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Election Commission deputy chairman Datuk Wira Wan Ahmad Wan Omar has been with the commission for 15 years and has gone through three general elections. The coming general election will be his fourth and he expects it to be the most challenging one yet. Tan Choe Choe and Arman Ahmad speak to him on a number of issues.
Question: Recently, we saw the abolishment of section 11 (c) Election Offences Act 1954. The section required any printed material to have the name and address of its printer and publisher. Some have alleged that this means anyone can print anything and his or her identity will not be known. What are your comments on this?
Answer: The whole objective of that amendment is not to cause inconvenience to the candidate. Because now with the latest technology, people can do the printing in-house and so on (with their own computers). So, people may print things on their own.
Question: Section 26(A) was also abolished. This removes the right of parties to have representatives to observe the election process at EC booths in polling stations where voters check their name and get their stream numbers. Why was this necessary?
Answer: We had that for the 2004 elections as well as the last election. We experienced many problems and thought it was a mistake to have that option. Our experience — when political party agents and representatives were allowed to be there, they did not just sit there; they interfered in the process. Sometimes, they go to the queue and check the IC. And they ask ‘where did you get this IC?’ if they have suspicions. They took the law into their own hands. Sometimes, people come with an old IC made at the age of 25. He is now 35 years old, and maybe he put on weight, so they will say this is not the guy and they interfere. Across the country - interference.
When one party agent starts asking so many questions and disturbing the process of checking, the other agent will also interfere. There were many places where the party agents were fighting each other. Fighting in the sense of quarrelling. One fellow says don’t disturb the EC in their work. The other fellow says ‘No, I have the right’. Actually under the law, he has no role. He is just there to see if every person comes with an IC or proper document.
Question: Why wasn’t biometrics considered for the election process?
Answer: Well, the people chose and they wanted indelible ink. We thought if we introduced biometrics, it should be a pilot project, not during the GE. During the GE, there are 222 constituencies all over the country. For this election, there are 505 state constituencies minus Sarawak. So, such a big new thing, application of new technology, new systems, new process. You cannot just do it during general elections. You can try as a pilot project at one by-election. You cannot rush something that may cause problems instead of solve problems. The most important thing to people is verification. So that when a person registers, he cannot go and vote again. If they say that ink is the best solution, then we agree.
Question: Bersih and some of the opposition parties have claimed that the coming GE will be the dirtiest one yet with all these amendments. How do you feel about that?
Answer: Bersih has not been sincere from the very beginning. Bersih has clouded itself with political agendas. It has never come to EC for discussions. They came up with all sorts of wild accusations and allegations. They could have brought the allegations to us and ask for explanations, there is nothing to stop them. But they never came. They did their own research without a clear understanding of the laws and technicalities. They claimed there were 3.1 million dubious voters. In Malaysia, the mobility of the population is so high. People may register in Terengganu then move to work in Kuala Lumpur. So, a person lives in Kuala Lumpur, and he’s lazy to update his registration in Terengganu, and if he finds it difficult to go back to Terengganu on polling day, it’s his fault for not updating.
So long as his right to vote is not jeopardised under the Constitution, if he wants to go back to vote at his kampung on polling day, it’s his right.
Bersih is playing politics. If it is sincere, it should make the EC as a partner of discussion.
Why don’t they change their name to Parti Bersih and contest in the general election? I’ve been dealing with Bersih and meeting with their leaders and I know they are not sincere. Now, I can conclude that they are not sincere. When the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform completed the 22 recommendations on April 2, the next day - on April 3 - they already announced they are going to sit down and protest. Do you believe it?
The PSC members worked for six months with opposition participation in the committee. They had hundreds of meetings, public hearings and meetings with smaller committees and so on, and finally they came up with 22 recommendations. They didn’t even bother to debate. They were concerned about the minority report. The contents of the minority report had already been deliberated during the big discussions. The next day, (Datuk S.) Ambiga says lets go to Dataran Merdeka. They don’t even bother to see what the EC was going to say or do.
