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Should Malaysia Switch from a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) to a Proportional Representation (PR) Electoral System?

Hausarbeit 2020 10 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: Südasien


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This essay examines the case for a PR electoral system in Malaysia. Based on assessments along three dimensions of electorate representation, ethnic conciliation and women’s representation, I recommend the adoption of a preferential PR system with low district magnitude and an electoral threshold.


Malaysia is a plural society, defined by Eckstein (as cited in Lijphart, 1977: 3-4) as a society divided along ethnoreligious cleavages. As shown in chart 1, Malaysia’s multiracial population is divided into three main groups with the majority Bumiputera (67.4% of population) comprising of indigenous groups (mainly Muslim Malays), while Chinese and Indians minorities make up 24.6% and 7.3% of the population respectively (DOSM, 2010).

A legacy of being a former British colony, Malaysia adopts the Westminster model of democracy (Lijphart, 2012). This has contributed to an extremely stable form of government with the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition ruling uninterrupted from independence in 1957 until the 2018 election, when it lost power to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.

The political system suffers from three key issues: disproportionate representation of electorate, ethnic polarization and low women’s representation. The following sections assess the impact of a PR electoral system on each of these areas based on academic literature and empirical studies.


The key weakness of the FPTP system is big-party bias whereby major parties receive a disproportionately larger seat share than their vote share. This disadvantages smaller political parties which are underrepresented in parliament (Duverger, 1964). Table 1 illustrates this big-party bias in the Malaysian context. We observe the BN winning a larger share of parliamentary seats than its vote share in every election since independence. Indeed, in the 2013 election, BN still retained its parliamentary majority, despite losing the popular vote.

Table 1 : BN election results for lower house of parliament (1959-2018)

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Source: Funston, 2018.

In contrast, PR systems score highly on electoral representativeness, promoting multi-partism. According to Carey & Hix (2011), PR systems “accurately translate parties' vote shares into parliamentary seat shares and allow for inclusion of the broadest possible array of partisan views in the legislature”. Lijphart (1984, 140) also praises the proportionality inherent in PR electoral systems as “virtually synonymous with electoral justice”.


Relations between Malaysia’s three main ethnic groups are frosty yet civil, despite a considerable mutual antipathy (National Research Council, 1999). As such, the electoral system should aim to foster ethnic conciliation. In plural societies like Malaysia’s, Lijphart (1977, 2012) advocates for a PR system as it provides the space for different ethnic groups to be better represented by their own parties in proportion to their population size.

Indeed, there is widespread agreement that PR systems are associated with lower risk of ethnic conflict (Cohen 1997, Saideman et al. 2002, Schneider & Wiesehomeier 2008). One explanation for this is that minority representation improves when district magnitudes increase from single member districts under FPTP to multi-member districts under PR (Cox 1990: 927).

Huber (2012) examines the role of electoral systems in ethnicization1 and shows that this is lower under PR systems. Huber attributes the ease of appealing along racial lines to be the very reason why PR systems have lower levels of ethnicization - PR systems also enable parties to target other issues (e.g. regional, environmental parties), thus reducing the political saliency of race.

Reilly (2002) argues that PR electoral systems, specifically preferential electoral systems2, foster inter-ethnic vote transfers and the emergence of multi-ethnic political parties. Preferential electoral systems encourage politicians to seek not just first-choice votes from their own group but also second-choice votes from other communities, thus promoting inter-ethnic cooperation. According to Reilly, the process of negotiations between rival candidates and their supporters for reciprocal vote transfers, can greatly increase the chances for a shift in votes from ethnic parties to multi-ethnic ones, thus strengthening a core of moderate middle sentiment within the electorate and advancing multi-ethnic parties.

Reilly cautions on the importance of underlying social contexts in determining the success of such voting systems. Countries like Malaysia which feature “highly intermixed patterns of ethnic settlement” are a better fit for such voting systems than countries with more geographically concentrated patterns of ethnic distribution.


Malaysia ranks poorly in women’s parliamentary representation with only 14.4% of legislators in the lower house being female (World Bank, 2020). Although this is an improvement from 5.1% in 1990 and 10.4% in 2000, it is still the third lowest level of female parliamentarians in ASEAN and below the 21% average for East Asia and the Pacific.

As shown in chart 3, women’s representation is higher on average under PR systems. Matland (2005) provides two theories for this. The first concerns “balancing pressures” whereby higher district magnitudes3 under PR systems incentivises parties to balance tickets with female candidates to reflect different party factions and appeal to a broader segment of the electorate. FPTP systems on the other hand, feature single member districts where only one candidate can be selected per party. This incentivises parties to field the candidate with strongest chance of winning which favours male candidates.

