Malaysia’s “Katak” Parliament

Party switching by members in the 1980’s by national cartoonist Lat

Partyforumseasia:  Beside the judiciary, discussed in the last post, the other important legacy of the British colonial rule in Malaysia is the First-Past-The-Post or FPTP election system. It is applied predominantly in former British colonies including the United States and Canada, in Southeast Asia in Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore. The advantages and disadvantages of FPTP in comparison with proportional systems, under which the different preferences of the voters are more realistically mirrored, are outlined in great detail by the (Link here:) Electoral Knowledge Network under International Idea at Stockholm. The disadvantages for Malaysia have been evident for decades. FPTP favors single parties or dominant coalitions like the former National Front (BN) coalition dominated by UMNO. And its “winner-takes-all” effect enables this type of political dominance without a majority of votes. One big area of criticism is exactly here, that the system allows numerous “wasted votes”. An extreme example was the British general election of 2005, in which 52% of votes were cast for losing candidates and 18% were excess votes not necessary for the winner’s majority, a  total of 70% ‘wasted’ votes. Gerrymandering, the tactical redrawing of precincts, is another advantage for the ruling coalition, which has been excessively applied in Malaysia.

Now come in the “katak” or frogs. What is maybe more of a regional variety of party politics, especially in Malaysia, is called “party hopping” by members of parliament, switching to a more promising party and taking the electoral mandate along. In February this year, the Mahathir government collapsed because 40 federal legislators defected and joined another coalition under Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. And following this major political earthquake, four of the 13 federal state governments, Johor, Perak, Melaka and Kedah, collapsed as well through party hopping. The fifth, Sabah in East Malaysia, followed suit and prepares for new elections.
On the background of decades of money politics and political corruption in the country, with many politicians receiving well-paid directorships in Government-Linked-Companies (GLC’s), the party hopping gets more than a negative connotation. Earlier attempts to prevent or ban it, a court case in 1992 by the Kelantan state government, ended without success. There is a new initiative by a caucus of predominantly opposition legislators to suppress the party hopping tradition and similar suggestions by the “Electoral Reform Committee” (ERC), which reviews for the first time in 63 years the whole electoral system. Reform is also strongly supported by the Aliran movement, an influential NGO. But building a majority for the reforms under the prevailing circumstances, namely an unstable ruling coalition  which would risk its shaky majority in parliament, will be an uphill task despite a lot of support among voters fed up by party hoppers.