In London I absorbed the energy of the general election campaign, predicting results with old friends as I crossed constituency borders: accommodation was in a Labour stronghold, my kebab shop was in a Liberal Democrat seat and I ventured to Tory territory for tennis. No one came close to the actual election results, which I observed at the British High Commissioner’s Residence back in Kuala Lumpur. There, over satay and tea, an assemblage of diplomats, British businesspeople, Malaysian Anglophiles and students sat glued to the large screens displaying live coverage from the BBC and Sky News. The High Commissioner herself wore black, an extremely apolitical colour in modern British politics, but as the results streamed in, showing positive results for the Conservatives in defiance not only of opinion polls of previous weeks but also the exit poll, it became clear from the whoops and cheers that many in the room were Conservative-leaning, and the decisive twelve-seat majority was felt preferable to a hung parliament and the potential disruption of coalition-building.
As David Cameron went to Buckingham Palace for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II before assembling his new government, some Malaysian observers seized on a pair of statistics to reignite a former grouse: “see, Conservatives only won 36.9% of the popular vote but 50.9% of the seats!” Two crucial points were ignored: firstly that the same party’s candidates came out top in terms of both popular vote and seats won, and secondly, deviation from the mean population size across UK parliamentary constituencies is rather less than across Malaysian parliamentary constituencies.
Many British voters also bemoaned the alleged injustice of the electoral system: the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 12.6% of the popular vote but obtained a single seat, while the anti-UK Scottish National Party (SNP) won 4.7% of the popular vote and obtained 56 seats. Naturally many of the former’s supporters argue that the electoral system should translate the proportion of nationwide popular votes (“for a party”) into a similar proportion of MPs (“from that party”) in the legislature. Sadly for them, First Past The Post (FPTP) was never designed to do that. It was designed to send individuals (who may or may not belong to a party) contesting in single member constituencies to a representative chamber. If the British or Malaysian supporters of a form of proportional representation wish for radical change, they should be free to campaign for it, but for the moment, fair re-delineation is Malaysia’s best bet for better representative democracy.
A few days later, at the fourth installation in the British High Commission’s GREAT Debate series (and the one that was originally supposed to have taken place at the International Islamic University Malaysia before its hasty and as-yet unsatisfactorily explained cancellation), on the topic of moderation, Ipoh-born High Commissioner Vicki Treadell reminded the audience that our two Prime Ministers shared a platform endorsing moderation: something that should be practiced at home before being preached abroad. Her Excellency made her most political statement since the election on a point about national unity – “something we have to remind the Scots about from time to time” – and recalled her childhood in Ipoh when there was a greater sense of equality and understanding of other cultures and religions.
Later, the debate’s moderator Sharaad Kuttan from BFM Radio warned of the dangers of overstating a rose-tinted past, but I have never met anyone who has argued that race relations are better now than in the Merdeka years. During the discussion Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar from the University of Malaya’s Law Faculty lucidly explained a root cause: the electoral rewards of deliberately pandering to racially-defined communities. Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad from PKR argued that such behaviour is impossible in his party, since it is multiracial. But outside the political process, efforts must also be made to teach our constitution in schools, a point made by Firdaus Husni, Co-chair of the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee. To that I would add that a narrative history of our institutions needs to be taught too – of course alongside academic freedom to enable challenges to any narrative presented.
The UK-Malaysia bilateral relationship has already seen an enhancement since David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. He came after Heath, Major and Thatcher; Labour Prime Ministers Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown did not deign to visit Malaysia during their premierships. Of course, much credit should also go to the High Commissioners who served in recent years: Boyd McCleary and the late Simon Featherstone. Vicki Treadell’s personal history in Malaysia has already imbued another dimension to the diplomacy, and I am not alone in looking forward to more diplomatic exchanges of a political, ideological and constitutional nature.
– – –
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS