Standing in the eyes of the world
Anyone reading this who grew up in Malaysia during the 1990’s should be familiar with the title of this post, and if you’re like me, the song is now playing in your head. The 14th General Election briefly put Malaysia on the world map. This is evidenced by the worldwide popularity of “Malaysia” in Google search across the month surrounding May 9th, 2018. For comparison, I’ve included the popularity of our closest neighbor, who is usually slightly more popular.
Malaysians show up
There’s another reason Malaysia should be proud – our voter turnout rate (defined as the percentage of eligible voters who actually voted) is pretty impressive by international standards – our voter turnout of around 82% (on a weekday!) in the 14th General Election places us 32nd out of 199 countries that held parliamentary elections between 2011 and 2018. The international average was 66%.
The following graph shows turnouts for different countries depending on the degree of political rights/freedom citizens in those countries enjoy (as assessed by Freedom House). This measure quantifies freedom of expression, freedom of association (the ability to join different political groups without government intimidation), and the rule of law.
The graph also differentiates between countries with and without compulsory voting. Malaysia is marked out in the graph.
In countries with compulsory voting (the red points), more political rights/freedom translates to higher turnouts. This suggests that when governments make voting compulsory but do not bother safeguarding political rights more generally, punishments are insufficient to motivate the people to vote. For example, Egypt had a 28% turnout despite the threat of jail time and fines for not voting. In contrast, Australia had a 91% turnout. These countries differ significantly in the amount of political rights/freedom their citizens have.
In countries without compulsory voting (the blue points), there is a marginal but significant quadratic (curved) trend – turnout is higher in countries with either low or high levels of political rights/freedom. In countries with strong political rights and freedom, turnout may be higher because people feel their votes can influence political outcomes. In countries with weak political freedom, people could be more motivated to vote because voting might be the only political right they can exert.
Countries with moderate levels of political rights/freedom (like Malaysia) can be viewed as being in electoral “no-man’s land” – some citizens are probably unsure if their votes can lead to real political outcomes, yet most do not experience the extreme oppression (by global standards) that might motivate them to exert their right to vote.
On average, citizens in such countries worldwide are less likely to show up to vote, but Malaysians defy this trend and deserve a collective high-five for turning out to vote at such high rates! The ritual of voting is clearly embedded within the Malaysian identity.
(Some) Malaysians showed up
Just under 12.1 million (!) votes were cast in GE14, up from 11.1 million in GE13. There was actually a slightly lower turnout this time around compared to GE13 (83%), but this was due to the large increase in registered voters. Between GE13 and GE14, there was an increase of around 1.7 million eligible voters. It’s worth keeping in mind that voter turnout is calculated amongst eligible voters, but this does not include the Malaysians who were not registered to vote either because they are uninterested, or because of potential barriers to registration.
Another factor that likely influenced turnout was the midweek polling day. In light of the added barrier of voting, it’s possible that the motivation of eligible voters to get out and vote was actually increased, but there was no boost in turnout rate because some were impeded from getting to their voting stations. This was reflected in the inspirational stories about Malaysians showing their determination to vote and help others do so: Civic-minded Malaysians started movements to get people rides home to vote (our very own Andrew Loh was one of the founders of PulangMengundi), and Malaysians overseas helped fly votes home for each other. A counterfactual worth considering: if GE14 had been held on a weekend, would the turnout rate have been higher, or would people have been less motivated to vote?
Despite the caveats, the comparison between Malaysia and other countries still holds; the 12 million who showed up to vote can stand proud, looking to the future. Will this contingent of civic-minded rakyat push the country to have greater political rights and freedom? Will that in turn have an influence on voter turnout, increasing it even further? Will we have a weekend election day for GE15? We’ll have to wait and see. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy this brief moment when we’re standing proudly.
Edit: Included the increase in registered voters. Thanks to reader Hwa Yang Jerng for pointing out how this in tandem with total votes cast provides a clearer picture of voter turnout.