Discrimination by law: Malaysia’s absentee voters want to be counted

Hundreds of thousands of Malaysians living overseas have been locked out of voting in every federal election since 2002 because Malaysian law has discriminated against them.

Laws under which Malaysia’s election commission operates only allow four categories of citizens living abroad to cast their votes as ‘absent voters’, defined in general terms as registered voters living outside of Malaysian territories. These absent-voter categories cover only military personnel, public servants, full-time students and their spouses, who may participate in elections by lodging their votes with their respective high commissions or consulates.

All other citizens living abroad are not considered absent voters and, by exclusion in law, cannot use a diplomatic office to vote – they have no choice but return to Malaysia whenever an election is called.

But just as a potentially huge voting force is fenced off from the most basic democratic process, a growing movement of Malaysians who want to be counted in federal elections has taken shape.

Since 2008, when the last Malaysian vote saw the Barisan Nasional government lose its two-third majority – which for 53 years had allowed a ruling coalition to rewrite the Constitution at will – Malaysians from Australia to England and elsewhere have been agitating for their right to become absent voters (read here)

Andrew Yong, co-ordinator of MyOverseasVote, a campaign recently founded in London, is in Malaysia exploring legal avenues to rectify the constitutional deficiency and extend voting rights to all Malaysians living overseas, without discrimination.

The MOV website, www.myoverseasvote.org, states: ” Our legal advice is that the discriminatory provisions are an abuse of the election commission’s discretion under the law and a violation of the grant of equality under the Federal Constitution.”

The campaign further lists as its objectives, “To end discrimination against Malaysian citizens who are living outside Malaysia, re-enfranchise Malaysian citizens overseas and to re-engage them in charting the future course of Malaysia.”

Says John Khoo, founder of SABMOZ (Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia Australia) in Sydney: “Malaysians citizens simply want to participate in the future.

“The right to vote is a fundamental tenet of a practising democracy – it is the right of the people to choose their political representatives and, by extension, their government.”

Disturbingly, according to Khoo, diplomatic offices in some countries have turned away full-time students, eligible under EC law, who have wanted to register as absent voters in their countries of residence. News has emerged, through a network of like-minded Malaysian organisations, that full-time students who have wanted to register as absent voters have been told only “government scholars” are eligible.

Medical student Amanda Lim was a 21-year-old registered voter in London before the last election. Unable to fly home to vote, she applied to her embassy for a postal vote, but was rejected – “I was told that this would not be possible as I wasn’t a government scholar,” she said.

“I felt extremely insulted. My parents work hard and pay taxes in Malaysia, and I worked hard to earn a place to study medicine at King’s College, London.

“I intend to return to serve my country. So I find this kind of discrimination really gutting. It puts people off voting and discourages the young from returning to Malaysia.”

The frustration with the EC is palpable and growing, as is the gnawing suspicion that a ruling BN is ever reluctant to open the election franchise to all Malaysians living abroad – after all, today’s privileged absent voters owe their livelihood, their very salaries, to the serving government; ditto ‘government scholars’.

But the recent voices of agitation have not gone unheard.

An official of Malaysia’s EC, Suruhanjaya Pilihan Raya, said in a Sydney-KL telephone interview on 25 November: “EC is aware of the issue. Malaysians have contacted us to raise this issue. We are looking at it seriously.”

However, when asked if change to the law was imminent, SPR said a statement would be forthcoming. At time of publication, no statement had been issued.

But Messrs Yong and Khoo are not waiting.

MyOverseasVote in London is also calling to “bring legal proceedings against the election commission challenging the discriminatory provisions in the 2002 Regulations”.

In Australia, Khoo and equally determined Malaysians have set up SABM chapters in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide, with the collective objective of, among other goals, giving SABMOZ a voice on behalf of Malaysians who want to be considered absent voters by the election commission, not absentees in the voting system.

So far, all the pushing is coming from the ground up, and Opposition politicians visiting Australia on fund-raisers and awareness campaigns appear to be embracing pragmatism – an election could be only months away, leaving little time for legislative change – in favour of a more strident and public call for equal treatment of all Malaysians by the commission.

Most recently, Anwar Ibrahim himself, the de facto leader of Pakatan Rakyat – an Opposition coalition comprising the DAP, Pas and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat – visited Sydney.

Anwar made no mention of the postal vote at a dinner for which about 150 had paid for the privilege of sharing an evening with a man whose political trajectory has seen him go from being Prime Minister-in-waiting to prisoner to PM-hopeful again. The Opposition leader said he hoped to return in a different capacity soon, and to that end implored the faithfully gathered to do whatever they can, give some money, send a message, blog. Then he went as far as to mirror previous PR visitors to the New South Wales capital city, who implored Malaysians to “fly back and vote”.

But if the Malaysians now striving to bring change from without have their way, the nation’s absentee voters may not have to pay to vote.

Yolanda Augustin, a supporter of Friends of Pakatan Rakyat in Britain, minces no words in summing up the shared sentiment: “We are committed to seeing the growth of democracy, transparency and good governance in Malaysia.”

“This has to start with clean, free and fair elections.”

“The commission’s discriminatory practices with regards to overseas voting rights are neither fair nor free.”

About William de Cruz and Greg Lopez