FOR the first time, all eligible Malaysians abroad may be able to vote by post. This follows an 11 July 2012 Election Commission (EC) announcement that legislative changes are being prepared towards this end. The only condition is that voters must return to Malaysia at least once in five years before the elections. This will be welcome news to the approximately one million Malaysians working and living overseas.
But should these Malaysians be entitled to vote? And will this affect the outcome of the next general election? The Nut Graph asks political scientist and Bersih 2.0 steering committee member Dr Wong Chin Huat.
TNG: Why should Malaysians overseas be entitled to vote in general elections?
Overseas Malaysians are entitled to vote in general elections because they are Malaysians. Period. All Malaysians above 21 years, who are of sound mind and not disqualified by criminal conviction, are allowed to vote. Where Malaysians live does not affect their right to vote. It may pose logistical challenges to universal suffrage but it does not invalidate the right to vote.
The suggestion that only those who have been home at least once in five years shows either the EC’s ignorance or insincerity in expanding overseas votes. Article 119 of the Federal Constitution provides no ground to exclude any voters by location. This makes the Elections (Registration of Electors) Regulations and Elections (Postal Voting) Regulations potentially unconstitutional. These by-laws restrict the overseas voting right to civil servants, tertiary students and their spouses. These by-laws are being challenged in court by six voters representing MyOverseasVote. Their challenge was rejected by the High Court but they are appealing the decision.
The suggestion to allow only those who have returned in the past five years to vote delays the right of all Malaysians to vote. It also creates confusion and contention. Agreeing to it means legitimising the current disenfranchisement of overseas voters.
But there are some who say Malaysians abroad should be treated differently, especially if they have settled in another country.
Granted, the EC is not the only party who proposes to restrict overseas voting. For example, Bakri Musa, a California-based surgeon who writes extensively on Malaysian affairs, opposes voting rights for Malaysians who are permanent residents of other countries. He does so on three grounds: (a) absence means these voters do not have to bear the consequences of their choice; (b) they don’t pay tax and are therefore seeking representation without taxation; and (c) there are considerable added costs in facilitating the overseas vote.
The last point of objection is rather weak because the bulk of the cost in administrating overseas votes is in the establishment of the mechanism. The marginal cost for any additional voter is low. In other words, if you decide to open a voting centre in Berlin, running it for 500 Malaysians or 5,000 Malaysians may not make much difference in cost. One can of course go into details on how to minimise the cost.
The objections worthy of consideration are the first two, which may be summed up as one question: Are permanently overseas Malaysians still stakeholders in Malaysia’s future? One can take either the positive or negative position but one must not be inconsistent, let alone hypocritical.
If we think that permanently overseas Malaysians cease to be truly Malaysians, then we should not hope for remittance, tourism revenue, investment, trade and transfer of technology from them more than from other foreigners. In that case, barring overseas Malaysians to vote is the right signal. We’re saying, “Why do you bother holding on to your Malaysian passport if you continue staying overseas? You either come back or you cease to be one of us.” However, if we hope to draw in funds, technology, knowledge and network through overseas Malaysians, then on what grounds can we bring ourselves to tell them, “You should help your country of origin, but sorry, this country is no longer yours!”
Really, we should make up our minds. One thing for sure, overseas Malaysians definitely are not dumb enough to be milked and discriminated against at the same time.
Speculation is that many overseas Malaysians would be critical of the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. Why would the BN government risk allowing the EC to introduce the postal vote for overseas Malaysians?
It would not be wrong to say a majority of overseas Malaysians left the country because they disagreed with the government’s policies. Naturally, they are more likely to vote against than for the BN.
Should the BN government then risk allowing the EC to expand postal vote for overseas Malaysians? Yes, if they really believe in changing this country. By committing to democracy, they can show overseas voters that they have changed and can be trusted. Such a positive attitude would at least make overseas voters less compelled to vote out the BN.
Curtailing overseas votes in fact provokes overseas Malaysians who have the resources to fight back. They have now launched the “Jom Balik Undi” campaign, encouraging overseas Malaysians to come home to vote. The diaspora in a few cities is even contemplating the idea of chartering flights back during elections, as a response to the EC’s hostility against universal overseas franchise.
There have been concerns over abuse of postal votes. Can we trust that the process will be fair and transparent? What safeguards should be put in place to ensure this doesn’t occur with overseas postal votes?
The fundamental problem with postal votes is that ballots are cast without being scrutinised by party agents or independent observers. This means, the votes may be tampered with or cast under intimidation. For closed and hierarchical environments like military barracks and police stations, this is especially problematic.
Systematic rigging of overseas postal voters is less likely to happen in thousands of individual homes. However, tampering may take place at the counting stage if independent observers and party agents are not allowed to be present to scrutinise the entire process. It may also be undermined in the standard way — by having a very short campaign period and sending the ballots out only a few days before polling so that only a few can send back the ballots in time.
The best safeguard against tampering is this: involve the public and civil society groups working on elections, like Bersih 2.0, in the planning. Transparency is really the best insurance.
Assuming the changes are made before the next general election, how will allowing Malaysians overseas to vote affect the results of the next general election? How big an impact will it make? Will many overseas Malaysians bother to cast their votes?
Whether or not postal votes will be allowed, overseas Malaysians will make a strong impact in the coming elections. It is a matter of how, not whether. If postal votes are denied, a smaller number of overseas voters will mobilise to return home to vote. Every one of those angry voters will likely lobby their friends and families to vote against the BN.
If postal votes are allowed, the overseas voters who cast their vote would come from a wider spectrum and the BN may hope to win some support, although it may not win a majority amongst this constituency.
Will many overseas Malaysians care to vote? Well, if anything, the BN and EC’s hostile response has awakened many overseas Malaysians, at least by drawing them into the global protests of Bersih 2.0 and 3.0. Expect more backlash if the EC’s promise to expand overseas votes turns out to be a fiasco like the Orwellian Peaceful Assembly Act in Najib’s so-called Political Transformation Programme.
Political scientist Wong Chin Huat is a Bersih 2.0 steering committee member. He is also a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail email@example.com for our consideration.