Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Electoral Campaigning Reform

Written by johnleemk on 6:33:31 am Mar 26, 2007.

In Malaysian elections, there are a number of restrictions on campaigning. Many of these restrictions are often disregarded to an extent by political parties, especially those in the government, but most of them are stringently enforced. The fact that we have such huge limitations on the basic use of freedom of speech indicates just how dysfunctional our democracy is.

What is the point of democracy? To make the government, to make the leaders, to make the politicians accountable to the people. The people are sovereign, not the government.

To exercise their sovereignty, the people need information. They need to know what's going on in their realm if they want to see it governed efficiently. But when they are gagged from discussing the issues of the day, when they are bound from advocating change and exercising their rights as sovereigns, how can they be living in a true democracy?

The restrictions on freedom of speech date back to the days of the communist insurgency. A country in the throes of near-civil war has no time for luxuries such as freedom of speech, which would be easily utilised to overthrow the establishment. Naturally, the government used this as an excuse to curtail freedom of speech for an indefinite period.

As recently as the 1980s, the communists were still cited as a reason for limitations on freedom of speech, especially in political campaigning. This reason became untenable once the Communist Party of Malaya gave up its armed struggle and disbanded in the late 1980s.

Since then, the usual reason given has been "sensitive issues". The government believes the people are too stupid to differentiate between right and wrong, and thus decides to filter what they see and hear. That is why even before public rallies were banned, official permits from the Police were required to speak in public — and one could not deviate from the agenda given in the permit.

Imagine that. A democracy where potential leaders are banned from speaking in public. Is that a democracy at all?

If the government truly wanted to protect the country from falling into the hands of racial extremism, it would have been better to draft tough hate speech laws that at the same time left room for reasonable freedom of expression. There is no excuse for haphazardly giving the government wide discretion to ban discourse on any topic it likes, giving the excuse of "sensitive issues".

Still, that's not as bad as some of the ludicrous reasons the government has given for denying potential leaders access to the public. In 1999, the then Information Minister stated that the opposition would be banned from broadcasting their platform on Radio Televisyen Malaysia, as it had previously been allowed to do. Why? Because government-owned channels should only support the government.

Hello? The government does not serve itself. It serves the people. The people are sovereign. They have a right to know about their leaders and about their potential leaders.

Another thing is the insane ban on public campaigning for any seat until after nomination day. This is a ban that many political parties frequently flout, especially those from the ruling coalition.

Why should campaigning prior to nomination day be banned? If people want to exercise their freedom of speech, all the better. And hey, it's not like there's much freedom to be exercised — our "campaigning" is reduced to simply who has the most banners and posters.

Our leaders are all but silenced when it comes to presenting their platforms and their stands. We have no idea what they stand for, because they are banned from speaking in public about their views.

And we have the temerity to call ourselves a democracy. For shame. The ballot box alone is not enough for there to be a real democracy. The people exercise their sovereignty at the ballot box, but if they are denied the information necessary to exercise their rights, the ballot box is meaningless.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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