Democracy Lab

Why I'm Flying Back to Malaysia to Vote

When absentee voting just isn’t good enough.

I'm a Malaysian citizen who's been living in Switzerland since I married my German husband two and a half years ago. Ever since I made the move to Europe, though, I've been keeping an eye on the political situation back in my native country. Earlier this year, when it became apparent that a general election was imminent, I flew back to Malaysia -- 6,200 miles away -- just so that I could vote.

Unfortunately, after my arrival, the government decided to hold off on calling the new election, so when I couldn't wait any longer I flew back to Zurich -- only to hear the news that Prime Minister Najib Razak had dissolved parliament. Soon after that the date of the new election was set: May 5.

So I turned around and flew back to Malaysia.

Yeah, it's crazy. But I'm not the only one. Many of my compatriots in Malaysia's far-flung expat community -- it's estimated that there are around one million of us around the world -- are doing the same thing. That's a reflection of how high the stakes are in the upcoming election -- and how strongly many of us want to vote for change.

The 2013 general election (or "GE13," as Malaysians like to call it) is shaping up to be one of the most decisive battles in the country's modern history. The ruling National Front Coalition (Barisan Nasional or BN) has run Malaysia for the past 56 years. The opposition People's Pact (Pakatan Rakyat or PR) believes that the chance may have finally come to challenge BN's hold on power.

I don't think it's important to tell you which candidates I'm voting for. Suffice it to say that I don't think it's a goodthing when one group of people run a country for so long, and that I believe we desperately need change. In my own life as a Malaysian I've experienced far too much in the way of discrimination, injustice, bureaucracy, and inefficiency. And I don't want others who live in Malaysia to go through the same things.

So why not just vote absentee? Can't I just sign up to send in my vote by mail? Why do I need to go to the trouble of taking a sixteen-hour flight just so that I can be there in person at the polling place? After all, there's plenty of evidence that the government won't shy away from tampering with the vote even if you're physically present in Malaysia.

It should be noted that this is the first time in Malaysia's history that citizens living overseas have the chance to vote (with the exception of some Malaysians in a few other Southeast Asian countries). But very few -- only about 0.6 percent -- have actually signed up to vote absentee. Thousands have decided instead to return home solely for the election.

Some of them may have opted to do this because the absentee voting law doesn't actually make it very easy for overseas Malaysians to register. But I think the far more important reason is that most of us don't trust the government to tally our votes, especially when we're not there to stand up for our right to be counted.

Over the past few years Malaysias have witnessed the astonishing growth of the Bersih ("Clean") reform movement, a grassroots initiative that has galvanized the longing for free and fair elections. (The most recent Bersih demo a year ago drew up to a quarter of a million people onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur.) That's a response to widespread and credible reports of vote tampering that traditionally plague Malaysian elections.

Government meddling spans vote buying, ballot box stuffing, multiple voting (including busing of pro-government voters to other constituencies), and even the granting of quick citizenship (with voting rights) to illegal immigrants who are instructed how to vote. Many of us fear that there will be even more such shenanigans this time around, given the government's obvious nervousness about its eroding support in recent by-elections. (The minister of education, for example, recently called together teachers and told them to vote for the BN-led government.) Our distrust extends to the national election commission, which has uncomfortably close ties to BN and offers little in the way of independent oversight.

Overseas Malaysians offer particular opportunities for fraud. There have been recent reports of Malaysian citizens living in China who have been registered as postal voters without their knowledge. In one case, a businessman residing in Shanghai for over nine years discovered that he'd registered as a voter in Kelantan, although he has never been to the state. In fact, he's never even registered as a voter. Such tales of "phantom voters" reinforce the notion that the best way to prevent such fraud is by showing up at the polls. (The Election Commission has already admitted that some 42,000 names on the electoral roll are actually "phantoms," and civil society organizations fear that the number is far higher.)

So far I've spoken with Malaysians in Afghanistan, Australia, and the United Kingdom who are planning to fly home to cast their ballots. Two university students in Taipei each spent a sum equivalent to a month of living expenses in order to purchase tickets home. One middle-aged Malaysian lady posted a photo of herself online at Los Angeles International Airport as she prepared to head pack to her hometown of Perak. "I am flying home from Los Angeles to cast my precious vote!" she wrote, "I refuse to be dumb anymore for my grandchildren and next generations. I love my country. I love the land where I have grown up ~ Malaysia! Change!"

Some Malaysians have responded by getting together to help others make the trip. The local branch of Bersih in Shanghai has initiated a "Go Back to Vote Campaign" that is offering 500 renminbi (about $82) for airfare to Malaysians in the city who might not be able to afford the trip home. Bersih Shanghai's Weng Liew estimates that a total of 3,000 people have confirmed flying home from China. Bersih's Hong Kong chapter has launched a similar campaign, offering 500 Hong Kong dollars (about $60) towards a plane ticket "A high turnout will minimize fraud and offers a better chance of stability in the event there is regime change or hung parliament," says Lee Willson of Bersih Hong Kong.

Of all the Malaysians living abroad, by far the biggest group -- some 300,000 to 5000,000 -- is in Singapore. Two travel companies, easibook.com and catchthatbus.com, have jointly launched a promotion bus fare for all Malaysians working in Singapore to go home to vote. One company says it will be doubling the number of coaches making the trip (from 50 to 100). Some Malaysians working in Singapore are also arranging carpools or offering lifts to compatriots through social media. That prompted the Electoral Commission to warn foreigners not to drive Malaysians cross the border in cars with foreign plates.

Norman Goh told me that he'd decided to fly back from Singapore to vote in his home state of Sarawak. He told me that the journey home to vote for some of his friends from there will only be beginning when they get off the flight from Singapore. They still face another two hours by bus and then another three by boat in order to arrive at their destinations deep in the jungles of Borneo.

This all might sound rather extreme. But it's actually pretty reasonable. Many of my compatriots are tired of the corruption and racism that rule over public life in our country. We want to establish a truly bipartisan system that encourages real checks and balances. And we want a country that's clean, green, safe, and progressive. To get there, we have to vote.

Samsul Said/Flickr Vision

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