Being independent

By Jacqueline Ann Surin

PETALING JAYA: The idea of fielding an independent candidate in Kepala Batas – the parliamentary constituency where the incumbent is caretaker Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – was not to win the contest.

“The idea is for students to reclaim their voice through the electoral process, and to bring about electoral change,” said Azlan Zainal, the pro-tem president of the yet-to-be-registered Parti Mahasiswa Negara (PMN), in a Feb 21 phone interview with

While awaiting the Registrar of Societies’ decision on their application for registration, the plan was that PMN would field a candidate as an independent in Kepala Batas, raising expectations that there would be a three-cornered fight in the P41 seat up in Penang that would also involve Abdullah and PAS candidate Subri Mat Arshad.

In the end however, PMN failed to field a candidate on nomination day on Feb 24 because its candidate, Zainol Faqar Yaacop, 24, failed to submit his nomination papers in time.

Still, by the time nomination was finalised on Feb 24, there were 103 independent candidates who were contesting for 37 parliamentary and 66 state seats. Among these are the hot seats of Sungai Siput, Lembah Pantai and Kuala Terengganu.

However, as of Feb 26, at least three independent candidates have since pulled out of the race for the 2008 general election. They include Berhan @ Birhan Ruslan for the Tawau parliamentary seat (P190) and Shahul Hameed M.K. Mohamad Ishack for the Datuk Keramat state seat (N29). Junak Jawek’s withdrawal from the Igan parliamentary seat (P207) in Sarawak raised the number of seats won uncontested by the Barisan Nasional (BN) to ten.

Independents, as the name suggests, are citizens who run for seats without belonging to any political party. In the 2004 election, independent Chong Hon Min created an upset when he defeated the BN candidate Datuk Lau Ngan Siew in Sandakan, making Chong the only independent Member of Parliament in Malaysia’s 11th Parliament.

Historically, most independent candidates can be found in Sabah and Sarawak where they are unflatteringly described as “commercial candidates” who can be bought to ditch the race. However, the notion of running as an independent is also gaining popularity in the peninsula for reasons other than to make a quick buck.

Raising an issue
Within the DAP in this election, for example, running as an independent is probably a mark of dissent against the party leadership. On Feb 25, the DAP had to expel members Kung Chin Chin, Ngu Tieng Hai and Badrul Zaman for violating party rules by filing nominations as independent candidates. Three days earlier, Penang DAP legal adviser R.S.N Rayer announced he would contest as an independent in either Prai or Bagan. A day later, he apologised after being told he would be fielded in the Seri Delima state seat (N32).

And on Feb 27, MCA deputy president Datuk Seri Chan Kong Choy said the party would sack two MCA members – Ho Yip Kap and Koh Boon Heng – who are running as independents.

Political jostling aside, and other than Sandakan’s Chong, a notable effort at fielding an independent in recent history was made by the Women’s Candidacy Initiative (WCI) in 1999. WCI fielded women’s rights activist Zaitun Kasim as the first ever independent candidate to run on a gender platform.

Women’s rights activist Zaitun Kasim was meant to run as an independent again in the 2008 election but had to withdraw for health reasons. Photo courtesy of WCI2.

Running under the DAP banner, and with the help of PAS on the ground, Zaitun went up against Chan, the MCA incumbent, in Selayang. While she failed to secure the parliamentary seat, she garnered 43% of the votes and reduced Chan’s majority from 38,627 in the 1995 election to 8,835 in 1999.

Like PMN which aims to raise an issue’s profile through fielding an independent candidate, WCI’s aim is to highlight and promote women’s rights and participation in politics – causes which do not adequately receive the attention of either the BN or opposition parties. Zaitun was meant to run again as an independent under WCI2 in this election but had to withdraw for health reasons.

One of WCI2’s core coordinators, Shanon Shah, said dissolving Parliament before its term expires – the current Parliament term would only expire in May 2009 – to call for elections constituted a “snap election,” which is the exception rather than the norm in most democracies. “Only in a system where elections are arbitrarily called and rushed through would the health of a potential candidate affect the outcomes of the democratic process,” he said.

“A fairer system that gives voters and candidates ample notice of elections, and also a longer campaigning period, would allow for both voters and candidates to plan their lives better to face the elections,” he added.

But Zaitun’s poor health was just one of the challenges WCI2 had to face in its attempt to field an independent. “The raising of the election deposit from RM5,000 in 1999 to RM10,000 in 2004 for parliamentary candidates presents a serious obstacle to independent candidates,” Shanon told on Feb 21.

Malaysia, he noted, still imposes one of the highest election deposits in the entire Commonwealth compared with, for example, India where the deposit is Rs.5,000 or RM422, Australia AUD350 or RM1,035, and New Zealand NZ$300 or RM763. “RM10,000 is a lot of money for an individual to fork out,” he said.

At the same time, independent candidates only get their logo from the Election Commission (EC) on nomination day which means that an independent’s election campaign can only begin printing buntings and flyers after nomination.

“BN and opposition parties already have their logos and can begin printing once Parliament is dissolved,” he said. This means, he added, that while political party candidates can begin campaigning immediately after nomination, an independent can only start much later.

