and the Borneo-Peninsula ratio requires study.

Selangor’s seat count is scandalous. Perak (24) and Johor (26) in total have about the population of Selangor, but they both dwarf the richest state’s 22 — explains Bangi’s insane roll explosion at the next general if not corrected.

So steps are necessary.

Further, automatic registration offers a headache. Hundreds of thousands of Borneo folks in West Malaysia with the vote now but no access to exercise it.

Critics might ask them to shift their voting precinct, which is fair, but there is a moral conundrum when the majority are here under duress due to low economic opportunities back in the east. They would rather be home, if home was prosperous.

Our conscience must be pricked by their predicament.

Possible solution is for Borneo’s outstation voters to poll in the peninsula. It will delay the results but ups the inclusivity of our elections.

These corrections require beforehand the relocation of the Election Commission (EC) to Parliament away from any government ministry, therefore interference.

Without trust — primarily EC’s independence — every manoeuvre faces resistance. Even if passed, tainted. 

Lastly, and not just an afterthought, government must invest in democracy education. Civic education from the youngest ages, and greater amounts of free speech in schools. If businesses want a firm programme for their corporate social responsibilities, they need not look further than to pump into growing our appreciation of democracy.

X-amount of ringgit to politicians gets power or at least influence power, but the same to political education saves people from tyranny. Though it might be too much to expect commercial entities to see beyond commercial outcomes.

Tiresome and trying

Question, since July 16’s vote demands further actions, is the Bill bothersome?

No, hell no. Participatory democracy is work, it’s a cross to bear in order to create a society at peace with itself.

However, the flippant opposing argument recurs, asserting 18-year-olds have yet to qualify for the right to vote.

It’s doubly flawed.

Voting matches adult responsibilities with rights. Eighteen-year-olds can’t expect financial support or exclusion from legal repercussions, they must feed, clothe and shelter themselves, and not break the law in the process.

It is only fair, they can in return affect the laws, policies and government which determine those components. With their vote.

For instance, an adult can enter a contract for a mobile telephone line, with a free phone thrown into the package. It’s the commonest contract the young enter into and if they are in arrears they can get dragged into court for non-payment or blacklisted.

Adults should be able to shape contract laws, as in ask the MP to enquire and act on their behalf, perhaps even amend laws on telecommunication, contract and debt.

Adult in Malaysia begins at 18 and so should the vote. The Dewan Rakyat belatedly rectified the error.

Some rue the TikTok, WeChat and Instagram crowd get to determine the government of the day, but it’s a case of sour grapes. Plenty of middle-aged Malaysians live by mindless network love dramas or Sophie Kinsella novels, which is pitiable but not grounds to remove their voting rights.

If intellect and maturity are central, should wise professionals with high IQs get an extra vote due to their incisive thinking?

The vote often suffers from mob foolishness, which is not just cause to end democracy but instead a clarion call to increase democracy education and engagement.

Spoonfuls

Still, I can’t shake the feeling some might object to younger voters because the rest of us had to wait till 21 to enter a polling booth. “Why should they have it earlier and better,” is the refrain.

The purpose of a progressive democracy is to improve lives by including more and engaging the present audience better.

Voters today effect their government far more than those in the past anywhere in the world. The ethos “It can always be better” is what drives democracies forward. It does not belittle our past, it instructs us democracy grows in increments.

In Malaysia, we are taught to expect less. This quickening, to lower voting age and automatic registration defies our trained pessimism. It inspires and tempts us to want more. After all, just months ago it was mission impossible. Like going to the moon.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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