January 21, 2021

Will a mixed member electoral system help Malaysia?

6 min read

In an appalling move by Sarawak immigration, political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat was not only denied entry into Sarawak, but was initially denied medical attention when his blood pressure shot up at the airport.

He was saved only by an intervention from the Health Minister himself.

I do understand how many Sarawakians feel alienated from or wronged by the peninsula (with good reason), but this a rare case in which I will say: denying medical attention to a man whose blood pressure is 194/110 is a step too far on the part of the Sarawak government.

Wong was in Kuching for a workshop on electoral reform. A slightly longer version of the same workshop was conducted in Kuala Lumpur.

I was lucky enough to attend, and the content of the workshop gave much food for thought.

In attendance were experts from Germany and New Zealand, gentlemen who were most generous with their time and charm, as well as from Australia, the United States, and right here in Malaysia.

Both Germany and New Zealand have a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system. One of the proposals that seem to be currently considered for Malaysia is a system called the Mixed Member Majoritarian (MMM) system.

(If I’m not explaining the following well, allow me to recommend to you this helpful video from New Zealand:

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The “mixed member” in both these systems refers to the manner in which individuals can become members of the legislature (Parliament) in one of two ways.

The first of which is to be elected based on geographical constituency – the same way in which all Malaysian MPs are currently elected.

The second is to be elected via what is called a party list.

On the German and New Zealand ballot papers, there are two columns. I’ll use the German ballot here as an example.

On the left, you have a list of candidates who are running in your geographical constituency, along with their party affiliation.

On the right, you have a list of parties only.

This gives the people two votes: one for their constituency representative on the left, and the other for the party of their choice on the right.

The voter can choose to vote for the same party in both columns (known as a “straight vote”) or to split their vote and vote for a candidate from one party for their geographical constituency, but vote for a different party from the party list.

In the MMP system, the right column (party list) is very important, because it is those votes that will ultimately determine which party gets what percentage of seats in Parliament, in direct proportion to the votes that party has received overall.

Each political party that crosses a certain threshold of votes received (say 5%) is thus able to add individuals as MPs in order to ensure that the total percentage of seats held by that party in Parliament reflects the percentage of votes they received nationally.

The individuals who are added as MPs in this fashion are chosen from a ranked party list prepared by the respective parties before the election.

There are of course a dissertation’s worth of increasing levels of complexity involved, but that is the gist of it.

The essence of the system is that it theoretically ensures a Parliament that accurately reflects (relatively speaking at least) the overall political sentiments and inclinations of a nation, and does not run into the problems of wasted votes inherent in “first past the post” (FPTP) systems.

The Mixed Member Majoritarian system (MMM) can be thought of as “MMP Lite”.

MMM also involves a party list, in much the same way MMP does. The key difference is that the party list (the right column in the German ballot example) does not determine the final percentage of seats allocated to each party, but only accounts for a certain number of seats allocated specifically for party list candidates.

For example, one version of MMM in Malaysia would involve adding say another 50% worth of seats to Parliament, bringing the total to 333. Then, 222 MPs would be elected in the exact same way they are now (FPTP), whereas another 111 MPs would be elected via a party list (equivalent to the method used in the MMP examples above, via a second vote in a second column/category on the ballot).

The general view is that FPTP involves a lot of wasted votes and a high potential for the end result to be a poor reflection of proportional nationwide political sentiment.

However, it does tend to force major political players to work together, and adopt more centrist approaches.

Mixed member systems involving party lists meanwhile, allow smaller political parties that would otherwise almost never win in any constituency under FPTP, to emerge as a viable (albeit probably small) political force, with representation in Parliament.

In Malaysia, one of the burning questions is: will a mixed member system move politics in a more moderate direction, or a more divisive one?

There is no longer any space in this article (or indeed in five articles) to go into this question in exhaustive depth.

In summary however, it seems that under say a pure MMP system, we could see the rise of more progressive parties and movements – some being extremely liberal.

On the flip side, the system also allows for the rise of parties and movements on the opposite end of the spectrum. Without the incentive to be centrist that comes with FPTP systems (which accounts say, for why Umno and PAS support an MCA candidate in Tanjung Piai), there would be even fewer restraints on all-out racist and chauvinist political movements, from each and every ethnic group.

An MMM system may perhaps be a happy medium. This way, the centrism encouraged by FPTP is still of prime importance, but the question of wasted votes are balanced considerably by the additional seats allocated to party lists.

In a relatively rare occurrence, I agree with P. Ramasamy, who writes:

“Yes, the primacy given to ethnic and religious issues in electoral campaigns and competitions is not something to contribute to the progress and development of the nation.

“There is dire necessity to move beyond these issues and to embrace matters that are significant for all the communities in the country.

“But whatever reforms that we need to bring to the electoral system must be based on the country’s unique history and experience.”

I think the important thing to learn from countries like New Zealand and Germany is not one particular form of electoral system or another, but rather the fact that context-driven institutional engineering is an important front in the effort to design an electoral system that encourages the best, healthiest forms of political competition.

Each country has its own unique history, context, and dynamics. I think we would do well to be brave and bold in exploring and designing electoral systems – whether copied, innovated, or completely new.

This, I feel, would be the approach that will best help Malaysia’s politics turn away from the negative dynamics of today, towards a system that effectively taps the talents of the many, many Malaysians who are eager to truly serve their country.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who specialises in identifying the right goals, and the right tools for achieving that job. He would like to thank Mr. Robert Peden in particular for his insights and fellowship during the workshop. Nat can be reached at nat@engage.my. The writer’s views are his own.

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