Some Malaysian numbers to ponder

As far as I can tell the Malaysian election results are now final. (Australians might find this surprising, but most countries don’t wait a fortnight for postal votes to come in.) The Malaysian electoral commission has them all posted here.

It’s in Malay, but fairly easy to navigate as long as you know the party names: Barisan National is the governing National Front, and the other three parties winning seats are the three components of the opposition People’s Front: Parti Tindakan Demokratik (Democratic Action Party, DAP), Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party, PKR) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS). “Kerusi” is seats and “Undi” is votes.

If that’s too intimidating, some kind soul has transcribed the constituency results onto Wikipedia. I’ve checked a selection of them and they all match, although for some reason eleven constituencies in Sabah are missing, so I’ve taken them directly from the electoral commission. (My totals don’t agree exactly with Wikipedia’s, but the differences are not significant.)

The overall result is close but nonetheless clear. The opposition received 50.7% of the vote to the government’s 47.6%, a lead of about 340,000 votes. A sprinkling of minor parties and independents (mostly in East Malaysia) picked up the remaining 1.6%; if you factor them out, the opposition had 51.6% of the two-party vote.

Yet, as we know from this morning, the opposition lost the election by a wide margin, winning only 89 seats to the government’s 133.

How? Well, it’s not hard to work out. The 89 opposition seats had an average of 66,233 votes cast in each; the government seats an average of only 38,760. It’s a classic malapportionment, where the (mostly rural) areas where the government is strong are given more representatives per head than the (mostly urban) areas where it is weak. This paper from the Electoral Knowledge Network a few years back explains how it works.

If you just look at the safe seats it’s even more striking. The government’s safe seats (margins above 10%) saw an average vote of 30,436. In the opposition’s safe seats it was more than double that – 68,630.

Nor is it just a matter of giving extra weight to less populated states, such as with the Australian Senate. In the state of Johor, for example, the government had a moderate overall lead (about 55%-45%) but crushed the opposition in terms of seats, winning 21 to five. That probably had something to do with the fact that the seats with better-than-average government support had an average of 41,342 voters, while those at the opposition end of the table averaged 63,801.

So calls for the opposition to “respect the verdict of the people” need to be seen in this light. The people of Malaysia, despite the government’s many advantages (legal and otherwise), voted for the People’s Front. The electoral system denied them their choice, exactly as it’s designed to do.


11 thoughts on “Some Malaysian numbers to ponder

  1. I can’t resist pointing out how strangely reticent the media are about basic facts like this. The BBC report, datelined a couple of hours after this post, says “Unconfirmed reports suggested that the [government] coalition did not receive a majority of the popular vote.” Unconfirmed? Is the Malaysian electoral commission not a sufficiently authoritative source? If you’re not happy relying on anyone else’s addition, put an intern to work with a spreadsheet – it’s not rocket science.

    The ABC does at least say that the National Front’s victory “was secured with just 49 per cent of the vote,” but it seems unable to count seats: it starts by saying the government “ceded just two seats”, but later on claims that the opposition’s 89 seats was “an improvement of 14 compared with the last election.” All other authorities agree that there was a net loss of seven for the government and corresponding gain for the opposition.


  2. So the opposition received 51.6% of the two-party vote? – just like here in the Peoples Republic of South Australia. The Government must have had some ALP people as advisers.


  3. Good point, New Cass, and an interesting comparison. The South Australian system wasn’t designed to yield a partisan advantage – indeed it was expressly designed not to. But Labor was able to game it by writing off a lot of seats and targeting resources in a few marginals. It’s a very risky strategy, but they were lucky and it came off; if three or four seats had gone the other way they would have been in trouble. Whereas in Malaysia the ruling party was on much more of a sure thing.


  4. I grieve deeply for the Malaysian people. My background is Malaysian Chinese, but my tears are not for them: the overseas Chinese will always, somehow, survive and prosper. They will make money and provide for their children, and they will save and educate their children at universities in the West. No, I grieve for the present and future that Malaysia might have had as a successful and harmonious, secular, multi-ethnic and multicultural state. A pessimist might suggest that Malaysia is reaching the point of no return with the constant resort to raise politics and threats to incitement of racial violence; but an optimist might argue that those who have faith in the future might only have to wait a few years more. The gangsters who govern the country have five more years to hide away their ill-gotten gains (which amount in billions) and to prepare themselves to evade the retributive justice they so richly deserve.


  5. Yeah, I’m kind of finding it hard to call this one horrible Government bias. It may well be – but on reading this, it just sounds like that rural areas are given, dare I say, “fairer” representation so that they’re not over-whelmed by the more densely populated cities.

    In much the same way that Tasmania gets 12 Senate seats here. And in much the same way John Howard won the 2001 despite only receiving 49.02% of the 2PP vote.

    If you actually do an analysis of our system, you don’t need 50% of “the people”. You just need 50% + 1 /of the seats/. And you could get those (at least theoretically) with only 25% of the 2pp vote (You only need 50% + 1 of all the votes in 50% + 1 of the number of electorates = 25% of total population).

    So I’m reluctant to call this “rigged” as opposed to a quirk of the system. As any political operator will tell you, it’s not the vote, it’s the seats you win it in that matters.

    So for the Opposition to win 50.7% and lose is not surprising (Beazley won 50.98% in 1996 and still lost).


  6. Thanks John. It’s quite true that Australia gets the “wrong” result sometimes, as in 1998; I’ve railed against that a number of times. But Malaysia is an order of magnitude more serious. Howard only won a 13-seat majority then; Najib has won a 44-seat majority. The differences in size of seats are systematic and they’re very large: the biggest seats are nine times the size of the smallest (that’s by votes cast not by enrolments, but turnout averaged 85% so there won’t be much difference). The British actually bequeathed them a system of weighting in favor of rural constituencies, but the differences were to be no more than 15% (it used to be 20% in Australia). The government scrapped that requirement, obviously for its own advantage. The paper I cited from the Electoral Knowledge Network explains it quite well.


  7. Thank you, Charles, for this report.
    Joh was a “committed democrat” compared to the crooks and thugs running the Malaysian show. UTS LIB is spot on in the views expressed. UMNO, the ruling party has all the skills and apparatus that the People’s Republic of Korea has but has successfully conned the world into believing that it is a democracy. And unlike the PRK, it runs an agenda that the guys who ran South Africa before Mandela would be proud of. The press in general, world-wide, seem to have their collective eyes turned the other way with their anodyne reporting and commentary.


  8. That’s a very good question Aidan. In terms of the degree of malapportionment it looks to me as if they’re in the same ballpark, with Malaysia maybe a bit worse. Queensland was done by a zonal system; within each zone the boundaries seem to have been reasonably fair, but the average enrolment between zones varied greatly in a way that benefited the incumbents (initially Labor, then the Nationals). That meant the commissioners didn’t have quite the same freedom to doctor things in favor of the government that they appear to have in Malaysia. In terms of its effects, Malaysia is definitely worse; the Coalition in Queensland would probably still have won all its elections under fair boundaries (1972 is the only doubtful case, but even then it’s estimated they had 50.8% of the two-party-preferred vote). The electoral system did give the Nationals a big boost at the expense of the Liberals, but it’s hard to say how much of that is due to the malapportionment. (I’m relying on the discussion in Colin Hughes’s The Government of Queensland, UQ Press 1980, chapter 3.)


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