ACTIVE electoral participation is important so that only the best candidates are elected as representatives to form a credible and efficient government.
It is also important for the sake of ensuring that the elected representatives are persons who can effectively hold the government accountable to the public.
Unfortunately, some Malaysians are lukewarm about the significance of electoral participation. Statistically, 3.7 million Malaysians who are eligible to vote have yet to register as voters up to July.
The chairman of the Election Commission has said that the level of new voter registration among the younger generation was not satisfactory.
This is not a good sign because the quality of a healthy democracy is determined, among others, by the level and quality of public participation in the electoral process.
Taking into account the fact that, demographically, Malay-Muslims are the majority, it means certain causes of the problem are probably unique to them.
The negative attitude of some Muslims towards electoral participation may be broadly grouped into two categories.
Firstly, there are Muslims in Malaysia who believe that democracy is incompatible with Islam.
If some people are sceptical of democracy because it is of western origin, they should be reminded that Islam opens the door to hikmah (wisdom), regardless of where it originated from.
It was once narrated from the Prophet (peace be upon him) on the authority of Abu Huraira that “wisdom is the lost property of the believer, and wherever he finds it then he is the most deserving to claim it”.
Muslim should embrace democracy because, despite some weaknesses, it is arguably the best available political system that we have. An orderly democracy allows for a safe and smooth transition of political power in society without any bloodshed.
Apart from that, there are many religious concepts that are systemically reflected and promoted in a parliamentary democracy, such as the principle of shura (consultation) [3:159], the principle of muhasabah (taking oneself to account and mutual accounting) [52:21] and the principle of at-tawasi (mutual advice) [103:3].
The core idea of electing representatives in an election to debate public policies, to hold government to public accountability, and to give advice to public authorities is certainly Islamic in the light of these principles.
With respect to the principle of muhasabah, Muslims should be reminded to pay heed to the Quranic teachings in Surah al-Asr that underline the need for them to remind one another to righteousness and Truth.
With regard to the principle of giving good advice, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said “religion is good advice”.
“We asked, To whom?”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “To Allah, His Book, His Messenger, and to the leaders of the Muslims and their common folk”.
The second caliph, Umar al-Khattab, used to advise his officials to “take yourselves into account before you are taken into account”. Muhasabah in Islam thus begins with oneself, self-criticism and self-discipline, but it is incomplete without it becoming an integral part of good governance.
Apart from the fact that democracy, on the whole, is acceptable to Islam, taking a negative view of democracy is practically irrelevant in the Malaysian context because it has been practised for decades and any activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy is a criminal offence under Section 124B of the Penal Code.
Moreover, Malaysia has held 13 successful general elections, a rare achievement among Muslim countries.
Secondly, even those who may not subscribe to the extreme view that democracy is un-Islamic have not shown much enthusiasm to actively participate in the electoral process.
If we look at the process of registering new voters, for example, Muslims who are eligible to register as voters do not take the opportunity seriously.
Such a lackadaisical attitude is due to many factors that include a wrong understanding of certain religious concepts. Some Muslims would excuse themselves from fulfilling their electoral obligation on the pretext that it is a collective obligation (fard kifayah), which is dispensed with when other Muslims in the community have cast their votes.
It should be highlighted, however, that the remaining Muslims are freed from the responsibility before God if a collective obligation is adequately discharged. If it is not adequately discharged, then it behoves every relevant Muslim to address the deficiency.
The fact that voter registration is neither compulsory nor automatic exacerbates the difficulty in getting a high level of public participation.
Considering the importance of public participation in a democracy, perhaps, the authorities should now introduce a process of automatic registration of every citizen who reaches voting age.
It is well within the doctrine of Siyasah Syariah for a lawful authority to impose and enforce compulsory registration as a civic responsibility among citizens for the sake of promoting good governance and justice.
The writer is Fellow at Institute
of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia