By HARIATI AZIZAN
The growing number of citizen initiatives this GE13 represents an increasingly politically aware Malaysia.
MAY 5 will be a momentous day for law student Vienna L. It will not only be her first time casting a vote in the country's general elections, but also her first time as a Pacaba volunteer, counting agent and barung (booth) agent.
Pacaba, short for polling agents, are public volunteers authorised by the Election Commission to monitor the election proceedings inside polling centres to ensure that everything is conducted according to laws and regulations.
Like many of our youths, Vienna, who is in her 20s, has not been content to just exercise her right at the ballot box; she decided to get involved in the Pacaba training process itself.
“After I was trained, I helped to produce a training video for Pacaba as well as recruit volunteers to be Pacabas in Sabah, Sarawak and Pahang,” she shares.
Although Pacaba have to be officially appointed by the political candidates, they are expected to work independently in a non-partisan way on polling day.
For GE13, one non-governmental group, TindakMalaysia, has initiated training workshops for more than 3,000 volunteers nationwide.
Calling themselves “caring Malaysians”, the group has been conducting free workshops nationwide to educate the public about the electoral process and the importance of participating in our elections to preserve the country's democracy.
As TindakMalaysia founder Wong Piang Yow told the press, “We cannot keep blaming the politicians as we left everything to them. If we want a better nation, we have to make it so.”
However, the zealousness of TindakMalaysia in campaigning for clean and fair elections has raised concern among the authorities, including the EC, which warned them against disrupting the process and causing trouble during the proceedings.
Tang, a mother of two who has been volunteering as a Pacaba in the last few elections and will be doing so next Sunday, describes it as a baseless misconception.
“I believe in fair play and I think most Pacaba feel the same way too,” she stresses.
Recalling her experience in 2008, Tang, who is in her 50s, relates how they were constantly reminded to be polite and to observe the procedures.
“It is the same this time around. If everyone is respectful and follows the procedures, there shouldn't be any trouble,” she says.
Tang says she volunteered as a Pacaba because she wanted to be part of the election action. “With so much activity afoot, it was good to be out there where votes were being cast, instead of sitting at home waiting for the results.”
All she had to do was cross out the names on her given list of those who were registered to vote, she says, but “it felt good seeing the faces of the voters in my classroom, and observing what was going on around me”.
Admitting that she is still unsure of what change to the electoral process she has made as a Pacaba, Tan believes that her presence has had an effect on some of the nervous voters, especially the first-timers.
“I think those who know about the role of the Pacaba especially would probably have felt a certain assurance seeing us there in the room.”
A communications professional who only wants to be known as MK started volunteering as a Pacaba in 2008 with her mother's encouragement.
“We always talk about how important it is to have clean and fair elections, so this was a chance to do something about it. I felt glad that I could help, however small,” she says.
Perturbed by the negative perception currently shrouding the Pacaba and their role on polling day, MK reiterates that Pacaba are concerned citizens who want to do their part in the country's democratic process.
“It makes sense to assume that getting an objective party who is aware of the process to monitor the voting exercise would prevent blatant infringements of the law, or at least make it considerably harder to do so,” she says.
As she points out, Pacaba's work is complementary to the EC's.
“It is important to have a system of checks and balances, thus we should be focusing on working together instead. The Pacaba are volunteers who are trained to some extent if they do not report suspicious activity, then it would defeat the purpose of having them. Besides, the Pacaba and EC have the same goal of fair elections, don't we?” she notes.
United in democracy
Concerned by the rumblings in the current political scenario, a group of doctors in Ipoh has decided to take a stand and send a message to the contestants from both political divides to stop the political violence, racial politics, fraud, corruption and power abuse.
“We are not a particular movement or association but rather a group of medical consultants from ground zero who want to join forces to promote democracy and freedom and desire for a New Malaysia.
“The current political scenario has reached a level where we feel compelled to express our views,” says Dr Sharifah H. Jaafar, the de facto spokesperson of the loose group who call themselves Dr Democracy.
One of their objectives is for doctors to express their care and concern over the country's health status; others are to encourage the public to elect and vote credible and responsible leaders to Parliament and the state assemblies and encourage the people to take charge of their rights to vote for a New Malaysia and for a better future.
“We want leaders who have higher standards of behaviour, who work for the people and protect the people's interests, who are not racist and sexist, who are not corrupt, who are not going to betray the people's vote and trust, and who respect the constitutional rights of every Malaysian as enshrined under the Federal Constitution,” she states.
When it comes to citizen election initiatives, however, no other group has received more flak than Pemantau Pilihan Raya Rakyat (Pemantau).
One reason is perhaps its connections with Bersih 2.0, one of the co-founders of the group.
Also aimed at ensuring a free and fair process of GE13, its main objective is to involve the public in the process.
“The people can be the eyes and the ears during the elections to deter and minimise instances of cheating and fraudulent practices during the polls,” says Maria Chin Abdullah, a member of the steering committee.
The information collected will be analysed and produced as a report that will be presented to the public and the authorities to help reform and strengthen the electoral process in the future.
Monitoring elections is nothing new in Malaysia and since the early 2000s, it has become a regular feature in the Malaysian polls, with Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections (Mafrel), the National Institute for Electoral Integrity (NIEI) and Sibu Election Watch (SEW) as some of the earlier watchdogs that were recognised by the EC in the last elections.
