From the New York Times: Malaysians Living Abroad Want a Say in Next Election
KUALA LUMPUR — Nurul Syaheedah Jes Izman, 27, a graduate of New York University, lives in New Jersey and works on Wall Street as a financial analyst. Though she has spent her college years and all of her working life in the United States, she closely follows political developments in her native Malaysia, reading Malaysian news Web sites every day and talking with friends and family back home about the issues.
But under current law, Ms. Nurul Syaheedah will not be able to express her political preferences at the ballot box in the next Malaysian election, widely expected this year, unless she makes the 23-hour trip home. The only Malaysians living overseas who are allowed to vote by absentee ballot are government workers, military personnel and full-time students and their spouses.
“The right to vote is a basic right of all citizens,” Ms. Nurul Syaheedah said in an e-mail. “No one should be disenfranchised in this time and age, even from a different location overseas. We are all rightful stakeholders in our nation.”
With an estimated 700,000 of Malaysia’s 28 million citizens residing abroad, the Malaysian diaspora is spread far and wide, from neighboring Singapore to New Zealand and the United States, and their calls for a greater say in how their country is run are growing louder.
These appeals are being heard against the backdrop of a larger popular movement to make the process of choosing Malaysia’s leaders more fair and transparent. Last summer, thousands of people demonstrated in Kuala Lumpur for electoral changes that they argue would level the playing field for the political opposition to compete against the governing National Front coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organization, which has been in power since independence in 1957.
In January, the High Court in Kuala Lumpur rejected an application by six Malaysians living in Britain for a review of the election laws. But the authorities have begun taking steps toward extending the vote to more overseas Malaysians. A parliamentary committee, set up after the protests last year to consider changes to the election process, has recommended that overseas voting be expanded and has been discussing options with the Election Commission. The panel is expected to present a report in early April.
But some expatriates are concerned that any changes will not come in time for the next election and that Malaysia will continue to bar some of its overseas citizens from voting — based, perhaps, on how long they have lived abroad, as some other countries do.
Some analysts believe that the Malaysian governing coalition — which in 2008 suffered one of the greatest electoral setbacks in its history, with the opposition taking more than a third of the seats in Parliament — is unlikely, for political reasons, to extend the franchise to more overseas Malaysians in time for the next election.
Expatriates, these analysts say, could be seen as likely to support the opposition, since many are ethnic Chinese and Indians who went abroad, at least in part, out of exasperation with the government’s longstanding policies favoring Malays.
“The strong suspicion is that the vast majority of overseas Malaysians, who are ethnic Indians and ethnic Chinese, are somewhat frustrated with the affirmative action policies and have left Malaysia to seek better opportunities,” said John Lee, adjunct associate professor at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. “This includes better opportunities for their children’s education, and also due to the fact that the best jobs in the public service and other selective sectors of the economy have affirmative action quotas in place.”
Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Kuala Lumpur, said that, based on his observations, Malaysians living overseas were “overwhelmingly critical of the governing coalition.”
“The government has a lot to lose,” he said. “Overseas voters can make a big difference if they have that opportunity to vote.”
Wan Ahmad Wan Omar, deputy chairman of the Election Commission, said the commission had recommended to the parliamentary panel that Malaysians living overseas be required to return at least once every five years to maintain their eligibility to vote. He said it would not be fair to extend the vote to citizens who return less frequently and do not follow developments in their constituencies.
Some expatriates are riled by the implication that if they stay away for long periods, they do not care about their country’s affairs. They say they want the chance to vote for leaders who will address the issues that prompted them to leave in the first place.
“Just because you are overseas doesn’t mean you don’t care and don’t know,” said Ong Suan Ee, a Malaysian who works as a senior research analyst at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
See-See Leong, a software designer who has lived in London for 17 years and was one of the six Malaysians involved in the case the High Court ruled on in January, said there was “no logic” to why only certain overseas Malaysians are allowed to vote.
“The Constitution gives you the right to vote, and therefore, so long as you are a Malaysian citizen, you should have the right to vote,” said Ms. Leong, 44, who is on the board of trustees of My Overseas Vote , an advocacy group established in London in 2010.
Among other changes, My Overseas Vote wants votes to be counted at Malaysian embassies, rather than mailed back to the country from overseas — a process that the election commission has recommended stay in place. The group said in a statement this week that voting by mail in Malaysia had “become synonymous with fraud and unfair balloting.”
The group also said that in the past, some overseas military personnel had had to fill out their ballots in front of their superiors.
Mr. Wan Ahmad of the Election Commission said he was aware that such allegations had been reported in the news media but said the commission had received no formal complaints and urged anyone with evidence of misconduct to come forward.
Some expatriates, including Hwa Shi-Hsia, 28, a biologist who lives in Singapore, are determined to vote even if the rules are not changed before the next election. Ms. Hwa, 28, plans to book a flight home as soon as the election is called. But she says this is a cost she should not be required to bear.
“The Philippines managed to arrange overseas voting for its citizens in Singapore,” she said. “I don’t see why we can’t.”