Malaysia’s Dubious Voter Numbers

The Bersih rally planned for this weekend is set to target electoral irregularities. There are plenty to consider.

Malaysian election reform coalition Bersih (Clean), which gathered more than 50,000 people together in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last year, will hold another sit-in protest this weekend in frustration over the failure of the government to implement key electoral reforms. Dubbed Bersih 3.0, the gathering will push for the resignation of Election Commission officials, who are accused of orchestrating a clever cover-up of a fraud prone electoral system.

The assembly is expected to be a major political event despite the insistence of the organizers that it’s not trying to undermine the leadership of the ruling coalition, which has been in power in one form or other for the past 55 years. However, the presence of opposition personalities at the event could further bolster the claim of government supporters that Bersih is an initiative of partisan political forces.

But whatever Bersih’s affiliation with the opposition, whether real or imagined, this shouldn’t weaken the argument that Malaysia’s electoral process needs to be more democratic and transparent in order to avoid the suspicion that voting results can be easily manipulated in favor of administration candidates.

One of Bersih’s demands, which is to clean up the electoral roll, is actually supported by many analysts, who have uncovered inconsistencies in the voter registration database. For example, a surprisingly high 90 percent of ballots cast through the postal voting system have favored the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. Furthermore, 42,000 voters whose status as citizens can’t be verified by the government are still registered.

Since the victory by the opposition in Selangor in 2008, voter registration in that state has increased by 22 percent (more than 340,000 voters) compared to the national average of only 16 percent. Meanwhile, opposition parties are also perplexed by the fact that there are 1,000 people registered to vote who are 100 or older, while one “voter” was apparently born in 1853.

Ong Kian Ming, project director of the Malaysia Electoral Roll Analysis Project, believes that at least 3.4 million cases, or about 27 percent of the electoral roll, need to be validated. He found, for example, that 3.1 million voters have conflicting details for their voting constituencies, and he also questions the 65,455 “foreigners” on the electoral roll, the majority of whom are located in Sabah, a province notorious for giving foreigners fake documentation papers. Finally, he says he wants to probe the removal of 106,743 voters and the registration of 6,762 new voters, which was done without a public announcement last year. 

These election numbers are expected to be raised at the Bersih rally this weekend. Hopefully, the government won’t resort to violence again, as it did at last year’s Bersih event. What the government and the Election Commission should instead do is explain the perceived irregularities in the electoral database. And if they can’t defend the statistical anomalies, they must immediately acknowledge the errors and assure the public that all the dirt in the electoral roll will be cleaned before the general elections.