However, notes Maria, this is the first time since Merdeka that a high number of ordinary Malaysians are getting involved in the election monitoring process, volunteering not only with Pemantau but also with other citizen initiatives.
On allegations of creating trouble, Maria assures that all their 2,000 over volunteers have been briefed and trained to adhere to the laws as well as the Pemantau pledge and code of conduct, which includes political-neutrality, non-violence and transparency.
“We also have to stay 50 metres away from the polling stations anyway.”
Maria refutes the allegations of their lack of experience as an election watchdog, pointing to Pemantau co-founders Pusat Komas and Mafrel who even received accreditation from the EC in the last elections.
“The important thing is that we are not starting from ground zero. We are constantly improving our mechanisms to make it sharper and we have adopted the latest technology (including an app) to make it more efficient and easier for people to send in their reports.”
Ultimately, she stresses, it is each and every citizen's right to ensure we have free and fair elections.
Dr Sharifah of Dr Democracy agrees.
“There shouldn't be a question of rights' of these citizen watchdogs because their role is to protect the rights of every Malaysian citizen for a fair and clean election. I think it is the right of any Malaysian citizen to report any wrongdoing because GE is a major event where the citizen is about to determine the future of the country that would affect their life.
“One doesn't need a qualification' to be a citizen watchdog or Pemantau volunteer because their work is just to observe and report and not interfere with EC's conduct of the election or the accredited observer groups' observations of the polls.”
In fact, she says, the alternative voice would further enhance the integrity of the EC.
It would guard the integrity of the Election Commission as an impartial body and increase confidence among Malaysians of the electoral process and its outcome, Dr Sharifah opines.
In a way, the EC's apprehension over the rising number of these citizen initiatives is to be understood. GE13 is not only one of the most intense elections in our history, it is also one of the most crowded.
On top of the non-EC accredited observers, 17 NGOs with up to 1,000 volunteers have been appointed by the commission to be on duty at the polling centres. In addition, foreign observers, including 42 from Asean countries and the Asean secretariat, are set to be confirmed this week. Last week, the EC announced that it is good that the public are assisting them in ensuring the integrity of GE13.
The commission have even called on all Malaysians to participate and assist in the observation exercise by submitting official reports to them and their appointed observers to ensure complete coverage of the elections throughout the country.
It is not only the negative incidents that the EC are interested in though.
As highlighted by EC chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Yusof, they are not just looking for “errors and mistakes but also good precedents that might be applied to good use in future elections”.
This includes examples of the EC staff carrying out their duties efficiently to facilitate the voting process.
Similarly, if anyone feels there has been an abuse of power by any agency, or if there is a political party that uses extreme racist and sexist elements in their campaign, the people are encouraged to document them (pictures as such) and report them to the commission.
In peninsular Malaysia, Pemerhati, which comprises NGOs accredited as official observers this GE13, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), ASLI Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), Merdeka Centre and the Malaysian Youth Council have taken the lead by setting up a website www.permerhati.my and a hotline (016-333 0484) where members of the public can submit “information” on their observations of the campaign trail for GE13, as well as the supporting documentation like pictures as evidence.
“Many people are concerned about what is happening on the ground, so that is why we are asking them to send whatever they are unhappy or uncomfortable with to us, rather than spread it around online or to the media, which might stir up unnecessary tension,” he says.
Interestingly, the public is assured not to worry about their understanding of the election laws and regulations during the election observation exercise.
The main principle for the public is “if in doubt, then report”, says Ideas chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan.
“It's like when you observe a crime committed, you don't really have to know the law to make a police report. It will be up to the police to investigate it further. Same here, we will check if a regulation has been broken or not. The key fact is that we need information. Just tell us if something has happened.”
To date, Ideas and CPPS have deployed 325 volunteers from Perlis to Johor (Merdeka Centre has deployed around another 200 observers) since nomination day to monitor the election process on the ground.
“Some of the things they are doing is to talk to people and monitor the campaigning by the different candidates. They will also go to the army camps to observe early voting and see if all the procedures are followed,” he adds.
Crucially, Ideas is gathering information for a longer-term reform of the electoral process.
“Our long-term observation basically involves looking at the whole electoral process, even before nomination day and going back as far as the last four decades. It covers a wider scope, including how political parties are funded and media behaviour during elections and others,” he says.
Wan Saiful concedes that their appointment as an observer has been queried but hopes that the public can see what they are trying to achieve through their reports.
“True, it is not our area but it is a big responsibility. Basically, we are qualified through the input of the various different groups that we are working with,” he says, stressing that they will even observe EC unconditionally.
Acknowledging the rise of citizen watchdogs in Malaysia this time around, Wan Saiful believes this is a good thing as long as everyone practises caution and rationality.
“(EC) accreditation is a prerequisite if you want to observe what is inside the polling stations; you will not be allowed to go in if you are not recognised. But I always say, it is your responsibility to report a crime if you see one committed. It is only if you want to catch the criminal that you need to have a licence as a police officer.”
In other words, he says, if you want to ensure that GE13 is clean and fair as a citizen, you don't need accreditation.
“It is good that more and more people are going out there to observe and record what is happening. It is good for democratic participation in the long run.”
For more election stories, please visit The Star's GE13 site
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