JULY 12 — After 60 years of independence, the government is now introducing a proposal to amend Article 119(4) of the Federal Constitution to reduce the voting age to 18 instead of 21. The lowering of the voting age is in line with other countries around the world that have set 18 as the minimum age to exercise the fundamental right to vote.
Some may think that 18 would be too young to decide on the future of a country, and some feel that if they could have a driving licence, join the military or be a party in an agreement or get married, they would be ready to put a cross on the ballot paper.
While it is convenient to use age as a yardstick to maturity and fitness, there are other aspects of decision-making that should also be imposed on new voters. Education and knowledge of democracy and the electoral process should really be made not only available, but almost mandatory to all, so that voters could make an informed decision through their ballot papers.
Voter education should be distinguished from voter information. Voters are always informed of election-related matters: when and where to register as voters, when is election day, where the voting centres are located, which ballot paper goes into which ballot box, who the candidates are, the political parties the candidates represent, how the ballot papers are counted, election results and so on.
Since achieving its independence from the British in 1957, Malaysia has had 14 general elections and multiple by-elections which have been successfully conducted by the Election Commission (EC). EC has always taken voter information very seriously to ensure that voters have enough information about elections so that they are seamlessly conducted. Elections are the main tool of democracy, thus maintaining a high level of integrity of the entire electoral system and process is paramount. In modern and advanced democracies, voter education that covers bigger aspects of the democratic philosophy and processes form part of the ecosystem of education.
In Australia, trainee teachers are trained by the Election Management Body (EMB) on how elections are conducted and more importantly, the integrity of the election process. In New Zealand, the public is conditioned that integrity is paramount in an election. The same is apparent in Germany, Canada and other advanced democracies, where due to the education system and cultural beliefs, elections seem to belong to the public rather than dictated by the government. EMBs merely facilitate the process to enable voters to exercise their fundamental rights.
In those countries, children as young as nine are exposed to electoral processes and the philosophy behind elections. They are taught that they may choose what sports to play during the next physical education class through a vote, and the teachers would apply the same process of a real election that includes nomination of candidates (the sports, for e.g. hockey, rugby, football, etc), campaigning, voting, vote counting, announcement of result and most importantly, life after election. Winners would celebrate their victory and the losers will have to accept the decision and will not be left behind but enjoy the sports, although it is not the sport they had wished for.
Democracy would be more meaningful when electorates cast their votes to elect a person to represent them and carry their voices and inspirations in the law-making process. This ultimately affects everyone in society. Not only do the public need to be educated, the candidates and politicians must also be aware of their roles and responsibilities as representatives of the public in Parliament and state assemblies.
Transformation must result in better benefits and values to human life. Changes would not happen overnight and benefits wouldn’t be felt immediately. The public must be prepared to embrace and be part of the change. Again, educational efforts must form an integral part of the reforms and there should not be any shortcut in educating the public.
* Amerul Muner Mohammad is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC).