Sarawak’s Low Voter Registration Problems: A Response to EC

Undi! | Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/leapkye/

Undi! | Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/leapkye/

Ong BK writes to the Malaysiakini in reference to its report on Bersih’s forum held on the 21st February 2011.

The EC’s No. 2 Dato Wan Ahmad reportedly claimed that they had spent 10mil of the election administration budget to ferry voters from interior by helicopters to enable them to exercise their voting right. This is nothing but a blatant lie that you could have verified before reporting it.

While the claim might be motivated to give undue credit to the EC on its effort to empower the rural folks with voting power, what really happen is exactly the opposite: over half of the eligible adults in Sarawak’s interior are denied their voting rights due to the various obstacles put in the way of such citizens to even register as a voter – what more to go to vote in a EC chartered helicopter?

Some facts that speak for themselves: Batang Ai has 22 000 residents but only 8000 voters; Belaga has 23 000 residents but only 7000 voters; Lawas has 30 000 residents but only 7000 voters.

For a start the Sarawak’s Election Commission’s budget to run the last state elections in 2006 was only Rm30mil. Much of it was used for transporting the officials and ballot boxes, and not the voters. Easily half of the one mil or so voters in Sarawak live in the interior areas with transport problems. How many helicopters will be needed to send them to vote-and go back?

The sheer impracticality of transporting voters en-mass by helicopters would have caused this outrageous suggestion to be thrown out of the …helicopter! In fact Malaysia don’t even have enough helicopters to ferry its election officials around, they have to rent them from Indonesia at every election.

Back to reality. The obstacles which are put in the way of Sarawakians who want to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed voting rights are:

1. There is only one EC office in Sarawak, and that is in Kuching. The post offices and District Offices can be quite far from where the interior residents live; voters registration through these passive, distant points are slow, as admitted by the EC themselves;

2. Party officials are entitled to get appointed as Assistant Registrars to go around to register voters. However they have to collect the voters application forms from Kuching and return them to Kuching. Just imagine the great distance between Miri and Kuching(14 hour drive) to understand how such Assistant Registrars may be hampered to help register the voters;

As though this is not enough the Assistant Registrars are only allowed to collect 100 forms at a time and they need to return to forms before more can be given out, and that is if the EC office don’t run out of forms due to all Putrajaya’s printers going on strike! Then, say the Assistant Registrars some how managed to sign up hundreds of voters the forms do take months before they are approved officially three to four months but practically can be six to ten months due to bureaucratic vigor.

Only after a year-long campaign through various meetings by NGOs that the EC Putrajaya finally agreed to appoint willing and able NGOs to serve as Assistant Registrars but the appointments in Sarawak had not been done yet;

3. In many long houses, the youth are working in towns, off shore on oil rigs, or in Peninsular cities. It would incur a great cost for these voters to fly back to cast their vote. That explain the much lower voting rates in Sarawak(60+%) compared to Penisular (about 70+%).

Why isn’t it arranged for this sizable number of voters to cast their vote as absentee voters as the police and military personnel are allowed to, or for polling stations be set up in major towns to enable this major age group to exercise of their voting rights?

Just across the border, the Indonesian government do all these and more. They even bring ballot boxes into hospitals and prisons to enable their citizens found in those conditions to cast their vote. Since Indonesia is acknowledged as a poorer country than Malaysia, it is definitely not an issue of finance but of the value Malaysian government put on the voting rights of the citizens; and

4. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of Sarawakians(there is no reliable official statistics) have problems to obtain personal documents which are needed to register as a voter. But 60% residents of a Kalimantan border town, Puring Kencana, according to a few Indonesians’ studies, hold Malaysian Mykad, reportedly obtained through legal means.

If the EC has such problems to register most of the eligible voters, why not support automatic registration?

In one stroke, 4.5mil citizens are empowered to vote and the EC can save its millions used to register voters one by one.

Dato Wan Ahmad’s claim that automatic registration of voters would benefit the urban voters, which run counter to the above picture that over half the interior residents of Sarawak would be the potential beneficiaries. Whether urban or rural citizens, why would anyone have problem with them becoming voters like the others?

Another of Dato Wan Ahmad’s claim that there is a constitutional restriction to do automatic registration of voters, claiming that citizens need to ‘apply’ to become a voter, as required by the Constitution. Well, application can be just a request at a polling station by showing your IC, just as it is done in Indonesia.

To make it a bit more complicated, every citizen who attain the voting age can be asked by the JPN to ‘apply’ as a voter. This is actually done by the city/district councils in many other countries too. So why not for Malaysia? As the saying goes: when there is a will, there is a way.

In many countries, where a big section of citizens are persistently kept away from voting, the serious problem is identified as voters suppression. Voters suppression is well recognised as a trick to keep the voting power from certain citizens, eg. Blacks and South Americans in USA.

For over half a century, the problem of low voter registration among Sarawakians has not been solved or is it intended to keep those under-registered groups from voicing their choice in the state’s and the country’s leadership?

Sarawak has persistently been the ‘champion’ among all Malaysian states on non-voter registration of its citizens with 33.6% of eligible citizens unregistered! This is a question which the EC and the politicians need to answer seriously whenever they claim how hard they try or how much they spend, to help the citizens go to vote.

The send-them-to-vote-by-helicopter claim, if confirmed, must count as a sick joke when one look at the reality where over half of Sarawakians in the vast interior (where majority of seats are located) will be denied a vote at the coming state election. Ignorance of West Malaysians generally on the East does not help to stop this sickening state of affairs.

Ong BK
Malaysian Election Observers Network (MEO-Net)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Posts by

Posted on 22 February 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

Read more articles posted by .

Read this first: LB Terms of Use