Thursday, October 22, 2009

My experience as a MAFREL election observer at Bagan Pinang

During the recently by-elections in Bagan Pinang, I had the privilege of volunteering as a MAFREL election observer. For someone whose only involvement with elections had been to vote once every 5 years, the experience was very enlightening and educational. Here is what happened:

I first read that MAFREL (Malaysians for Free and Fair Elections) needed volunteers to act as election observers in Zorro's blog, and decided to sign up. I emailed En. Arphan, who is the honorary secretary of MAFREL, and was sent a registration form to fill up and return. This was followed by a Elections Commission (SPR) form applying for observer status. I finally got to meet him when I delivered the form all signed and sealed.

En. Arphan is a gentleman of the old school, of whom there are very few left; he is the epitome of cordiality and good cheer, and always has time to spend with a friend, even one newly made. Here he is:

A gentleman through and through. Even an attack of gout did not prevent him from fulfilling his duty at Bagan Pinang!

Once the required pass was obtained, and we volunteers were instructed to report for a briefing at MAFREL's operations center in PD, on the morning of 10 October, the eve of the elections. I left home early, and managed to conduct a quick recce of the polling station I was assigned to, and made it to the briefing on time.

The operation centre was a modest single storey terrace house in Teluk Kemang (which I believe was lent by a well wisher). Soon, there assembled a very diverse group of Malaysians, with diverse (even opposing) political views, but all dedicated and united in the desire to see free and fair elections in Malaysia. Some even drove all the way from Kelantan!

Tuan Syed starting off the briefing

MAFREL Chairman Tuan Syed Ibrahim Alhabshi began his briefing by welcoming all the volunteers and introducing us to MAFREL's objectives, which are to:
  1. Build confidence in democracy
  2. Raise awareness and understanding of elections that are truly free and fair
  3. Advocate for the adoption of better laws and procedures governing elections
  4. Promote orderly elections free of corruption, abuse of power, violence, intimidation, harassment & fear
  5. Help detect and report any breach of election regulations and procedure
In order for democracy to be meaningful, elections have to be free and fair (for a good definition of "Free and Fair Elections", see this declaration by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Read also their excellent book here). Independent, non-partisan observers can play a vital role in ensuring that, especially when the officials running the elections are civil servants beholden to one of the contesting parties.

Our Mission Leader, Kapt. (B) Maizon, being introduced

One more thing that he made clear was that as volunteers, we were "sukarela" as well as "dukarela", i.e. there were no funds for allowances, reimbursements etc., and we would have to bear our own expenses. However, those assigned to remote polling stations would be provided with a packed lunch. In practice, food was shared generously, and our leaders graciously took it upon themselves to bear the cost of meals together.

En. Arphan explaining the use (and abuse) of the SPR pass

As MAFREL election observers, our authority is of a moral rather than legal nature. Our effectiveness depends on how well we engage with the Presiding Officer (PO) and build credibility and trust.

En. Azmi, veteran MAFREL observer all the way from Kelantan. He shared with us his wealth of practical experience.

En. Azmi, who is a veteran of numerous MAFREL missions, gave us a rundown of the common issues we would face, and how to solve them. What was most interesting was the various tricks to watch out for; after listening to him, we felt qualified to be "Ghostbusters"!

Mission Coordinator Kol. (B) Shaharuddin showing us where our assigned polling stations were on the map

After the briefing was over we took a group photograph, then quickly got into our teams and organised ourselves for the journey to our respective polling stations the next day.

The Bagan Pinang Observers Team ready for action!

Our leaders: (from left) Tuan Syed, Kol. (B) Shaharuddin, Kapt. (B) Maizon, and En. Arphan

Over lunch, I took the opportunity to ask our seniors about their motivation for getting involved in MAFREL. What came through strongly was a common need to help the cause of democracy, without getting into partisan politics. I also perceived a shared realisation that democracy would be best served by a strong adherence to fairness and principles. Something that is being planned are voter registration/education activities. You can read more about MAFREL's plans here.

Having already recced my polling station in the morning, I had the rest of the afternoon free. I decided to trek up to the Tanjung Tuan lighthouse, which you can read about here.

As all campaigning was supposed to cease at midnight, there was the customary final surge of ceramahs that evening. We decided to attend the nearest one, which happened to be one where DSAI would be making a speech. The crowd was big and loud, and the speakers were even louder! One could see people from all walks of life amidst the carnival atmosphere. (Guess who was also there? Zorro, the doyen of the Barisan Rakyat bloggers, and members of the Special Bunch!)

The Grand Finale of PR's Bagan Pinang campaign - just before the 12.00 am deadline to stop!

After the ceramah was over, it was back to our "Markas", with the living room where the briefing was held earlier now doubling as a makeshift dormitory. Word to the wise: bring a tikar and bantal for the next mission!

Next morning, there was a rush for the bathroom, then get into our cars and drive to the polling station!

My partner and I got to the polling station in time, and introduced ourselves to the PO and police officers on duty. At 0800 hrs sharp, the polling began. It was humbling to see before us the exercising a human right that went all the way back to the dawn of democracy in Athens.

Outside the polling station, the excitement was palpable. All sides tried to get away with breaches of polling regulations and etiquette; my partner and I were kept quite busy!

Our final duty was to observe the counting. Once that was done, all that was left was to head back to op centre, and submit our reports for the day.

It was a long and tiring day, but it felt good to have done a little bit for Democracy. I'm looking forward to learning more about our elections, and to participating in the next ones. Let's never forget that "Vibrant Democracy Requires Eternal Vigilance!"

Malaysian Heart


  1. You are on as my Friday (2morrow)Guest Blogger. With Tuan Syed as Chairman we expect better direction from Mafrel.

  2. I'm deeply honoured, Zorro. We will need many, many more volunteers to step forward, especially if GE-13 is coming sooner than expected (as these reports seem to suggest).


  3. MAFREL Facebook

  4. Great Job! and your experience and insight will hopefully contribute to the democracy we seek for the people of this nation.
    Our Malaysian Heart shall come together for our Malaysia.

  5. Uncle Zorro, how and where to sign up as MAFREL volunteer? I am 48, from Penang. Trained at Sydney University (81-86).

  6. Mr. Lau,

    You can sign up by contacting En. Arphan Ahmad at or at 012-2731016.


  7. sing lau
    i'm the penang island coordinator for MAFREL (at the moment) so you can send me an email (lucial at gmail dot com). when we need help, we'll let you know.


How to Paste Text into Comment Boxes

Google seems to have disabled pasting text (including ctrl-v) into blogger comments boxes in Firefox. The good news is that:
1. You can still copy paste using Internet Explorer (I successfully tried it with IE7)
2. With Firefox, you can still "Drag and Drop" text into the comment form. I have successfully dragged and dropped text from MS Word, websites (HTML) and from ScribeFire (plain text and HTML). Just do the following:

a) reduce the size of the window you want to take the text from, and place it near the comment box
b) Highlight the required text with cursor
c) Click on the highlighted text and drag it over to the comment box and drop it there.

Happy commenting!