In WCI2’s case, the initiative has its own logo which it is trying to brand develop but such efforts are close to pointless in a campaign if it is the EC which will eventually decide whether a candidate’s insignia will be a key, umbrella or bus.

That’s why independent candidates try and negotiate with a party to run under the party banner. “Unless an independent candidate is a household name – for example, if it was (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) – it is hard for an independent to beat a party candidate,” a DAP insider explained.

He noted that in the 2004 election, the party flag drew 35% of the voters, which meant that 35% of the voters voted for the party regardless of who the candidate was. Hence, independents who run on an unknown logo have the odds stacked against them because of the lack of “brand recognition”.

And while a party candidate has the infrastructural support of the party and its membership base, an independent has to rely on volunteers. “We have to convince supporters to come on board, whereas a party would have members who are already ready to lend their support,” Shanon noted. “Even opposition parties have staff which an independent would not have.”

And if opposition candidates have a tough time receiving fair coverage from a government-controlled media, independents have a much tougher time gaining media attention.

“The system is so prohibitive, it becomes very hard for an individual to offer oneself for leadership and as a result, we lose having good people in our national leadership,” Shanon said.

Must be a member
Even though the DAP agreed to Zaitun running under the party banner as an independent in the 1999 election, the party insider said circumstances have since changed.

“Over the last few years, the party has managed to attract leaders from non-governmental organisations (NGO) and non-governmental individuals to join the party,” he said, citing popular blogger Jeff Ooi, Petaling Jaya grassroots organiser Edward Lee and economist and water rights activist Charles Santiago, who joined the party in early February.

“We wanted them to contest and invited them to join the party, and they did. So, we can’t be practising double standards by letting a non-member run under our banner,” the insider said.

The insider, a keen political observer, could not be named because of restrictions on who could speak on behalf of the DAP.

In 1999, he said, the DAP was in trouble because it could not attract enough talented people to run in the election. “The leadership felt then that it was convenient to help an individual from an NGO without facing any internal repercussions.”

The insider said that in any political party, internal politics was just as important as national politics. “If we allow an independent to use our logo without joining us, we have to explain to the grassroots why members who have worked for years for the party are not given a seat to contest,” he said.

“The party is also an organisation that needs to grow which means we need elected officers (in Parliament or the state assembly), and those who contest under us to help grow the party.”

WCI2 core coordinator Shanon Shah. Photo by Jacqueline Ann Surin. Indeed, Shanon said that with the “changed environment” in the 2008 election compared to in 1999, it was “twice as difficult to negotiate with any political party for a viable seat” for WCI2.

“It felt like people were so quick to forget the WCI success story of 1999,” he said, adding that it was a shame that opposition parties would not support an independent candidate who was running on an issues-based platform.

“It would be one creative way for the opposition to demonstrate it was committed to values and issues that are about a larger picture, and not just about the political party alone,” he said.

“Perhaps if a party could do that, it might actually attract more people to it,” Shanon said. He argued that for an ordinary citizen, the exclusive party structures in the BN and opposition parties were no different if the opposition was not open to “creative politics” and strategies.

PAS secretary-general Datuk Kamaruddin Jaafar, however, said the party was open to supporting independent candidates on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t have a blanket directive on independent candidates,” he told on Feb 21.

“If the issue is big enough and we are not able to concentrate on it or if the issue is more suitable for an independent candidate than for a political party, then we may support the independent candidate,” he said. He added that PAS’s strategy was to avoid any three-cornered fights.

Still, even if a three-cornered fight emerges because of an independent, Kamaruddin said the party would respect a citizen’s right to contest and to express views on an issue within the political arena.

While initiatives like WCI and PMN are open to negotiations with any political party that would support their position on issues, the truth is that because the BN is in power, it would be unlikely for any ruling component party to support an independent candidate.

That explains why independent candidates have traditionally worked with opposition parties instead of the BN. However, Shanon argued that the role of the independent is not the same as that of the opposition.

“We’re not out to defeat the government no matter what. For example, if one day, the BN embraced the principles of human rights, democracy and women’s rights that we stand for and it had a better track record than the opposition, we would work with the BN,” he said.

PMN’s Azlan, a Universiti Putra Malaysia graduate, echoed that: “We have no opponents. We just want to represent the voice of the younger generation and we want to be able to make recommendations to any political party.”

A third choice
Despite the challenging obstacles an independent faces, Shanon said the people behind WCI believed there was a need for citizens themselves to create real choices for the electorate.

“Malaysian politics is polarised right now. Voters have to choose either the BN or the opposition and there are people who will not vote because they like neither,” he said.

“We need to build stronger checks and balances to government, and we need a viable opposition in place. And to us, this opposition does not only consist of opposition parties – it should consist of viable independent candidates, and also the voice and aspirations of civil society.”

He said putting up an independent candidate was more empowering for citizens than feeling disempowered by the lack of credible candidates from either side to vote for. “We believe it is important now more than ever for civil society to hold all political parties – whether in government or opposition – accountable to their promises. Only then will our votes and voices translate into real and meaningful change for all of us.”

In principle, Shanon added, every democracy should support healthy political participation from any citizen. “We need more diversity in our politics and an independent candidate can bring that.”