Article by: Hariati Azizan
News Source: The Star
However, the overseas voting process is not glitch-free and many countries are still reviewing their laws and processes.
ALTHOUGH he has been a registered voter in Malaysia for almost a decade, pharmacist G. Gan has never cast his ballot.
“It’s not that I don’t want to but I have been in Britain all this while – first studying, and now working. But Malaysia is still home to me, and that is why I want to make a stand at the polls,” he says.
Gan, like many other Malaysians currently studying, working and residing overseas, was excited to hear in August that the Election Commission (EC) was reviewing the regulations to extend postal voting rights to Malaysians working overseas in the next election. Currently, only members of the armed forces, full-time students, civil servants and their partners are allowed to participate in postal voting.
Their excitement grew when the Foreign Ministry said it had forwarded recommendations to the EC on allowing Malaysians to cast their votes at the respective Malaysian embassies worldwide.
Their joy, however, was shortlived when the Government conceded that the logistical problems in implementing it might mean that they would have to miss the coming elections.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has stressed that the Government is not against overseas voting while highlighting the difficulties in implementing the mechanism.
Indisputably, all Malaysians have the right to vote. This is enshrined in our Federal Constitution.
According to the World Bank, there are some one million Malaysians living overseas, and all have the right to vote. However, the sheer number is one logistical issue. As pointed out by Najib, there are more than 800 constituencies in the country and over 100 foreign missions in the world. This would make verification during the voting process difficult, and might even lead to vote tampering.
Moreover, according to Wisma Putra, they only have records of about 25,000 of Malaysians overseas. Many are not reachable, something that has caused various problems to the foreign missions abroad during disasters and emergencies.
As a source from the Malaysian embassy in Japan shares, it was difficult to trace Malaysians when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan early this year as many who were residing there at that time had not registered with the embassy. “If we want to allow overseas voting, we would need to conduct a mass registration of the Malaysian expatriates,” he says.
Another logistical issue is the manpower, he adds. “This is a full-time job, so we would need help from the HQ (Foreign Ministry) and the Election Commission.”
EC deputy chairman Datuk Wan Ahmad Wan Omar says the commission is prepared to increase manpower, including appointing more assistant registrars at missions worldwide but this would incur a high cost, on top of the other implementation costs. It was reported that the cost of the general elections would be close to RM200mil. In 2008, it was RM170mil.
MCA Young Professionals Bureau Chairman Datuk Chua Tee Yong, who is also Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister, agrees that the logistic and resource issues need to be resolved to ensure that a proper mechanism is established. One way is to consider how other countries are implementing overseas voting, he says.
Currently, some 115 countries around the world allow for some form of overseas voting for their citizens, National Institute for Democracy and Electoral Integrity (NIEI) points out. Like many of the election watchdogs in Malaysia, NIEI agrees that while there are issues to be resolved to allow Malaysians abroad to vote, they are not insurmountable.
However, the historical, social, and cultural contexts need to be taken into account.
Even in the countries implementing overseas voting, the process is not glitch-free and many are still reviewing their laws and processes as they go. Others are finding the high cost incurred is not matched by the actual voter turnout.
In Indonesia, the government is mulling over the effectiveness of the facility due to poor turnout – as voting day often falls on a workday, most of its overseas citizens choose work over voting.
This is also an issue for the Philippines and even the United States. In the 2006 election, over six million qualified overseas Americans requested for absentee ballot, but only one million registered. Out of the one million, only one-third actually cast their votes.
“The issue definitely requires more in-depth study and discussion. To design the system for the Malaysian overseas to vote requires suitability with the current electoral system that we use,” says NIEI board member Amin Iskandar.
There are various mechanisms that can be implemented to prevent tampering of the ballot, adds Amin.
“We can look at the best practices in other countries, especially the ones which use the same electoral system, such as Britain. In Britain, it is required that the overseas absentee voter be a registered voter there within the last 15 years prior to exercising their right to overseas absentee voting. This can be the mechanism to prevent the issue of phantom voters.”
Chua agrees that Malaysia should consider implementing a time bar for qualification of voters. “In Canada, if a Canadian citizen has been residing overseas for more than five years, he loses his qualification as a voter and is unable to vote. The same applies in Australia where if a citizen has been overseas for more than three years and his name is not listed in the electoral roll, he will be disqualified as a voter.”
South Korea, meanwhile, is going the hi-tech way to protect the integrity of its ballot papers, says Sim Hyun Whoa, the Overseas Election Officer on duty at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Malaysia. This includes equipping their foreign missions with state-of-the-art equipment to ensure that ballot papers cannot be forged or tampered with.
The most important thing is to provide the right to vote for all Malaysian citizens.
“We believe in the principle of every citizen of Malaysia having the right to elect their representatives in an election even though they are not residing in Malaysia,” says Chua.
Malaysians for Free and Fair election (Mafrel) chairman Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh concurs, pointing out that it is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The issue of cost and logistics is irrelevant as it is the responsibility of the Government to facilitate voting for all Malaysian citizens, he says.
“It is the Government’s responsibility to facilitate the right and it is the responsibility of the voters overseas to make an effort to exercise their right to vote,” he says.
“We can study the spread of students and workers to see where the polling stations are needed. Traditionally, most Malaysian students and professionals in Europe are in London, so maybe we can start with that as the main voting point in Europe.”
Syed Ibrahim suggests cutting the cost incurred for security enforcement during the elections to reduce costs.
“From our observation at the polls, there are too many police officers deployed at the polling stations, even for by-elections. Do we really need such tight security?” he poses.
P.Y. Wong of Tindak Malaysia points out that overseas voting is provided by most of our neighbouring countries, including “tiny” Brunei. “It is pathetic that Malaysia does not accord this to our citizens. We have conducted elections for more than 50 years and they cannot sort out such a basic issue?”
As for access to information, the election watchdogs agree that it is irrelevant.
“It is nobody’s business whether the overseas voter is well-informed or not. It is also a poor reflection of the Government’s information machinery if such a situation happens. Have you seen how the Singapore Government issues regular newsletters to their overseas citizens and how they take care of their welfare and interests?” says Wong.
It is up to the individual to keep informed, says Chua. “Even if you live in Malaysia, you will not be up to date with the local news if you don’t make an effort to keep up.”
An academic in Hong Kong, Ang SW, agrees. “Even though I am in Hong Kong, I can make an informed decision at the polls. I read the news online these days, including Malaysian and world news. If politicians think that they can better represent their positions via speeches, then there is nothing to stop them from maintaining blogs to keep their constituents better informed. Moreover, I schedule regular trips back to Malaysia to visit family and friends.”
In many of our professions today, international work experience is not only attractive but also necessary for our training and development, says Ang.
“Describing decisions to remain abroad for whatever period of time as a ‘betrayal’ is unbelievable and ridiculous in this day and age where the internationalisation of the economy puts everyone under new pressures even as it opens up new opportunities,” laments the 33-year-old.
For her and many of her fellow Malaysian expatriates, says Ang, the most important thing is their right to play a part in the future of the country they still call home.
“I would like to vote because returning home to work and live continues to be a viable option in the near future. A Malaysia that has strong democratic institutions with fair and transparent practices will be a lovely place to live in and, unlike what some politicians assert, those of us who are currently abroad have not given up on the country,” she says.