I’m going to talk about this on May 10 with bloggers. I’m going to explain. We are working very hard. We are so sincere. We cooperated well with the PSC. Our officers were working day and night.
Bersih is not a stakeholder, you know. They don’t have seats in Parliament. They are not even representing the people. They claim to be representing 84 NGOs. I’ve never seen these NGOs. These are all human rights and issues activists.
Members of Parliament represent the people. They are stakeholders. The EC must listen to them. They are elected representatives. More so, the government. The government is a stakeholder. The political parties are stakeholders. But who is Bersih? Bersih is just an unregistered NGO. It doesn’t bother us that they went to the streets.
Question: Can you recall when was the start of allegations that the EC was tainted or biased?
Answer: It started when they (the opposition) won more seats in the last election. That was when it really started.
Question: But shouldn’t that (the opposition winning more seats in the last election) prove that the system is fair and clean?
Answer: They said had if it been fair and okay, they would have taken over the government. This is what Lim Kit Siang said. They have been selling this idea to the people.
Question: What about the allegations that you were an Umno member.
Answer: I made the clarification already. I sent an official clarification and I asked the person who made the allegations to make a public apology. He probably found a person in Kelantan with the same name and he thought it was me.
Question: Were you ever a member?
Answer: No! How can you say that. No!
Question: Are people appointed to the EC required to be non-party members?
Answer: Of course!
Question: What if you had been a member previously?
Answer: You have to declare and resign. You cannot be a party member.
Question: But there is no law that says you cannot be a member of a political party before, is there?
Answer: The law is silent on that. Not only there is no law, there is no protocol. There is no written requirement, no standing order. It's just that the EC is an independent organisation to conduct elections under the Constitution thus it must be non-partisan and neutral.
Question: You mentioned that EC is going to be meeting with bloggers?
Answer: Yes. EC has to do that, to build up communication with the public.
Question: Is communication an area where you failed before?
Answer: I believe so, because EC is a small unit, a small secretariat. For your information, EC has only one officer in charge of PR. He is very junior. Grade 48 or 44 I think. He's the only guy, with two supporting clerks, to answer questions from all corners of Malaysia...accusations, giving input, and other things.
Question: You mentioned that media freedom was one of the issues that was raised in 1990 when an international group of observers came to Malaysia. Do you think the situation is still the same today?
Answer: I think the issue of access to public media remains the same. Whether the level of accessibility has changed, that one is subjective. However, in 1990, you did not have SMS, social media, Internet and blogs and so on. So the only venue was the electronic media and the print media. But now, the public media say this, the other media can retaliate on the spot and say another thing. So in fairness to the government who runs the public media, RTM or whatever, they say public media is the channel for governments to inform the truth, to explain the policies, to cover the activities of the government-of-the-day, because the private media is also there, who can do anything they like. The party organs can print anything they like. The social media can say anything they like, the bloggers and so on. So that's it. The public media will just cover the activities and policies of the government.
EC doesn't have legislation or power to regulate the media, what the media likes to say, or don't like to say as well as what the bloggers want to say, what the social media wants to say. Look at what the portals say about EC, about me and so on... I cannot stop them. I have to go on explaining and telling the truth. That's all.
Question: Will the EC take a stand and say that a certain media organisation is unbalanced?
Answer: No it's not fair because this is a free enterprise system. That is the right of the owners. We cannot do that. EC cannot, towards the objective of fair media coverage, make subjective allegations. No, it's not for EC to get involved. At the end of the day, what the media may decide will be in line with what they feel is the right thing for them to do.
Question: You mentioned that you are going to discuss with the highest level of government about public media?
Answer: We're going to discuss with the government about the role of the public media in elections. We are, as the EC in charge of election, here to create a level playing field and to ensure that there is opportunity for everybody.
Question: How do you feel being called on to resign all the time?
Answer: I think that is the culture in this country. They don't like a person, they ask to resign. Fortunately I'm long in this job. So the things that I have heard, I can absorb it.