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Tuesday, 20 November 2012
Page: 9262

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (22:31): I rise tonight to speak of on an issue of great importance in our region, an issue I feel we as Australian parliamentarians have an obligation to speak out on because it concerns a great friend and neighbour and also because we can make a positive, respectful contribution to the problems at hand.

There is no question that Malaysia and Australia have a strong relationship and an incredibly positive history. Australian troops have fought alongside Malaysians on a number of occasions, including during the Malayan World War II campaign. Australians and Malaysians were part of the Commonwealth force that defeated the Malayan communist insurgency during both the Malayan emergency between 1950 and 1960 and again during the period of confrontation between 1963 and 1966.

Australia and Malaysia also have strong ties in the field of education, with approximately 21,000 Malaysian students enrolled in Australian educational facilities in 2011—and I dare say there was a similar number this year. Approximately 300,000 Malaysians in total have undertaken courses in Australia, which aptly reflects both the esteem in which our education facilities are regarded internationally but also the way Malaysian students have been welcomed with open arms in Australia. So many students initially came here under the marvellous Colombo Plan many years ago. In addition, three Australian universities—Monash University, Curtin University and Swinburne University of Technology—now have campuses in Malaysia.

Australia also took a close interest in the formation of an independent Malaysia. Our former Governor-General Sir William McKell was even one of four jurists that helped draft Malaysia's constitution. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship estimates that as at June 2012 there were approximately 116,000 Malaysian-born people living in Australia. So there is absolutely no question that Malaysia's relationship with Australia is an incredibly strong one and that both nations are great friends.

Because we are great friends, we need to speak honestly to each other and to offer each other assistance in times of need. Late last week, I visited Malaysia and met with representatives from the non-government organisation Bersih—a movement calling for clean and fair elections in Malaysia. I previously met with Bersih and others when in Malaysia on a fact-finding mission into Malaysia's electoral system as part of an international observers group in April of this year. The group consisted of representatives from India, Germany, Indonesia and the Philippines; the well-known Senator Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo of Pakistan; Indian journalist and author and former politician MJ Akbar; and Dr Clinton Fernandes, an associate professor in international relations from the University of New South Wales in Canberra.

The group met with representatives of the Malaysian government, the Malaysian Election Commission, the ruling coalition, the opposition, the clean elections coalition, as well as representatives of the Malaysian Bar Council. Both the group's interim and final reports raised a number of serious issues, including: grave concerns about the integrity of the postal voting system; the need for a royal commission of inquiry into the Malaysian electoral system; the lack of free and fair access to the media: vilification and slander of candidates; the potential for fraud in the verification of voters; the minimum election campaign period; the lack of a caretaker convention; and the lack of one value for one vote. The observer group noted that there are government held electorates with as few as 10,000 voters or so compared with over 100,000 voters for some opposition electorates—an extraordinary gerrymander.

Further, the co-founder of Bersih, Ambiga Sreenevasan, former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, raised these concerns here in Parliament House in Canberra when she met with a number of MPs and diplomats during a visit last month, particularly the credibility of the electoral rolls, the potential for fraud, dubious vote counting and gerrymandering. A recent report published last month by the International Crisis Group reinforced these concerns.

Similarly, an analysis of the electoral roll in the constituency of Lembah Pantai in Kuala Lumpur highlighted some of these glaring inconsistencies in the electoral rolls. The Malaysian Electoral Commission indicates that 70,136 voters are registered in the constituency, but research conducted by the office of Nurul Izzah Anwar—the current sitting member from the opposition—indicates that 45 per cent of those voters did not have a complete address listed. That is quite extraordinary in terms of the potential for fraud.

The International Crisis Group, similar to the international observer group that I was a part of, has also raised concerns over the minimum campaign period—which, by law, is 10 days, although the longest period, in 2008, was 13 in total. This in turn can disenfranchise many Malaysians who have to vote in their own electorates who are living in other parts of Malaysia. If they are from Sarawak or Sabah and they are in Peninsular Malaysia, they simply do not get a chance to be able to go and vote.

That disenfranchises many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Malaysians. During campaigns, no open-air public rallies are permitted, and permission for indoor meetings is difficult to obtain. Further, the opposition cannot have fair access to the mainstream media or even advertise on radio stations and television. That is quite extraordinary in terms of the level of control and the lack of fair and free access.

Many of these concerns were also raised by the Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, when I met with him with last Friday in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia's opposition leader is so concerned that the upcoming 13th general election in Malaysia will not be clean and fair, that it will be subject to widespread fraud and vote tampering, he has sent a letter to Australia's foreign minister, Senator Bob Carr, to request the Australian government's assistance to ensure elections in Malaysia are democratic. Malaysia's opposition leader is pleading with Australia not to take sides but to do all that it can to ensure that there are free and fair elections in Malaysia.

I acknowledge that Senator Carr, as foreign minister of Australia, regularly receives requests to support or oppose one international issue or another. I do also acknowledge that Senator Carr's role as foreign minister is to advance and protect Australia's national interest. This is one of those unambiguous and fortunate occasions where supporting clean and fair and free elections in Malaysia is in the interests not just of Australia but of our entire region.

Our great historical and enduring friendship and bond with Malaysia demands that Australia take a leadership role at this historic juncture. Specifically, Australia should send a parliamentary delegation to observe the preparations for the election as a matter of urgency, not in coming months but in coming weeks, because the election can be held at any time between now and April 2013. Australia should also look at offering the services and expertise of the Australian Electoral Commission to deal with the most serious concerns expressed by independent observers, including Bersih. In fact, Ambiga Sreenevasan told me last week that the Election Commission of Malaysia has previously said that they are considering inviting international observers. The integrity of the electoral roll is paramount. There are concerns that there could be widespread tampering of literally hundreds of thousands of votes.

Australia could well be, in the international community, Malaysia's last best hope to ensure a tipping point for free and fair elections in that great nation. This is not the time to turn our backs or to turn a blind eye to our close friend and neighbour. We must—if invited by those in Malaysia seeking a democratic outcome, seeking clean and fair and free elections—stand up for what is right and just and offer our assistance.