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MGG: Wanted: Serious Candidates With Money to Burn
By M.G.G. Pillai

9/11/2001 4:33 pm Fri


08 November 2001

Wanted: serious candidates with money to burn

M.G.G. Pillai

It had to come, this proposal to raise the electoral deposit. The minister in the prime minister's department aka the law minister, Rais Yatim, says it must be raised so high that only serious candidates would stand in future elections.

Other changes include a shorter period between dissolution of parliament and state assembly and the nomination of candidates for the new legislatures, and other moves that could only hamper the opposition political parties.

Rais insists that only "serious" candidates should be allowed. To him a "serious" candidate is anyone who puts up twice more to RM10,000 for a parliamentary, or RM5,000, from RM3,000, for a state assembly, constituency.

It does not matter if he a rogue, or a cheat, or reprobate: if he has the money for an electoral deposit, he is a "serious" candidate.

The proposals came from the Elections Commission, as yet another move, we are told, to streamline election procedures. They live in a glass ivory tour, and beholden to no one but the government who appointed them; most are civil servants or those firmly aligned with the National Front administration that has been returned to office with a huge majority since the first election in 1955.

The elections commission should have called in all political parties and discussed this before submitting its prposals to the government. As it now is, the cabinet discusses it, and parliament passes it withough the opposition views taken into account. Why?

Fair but flawed proposal

On the face of it, one cannot fault the proposals. As one cannot fault the proposals of the Singapore elections commission, when it wants to have a swift, short campaign and elections so that the business of government could go on smoothly. To the National Front in Malaysia and the PAP in Singapore, the general election is a terrible inconvenience, as parliament is to the National Front.

In reality, the raising of electoral deposits is to make sure the opposition would only be token. The government, with the control of the media, gets its voice heard well before the elections, and the opposition runs hither and thither to make itself heard.

The opposition does not even have the time to print their posters and have their election manifesto explained to the public. And since public rallies are banned, it hampers their campaign.

The Malaysian opposition parties, like in Singapore, are feckless and disoriented. Predictably, they opposed it for the wrong reasons. The leader of the Opposition, Fadzil Noor, said: "Such a proposal, if accepted, will only seek to profit Barisan Nasional as it is a rich party. At present, the deposits are already too high. The opposition candidates will not be able to afford any further increase."

Statements like these play into the government's hands. That is exactly why it wants the deposits raised. It is undemocratic and unjust, as Fadhil says.

But it must be opposed for the principle it contravenes: the right of a citizen to stand for election. The right to vote comes with it the right to stand for election. Neither should come with it a qualifying option other than age and being of sound mind.

Constitutional, not monetary

The electoral deposit, which a candidate loses if he does not get one-eights the votes case, should not be onerous that it shuts out those who want to make their views heard, even if they do not have a chance to be elected.

If the present proposals are accepted, a party contesting all 192 seats must put up a deposit of nearly RM2 million and another RM2.5 million for the state assemblies. This is beyond any political parties that are outside the government in Kuala Lumpur.

But the larger issue is constitutional. By imposing a high deposit, it restricts the right to be a member of parliament and state assembly to those who have the money or are in a political party with the funds to put up the huge deposits demanded.

It is interesting Rais is unhappy with the 65 independent candidates for 62 constituencies in Sarawak, most losing their deposits. Why should he be unhappy?

It is a sign that enough citizens are unhappy with how the government is to be prepared to lost their deposits to show their displeasure in public. Why should they be denied that right by imposing an unacceptable financial burden, in addition to his campaign costs?

If people stand for frivolous reasons, that should be encouraged; is a sign that democracy is alive and well. It might sometimes cause fright, as when Shahrir Samad stood for a byelectionn in Johor as an independent candidate in a byelection and won.

But that is what makes for interesting elections. Elections should never descend into a solemn meeting of actuaries; they should reflect the reality of life in the community.

So, while the proposal, on the face of it, has merit, in practice it restricts unacceptably the constitutional right to free elections. But matters of constitutional propriety is not why the rules are changed: it is to make it as difficult as possible for the opposition to more than dent its absolute control of the election process.

Restricting electoral process

If these changes come with the government, in the interest of fair play, announcing the dissolution in sufficient time so that the actual process of elections can be dispensed with quickly. But even those are restricted with each change in the rules.

The rules as they stand do not allow the opposition enough time to get their electoral machinery into operation, print enough posters, and before they are ready, the elections are over.

Despite the constitutional provisions, and the seeming sense in the statements, every change in the electoral rule is in practice a strangling of the democratic right to free elections.

But even the opposition parties do not see it that way: they concentrate their attack, as the governing coalition expects them to, on the money. As long as it is, the National Front is home and dry.

We get the politicians we deserve. Rais wants 'serious' candidates, but the parliamentary process, as we see before us, is a huge joke.

Issues are not discussed, there is no debate worthy of note, cabinet ministers and members of parliament consistently play truant, parliamentary decorum is emphased in a debating chamber that will not discuss what must and discuse only what makes them the joke it is.

Into this august chamber, do we need "serious" candidate with the money to burn?

M.G.G. Pillai