Calls grow in Malaysia to decouple voting reforms to allow younger voters to take part in election

The reforms would have led to at least five million new voters on the country's electoral roll.
The reforms would have led to at least five million new voters on the country's electoral roll.PHOTO: ST FILE

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's election body and government have been urged to decouple the twin voting reforms - implementing an automatic voter registration (AVR) system and lowering the voting age to 18 - to allow younger voters to take part in the next election, widely expected by the end of this year.

The reforms would have added at least five million new voters to the country's electoral roll, a 30 per cent increase from the last election in 2018.

But the Election Commission (EC) last month said the implementation of the reforms - popularly called Undi18, which were passed unanimously by the Malaysian Parliament in 2019 - would be pushed back by a year.

But many believe there is no reason to hold back implementing the lower voting age and that the delay around AVR is solely responsible for blocking Undi18.

The EC has not given a detailed explanation for the Undi18 delay but a couple of ministers in Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's Cabinet had proposed that the reforms be decoupled.

"If we can't implement AVR first, then we should separate it from Undi18," Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said in March after he and another Cabinet colleague made the decoupling proposal to the Cabinet.

Malaysia will potentially add more than a million voters should 18-year-olds be allowed to vote - although the individuals would have to register manually if the reforms are decoupled.

The AVR will automatically add another 4.5 million eligible voters who are yet to register to be included in the electoral roll.

Youth and Sports Minister Reezal Merican Naina Merican, who like Mr Khairy is from Umno, had previously said that the Cabinet was due to decide on the decoupling proposal in early April.

The Election Commission has also refused to comment further on its decision, which sparked a backlash from youth leaders from most political parties.

The electoral watchdog, Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih), said that it was within the power of Tan Sri Muhyiddin to delink the two reforms and allow 18-year-olds to vote.

"It is within the power of the PM to delink the two and allow 18 to 20 year olds to immediately register themselves through the current available process with the EC," Bersih 2.0 chairman Thomas Fann told The Straits Times.

Mr Fann said that he had to assume that there were political considerations behind the delay, exacerbated by the EC's silence on the matter since its abrupt announcement of the postponement.

"Again, the reluctance of the government to do that points to political consideration that the youths, who are probably the most affected group in this pandemic, is likely to vote against Perikatan Nasional (Mr Muhyiddin's party)," Mr Fann said.

Political analyst and electoral expert Wong Chin Huat said that the EC had misled the public when it largely blamed the Covid-19 pandemic and the implementation of lockdowns for the delay.

"Undi18 can be implemented without the technical upgrade, so the delay can only lie in the implementation of AVR, which has nothing to do with human interactions and therefore cannot be blamed on the movement control order (MCO)," Dr Wong told The Straits Times, referring to the official term for the tough restrictions imposed during the lockdown.

Dr Wong said the EC might be reluctant to admit that the delay was caused by the coupling of the two reforms, which he said was "unnecessary".

"The other possibility is that Muhyiddin's biggest fear is not only Undi18 but AVR and (he) does not want the public to even pay attention to AVR. The political significance of AVR is that it allows apolitical voters to go and vote at the last minute, without having registered up to six months in advance to be sure of their franchise," he said.

Mr Muhyiddin previously said that his government did not fear the implementation of Undi18.

The new electoral laws were supposed to have been implemented in July this year, just a month before the end of a state of emergency in the country.

Mr Muhyiddin has promised to dissolve Parliament and call for an election once the pandemic is brought under control and the emergency period ends.