Andrew Yong, coordinator of MyOverseasVote explains why Malaysian citizens overseas won’t give up until they are given the right to vote from overseas.
1. So why have you started MyOverseasVote?
Well, there are around 1 million Malaysian citizens living and working overseas, out of a total potential electorate of 15 million. That’s a good 6-7% of the electorate. Under the Elections (Registration of Electors) Regulations 2002, Malaysians living overseas can register as absent voters only if they are full-time students or military / government servants. Those who are working in the private sector, retired or unemployed cannot vote unless they to fly back to vote. Clearly, it is impossible for 1 million Malaysians to get leave from work and jump on planes and boats home with little more than a week’s notice.
2. What is the aim of the MyOverseasVote Campaign?
Our key aim is to secure the right to vote for all Malaysian citizens who are living overseas, without discrimination on the grounds of employment or profession. We also want to educate and engage Malaysians so that they are aware of their role in charting the future course of our nation, and more assertive in demanding their rights.
3. How do you plan to achieve your aim?
We are taking a three-pronged approach to this campaign. First, we are raising awareness and support amongst the Malaysian community overseas, via our online petition, Facebook, Twitter, as well as word of mouth. Second, we are engaging with Malaysian MPs, civil society organisations and the media to start a debate back home about the right to vote of their fellow citizens who are living and working overseas. And finally, we are raising funds to support a legal action to force the Election Commission to allow Malaysians overseas to register as absent voters.
4. We have been told in the past by Malaysian embassy staff that only Government scholars could register as absent voters. What’s up with that?
Right, so as the Regulations stand, all Malaysians of or above 21 who are in full-time higher education outside Peninsular Malaysia or Sabah or Sarawak can register as absent voters. But many embassies have decided that only government scholars can register. That the authorities have not even followed their own regulations is proof of why we need to increase public awareness and scrutiny. It has taken four months of pressure from MyOverseasVote and our friends in the media for the Election Commission finally to acknowledge this week that the additional condition was unlawful.
5. Tell me why overseas Malaysians should have the right to vote. Haven’t they left the country for greener pastures elsewhere?
Well, many have left the country out of necessity, in search of education, training and employment. Some have been overseas for two years, others for twenty. But Malaysians overseas are still Malaysians at heart, at least those who have chosen to keep their Malaysian citizenship. We believe in the principle of one citizen one vote. Although many may have been living overseas for 20-30 years, it is surely something that after all these years they still decline to take up British or US citizenship but have instead chosen to retain their Malaysian nationality.
Malaysia cannot afford to lose the best and brightest of its citizens to other countries. The right to vote is the most basic right of the citizen. Yet the irony is that Malaysian citizens who live in the UK and those who are permanent residents in New Zealand can vote in those countries’ elections but they cannot vote in Malaysian elections. If Malaysia continues to discriminate against Malaysians living and working overseas and treat them like foreigners, then why should they go to the trouble of retaining their Malaysian citizenship when it would be far more convenient to switch to a foreign passport?
6. Are you affiliated to any political party?
No, we simply believe that all adult Malaysians must have the right to vote, without discrimination, whether they vote for BN or for PR or any other party.
7. What is the Malaysian authorities response to MyOverseasVote?
The Election Commission has stated that they are studying the possibility of reforming the system of registration, but there is no timescale of this process of “membuat kajian“, and it has no beginning and no end. Recently, the Election Commission has given various excuses why overseas voting is impractical – ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of Malaysian students are already entitled to vote overseas. But whatever the Election Commission decides, at the end of the day it has to be approved by the Agong, who is advised by the Government.
8. Why is the campaign being launched now?
We launched in October last year. It is widely believed that the next election may be launched as early as late 2011. Our country is going through a period of enormous change, and Malaysians overseas cannot afford to remain on the sidelines while others determine the future of our country. The Constitution has made provision for the enfranchisement of absent voters since 1960; yet 50 years later, the vast majority of Malaysians overseas still do not have the right to vote. We are not prepared to sit by while yet another election passes by with Malaysian citizens being denied their constitutional rights.
9. Why are you planning to sue the Election Commission?
It is the responsibility of the Election Commission to make the necessary regulations to allow Malaysians to vote. Clearly, for the past 50 years they have failed to do so. The litigation will go ahead unless and until the Regulations are amended to allow all adult Malaysian citizens to vote without discrimination on the grounds of employment or profession.
10. Do you think the litigation will be successful?
We believe that we have an undeniable case under Article 8 of the Constitution. Whether we succeed or not depends on the independent Election Commission and the Malaysian courts. But we will make it clear that they have a simple choice: either they say yes and give us our constitutional rights, or they say no and they will be completely discredited in the eyes of all Malaysians. Either way, they cannot simply ignore us any longer.
11. How can Malaysians get involved?
We are asking for three things:
12. What money are you looking to raise?
We are looking to raise RM100,000/£20,000/$30,000 in order to cover legal fees and disbursements, and the same again for a contingency fund in case we are ordered to pay the Election Commission’s costs. It’s a large sum, we admit, but still only 20 sen or 4p for each Malaysian citizen overseas. If there is money unused or left over, it will be donated to non-profit organisations that campaign for free and fair elections in Malaysia.
Andrew Yong is a Penangite and a non-practising solicitor of the senior courts of England & Wales. There is no such thing as free legal advice, and any information you gain from this article is worth as much as you paid for it.