The Election Commission (EC) must ensure that Parliament’s decision to lower the voting age of Malaysians to 18 takes legal effect by July 2021 as promised in September 2019, instead of “backtracking” on the assurance to Malaysian youths aged 18 to 20 without a good reason, a lawyer told the High Court today.
Today was the hearing of a bid by 18 Malaysian youths aged 18 to 20 who are seeking leave for the High Court to hear their lawsuit against the prime minister, the government of Malaysia and the EC, as well as the hearing of the Attorney General’s Chambers to have the lawsuit dismissed on a preliminary objection before it can be heard in full by the High Court.
The Malaysian youths were seeking in the lawsuit to be able to enforce their right to vote by July 2021 as promised almost two years ago, instead of only after September 2022 as the EC abruptly announced in late March 2021.
Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the lawyers representing the 18 Malaysian youths, noted that all 211 MPs present in the Dewan Rakyat on July 16, 2019 had unanimously voted in favour of amending the Federal Constitution to reduce the minimum voting age in Malaysia from 21 to 18.
“All those present voted for it, you can’t get a clearer message from Parliament that this must happen, and no excuses should be tolerated as to why this should be delayed,” she told the High Court during the hearing.
Following the Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara voting to approve the lowering of the voting age, the Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019 was gazetted as law on September 10, 2019, to make several constitutional amendments, including allowing youths aged 18 to 20 to vote.
In the Constitution (Amendment) Act 2019, Section 3(a) amends the Federal Constitution’s Article 119(1)(a) to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, while Section 3(b) amends the Federal Constitution’s Article 119(4)(b) to allow for automatic voter registration to replace the current system where Malaysians have to apply to be registered as voters.
But both these two constitutional amendments — Section 3(a) and 3(b) — have not come into force in Malaysia yet, as they will only come into operation on a date to be appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong via a notification to the public through a government gazette.
Ambiga today went through the chronology of what the EC and the Malaysian government had said on when the lowering of the voting age could come into force, including the EC’s September 3, 2019 statement that it would be enforceable 18 to 24 months’ later, and the then law minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong saying in October 2019 that it is expected to be done latest by July 2021.
Ambiga also cited multiple other instances in 2019 and 2020 when the EC and government officials had repeated that the lowering of the voting age is expected to take effect by July 2021 and that the EC deputy chief Azmi Sharom was on March 10, 2021, reported saying that all EC systems are “on track” to lower the voting age to 18 and to implement automatic voting registration.
Ambiga noted that the Dewan Negara president Tan Sri Rais Yatim was however reported saying the next day on March 11, 2021, that the country was not ready for the lower voting age of 18, and that this was then followed with an “about-turn” by the EC shortly on March 25, 2021, where the EC’s new chief Datuk Abdul Ghani Salleh said it is expected to be done after September 2022.
“So very strange, because this comes two weeks later, so this is March 25. The deputy commissioner had issued a statement on March 10 to say we are on track, no issues in getting it done, contradictory position. Surprise, surprise, it came after the senate (Dewan Negara) said we are not ready.
“It is what I would call a backtracking, without a doubt, for no good reason,” she said.
In arguing the Malaysian youths’ legitimate expectation to be able to register as voters by the age of 18 to 20 instead of having to wait for when they turn 21, Ambiga said they had a legitimate expectation that this would be implemented soon.
Ambiga highlighted the importance of enforcing the lower voting age as the prime minister has said that elections could be held once the Covid-19 situation is under control and the nationwide Emergency is lifted, saying: “What you are doing is disenfranchising millions of youth, after giving them the clear signal and impression that they would be able to exercise their right to vote.”
Ambiga argued that the EC could not defer its promised date of July 2021 as the implementation date of the lower voting age, as its role is merely to carry out Parliament’s decision to allow Malaysians aged 18 to 20 to vote.
“One of the citizens’ important rights is the right to vote, the right to choose their government, and worse than that, you are offending the rule of law, because what you are doing is going completely against what Parliament wanted.
“Constitutional amendments are not like amendments of any legislation. This is the Constitution you are talking about, and you cannot come to court and you cannot say we changed our mind. Who are you, you are functionaries, Parliament has decided, functionaries — EC cannot say we change our mind, we gonna wait.
“Parliament has decreed, you give a date of promise, you have to stick with it. This is not any legislation, this is a fundamental right that you are now delaying unnecessarily,” she argued.
In arguing the AGC’s preliminary objection against the 18 Malaysian youths’ application for leave for the lawsuit, senior federal counsel Shamsul Bolhassan among other things said that the government has no issue with reducing the voting age to 18, but that the issue lies in the “implementation”.
He highlighted the need to first amend election regulations to put in place mechanisms to enable Malaysians to be automatically registered as voters once they turn 18.
Senior federal counsel Azizan Md Arshad meanwhile confirmed to the judge that the AGC’s position is that the automatic voter registration and the lowering of the voting age to 18 must be done together.
After hearing arguments from both sides, High Court judge Datuk Ahmad Kamal Md Shahid said he would deliver his decision on June 17. – MMO