The second theory concerns “contagion pressures” whereby the practice of nominating female candidates spreads faster among parties in PR systems. This is because the cost of nominating female candidates is lower under PR systems - due to higher district magnitudes, nominating a woman does not require denying a male candidate. Furthermore, the benefits of this strategy are higher under PR systems as a small increase in vote share from fielding a female candidate translates into more seats. Matland & Studlar (1996) compare Canada (FPTP system) and Norway (PR system) and finds empirical evidence of contagion pressures to field female candidates in Norwegian districts but this is not observed in Canada.

Thames and Williams (2010) provide evidence of another channel through which PR systems promote greater women’s representation in legislature. They argue that PR systems increase women’s representation by fostering a party-centred system where candidates are weakly incentivised to appeal to personal votes4. This provides central party leadership with influence and control to appoint female candidates to run for elections.

Electoral thresholds also influence women’s representation. Matland & Taylor (1997) study the effects of electoral thresholds on women’s representation in the Costa Rica legislature. They show that electoral thresholds disfavour small parties who would otherwise have fielded few, mainly male candidates and favour the election of female candidates from larger parties.


In choosing between FPTP and PR systems, one faces a trade-off between “representation of voters’ preferences and accountability of governments” (Carey & Hix, 2011). Although PR systems are good for ensuring a party’s parliamentary seat share matches its vote share, it is weaker than FPTP systems in electoral accountability.

According to Powell (2000), electoral accountability exists when there is clarity in assigning responsibility for political outcomes and the electorate can punish or reward parties for these outcomes. The FPTP system scores well on accountability because governments tend to be comprised of single party majorities or small coalitions, making it clear which party to sanction or reward. This is in line with what Riker (1982) terms Duverger’s Law which asserts that FPTP systems favour the emergence of two-party systems. A separate hypothesis termed Duverger’s Hypothesis by Riker (1982) implies that PR systems favour multipartism. Increased party fragmentation leads to multiparty coalition governments, which complicate the task of assigning accountability and apportioning blame or reward.

As electoral district magnitudes increase under PR systems, party fragmentation increases, resulting in a deterioration in electoral accountability. This is a result of Cox’s (1997) “M+1 Rule” which asserts that the number of viable parties or candidates is equal to one plus the district magnitude size.

Carey and Hix (2011) explore the trade-off between representation and accountability as district magnitudes increase and find that this relationship is non-linear. Specifically, in moving from FPTP single-member districts to low district magnitude PR systems, the improvement in representation of parties outweighs the reduction in accountability due to party fragmentation. However, if district magnitudes continue to rise there will be a diminishing marginal improvement in party representation and increasing marginal deterioration of accountability. The key implication of this study is that there is an electoral sweet spot at district magnitudes of between three to eight where the representation-accountability trade-off is optimised.

Another important caveat is that the empirical evidence does not suggest that women’s representation will improve from merely adopting a PR system. Matland (2005) argues that groups seeking to increase women’s representation must be sufficiently well organized to benefit from electoral advantages of PR system. This point is supported by the low levels of disparity in percentage of women in parliament between PR and FPTP systems during the period from 1945-1970, prior to the emergence of the second-wave of feminism.


1: Adopt a preferential PR system

This will favour the emergence of an inclusive and representative parliament with improved interethnic cooperation and representation of minorities and women. Specifically, a preferential electoral system such as the alternative vote (AV) or single transferable vote (STV) is preferred as Reilly (2002) finds such systems promote interethnic cooperation favours the emergence of multi-ethnic political parties transcending racial divides.

2: Adopt low district magnitudes

In line with findings of Carey & Hix (2011), there should be a low district magnitude ranging from three to eight to achieve an optimal balance between improved representation and loss of electoral accountability.

3: Adopt an electoral threshold

In line with Matland & Taylor (1997), an electoral threshold should serve to improve women’s representation. Furthermore, this will also serve to filter out extreme far-right or far-left parties which would undermine ethnic conciliation.


Changing Malaysia’s electoral system will require a constitutional change as article 117 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia stipulates a single member district electoral system (i.e. FPTP). As no party currently controls the two-thirds of the lower house necessary to pass a constitutional amendment in line with Article 159 of the constitution, cross-party consensus is required to secure political feasibility of these recommendations.

Parties like the BN which have previously benefitted from big-party bias inherent in the FPTP system may be sceptical of offering support. However, BN’s loss of power in the 2018 election may offer a window of opportunity as it may now benefit from representation safeguards provided under PR systems. Finally, a non-binding referendum should be held to gauge the support of the electorate and provide legitimacy and support for modifying Malaysia’s electoral system.


1 Degree to which ethnic identity determines voting choices.

2 Such systems include the alternative vote (AV) and single transferable vote (STV) systems. The common denomination in such systems is voters can indicate an alternative candidate if their first choice candidate is defeated (Reilly, 2002).

3 Number of elected seats per district.

4 Votes based on the candidate’s personal characteristics.


ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
London School of Economics – School of Public Policy
should malaysia switch first-past-the-post fptp proportional representation electoral system



Titel: Should Malaysia Switch from a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) to a Proportional Representation (PR) Electoral System?