An opposition MP’s decision not to contest in his mega-sized constituency come the next general election has thrown up a longstanding irony in Malaysian politics: bigger seats are increasingly disenfranchised.
When Ong Kian Ming, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Bangi decided to not recontest his seat in the country’s 15th general election, he avoided one of the most gruelling challenges of an elected representative — governing a supersized constituency. Whoever wins the Bangi seat in the next general election would have to be accountable to an astronomical 298,503 voters, the highest in the country. This constituency size is higher than the population of Guam, Barbados, and Samoa, and close to countries like Iceland, Bahamas, and Brunei. With only a fraction of the resources of these countries, supersized constituencies like Bangi have become ungovernable.
To be clear, this seat disparity (otherwise called malapportionment) is nothing new to Malaysia, as its Constitution contains an implicit endorsement in favour of rural seats. Rural seats tend to have a smaller number of voters because maintaining adequate contact between voters and elected representatives is harder in a typically low-density rural area. Favouring rural seats also served to protect Bumiputera influence as Malay and indigenous people dominate these constituencies. Over the years, however, ruling politicians exploited this disparity to cement political advantages over their opponents, picking up more seats with fewer voters. This, however, betrays the ‘one person, one vote’ principle.
As a result of the Constitutional amendment to lower the voting age and automatic voter registration, Malaysia’s electoral roll has expanded by a third to 21.02 million as of January 2022. Coupled with prior electoral malpractices like gerrymandering and malapportionment, the influx of 5.8 million voters was unevenly distributed, exacerbating voter numbers in supersized constituencies like Bangi. Before, 35 seats exceeded 100,000 voters; now, 85 seats exceed this threshold, including eight supersized seats above 200,000. Besides Bangi, Kota Raja (240,530), Damansara (237,489), Subang (228,037), and Iskandar Puteri (219,243) are the largest.
Voters in these constituencies will be affected in three ways. One, accountability will be reduced. If you live in a constituency with close to 300,000 voters, it is unlikely that you will have meaningful interactions or touchpoints with your MP, if at all. Studies have found that representatives from large seats are more likely to take positions that are at odds with the interest of the constituency.
At its most basic, an MP is supposed to represent the voices of his or her constituency in Parliament. Compared to a constituency like Lenggong with 37,012 voters (eight times smaller), Bangi’s MP is less likely to listen to a large part, or even half, of its constituency to properly act as its representative.
Arguably, MPs in large seats are also more vulnerable to corruption because they require more money to win an election campaign. In these seats, MPs may be tempted to listen to lobbyists and interest groups. As a result, these MPs might fail to represent the interest of constituents.
Two, welfare distribution will be unfair. At present, the government distributes an equal amount of funding to each seat — regardless of size — for welfare purposes, at RM3.5 million per year. Voters in large seats, typically urban, are disadvantaged because they receive less funding on a per-voter basis.
Malaysians have to grapple with a sobering irony: The more voters move to the urban areas for economic reasons, the smaller their democratic rights become.
Using the comparison above, a Lenggong voter will receive RM94.56 per year in constituency funding, whereas a Bangi voter will receive a meagre RM11.73. Worse, should the government decide to reverse its equal funding policy and provide opposition constituencies with only RM100,000, the disparity is more glaring. In supersized seats, which are mostly opposition-held, like Bangi, a voter would receive a pitiful RM0.34 per year — 278 times lower than Lenggong. The inequality is a form of indirect disenfranchisement.
Three, there is a risk of political disillusionment. 63 per cent of the largest 100 constituencies are in urban areas. Informed and opinionated, urban voters are most likely to experience political disillusionment when they are cut off from the process with minimal voter-politician touchpoints, marginal welfare benefits, and little impact on the election outcome in their constituency.
One way to solve this quagmire is to increase the number of seats in parliament. Malaysia’s parliamentary seat number has increased eight times since 1964 to its current level of 222. This number, however, is an arbitrary estimation without considering the effective and efficient service of every voter. In his classic 1972 paper, Taagepera presented a formula for calculating optimal seat numbers for the legislature.
Using the cube-root of the population, Malaysia should have 319 seats for 32.7 million people. After accounting for the mandatory ¼ seat requirement for East Malaysia, West Malaysia ought to add 73 seats to 239, and East Malaysia should add 24 seats to total 80. Thus, the optimal average voter per seat in West Malaysia is 72,740 (102,314 now) and East Malaysia is 45,489 (64,434 now). That means a supersized constituency like Bangi ought to be split into four and governed by four different MPs.
The question of increasing the number of parliamentary seats, however, is not an easy one. Without a two-thirds majority to change the constitution, the earliest the Election Commission could consider this question for West Malaysia is 2026, and 2027 and 2023 for Sabah and Sarawak respectively. Even then, vehement opposition could be expected from Malay conservatives who may portray seat increase as a dilution of Malay Bumiputera influence. They have a point: the increase in seats would predominantly take place in urban, racially-mixed constituencies, instead of rural and predominately Malay areas.
Selangor and Johor’s suggestions to increase the number of seats in their respective legislative assemblies could trigger a nationwide redelineation before the mandatory minimum eight-year lapse, but a state-level redelineation trigger (as opposed to a federal-level trigger) has not happened in history, so it remains to be seen how successful it might be.
For now, Malaysians have to grapple with a sobering irony: The more voters move to the urban areas for economic reasons, the smaller their democratic rights become.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.