Andrew Yong, the coordinator of MyOverseasVote, writes about the ongoing fight for equal voting rights for Malaysian citizens overseas.
In just over two-and-a-half years since the 2008 “political tsunami” loosened the Barisan Nasional’s stranglehold on political power in the country, Malaysia has had no fewer than fourteen by-elections – an average of one every ten weeks. A fifteenth by-election is on the way, and speculation is rife that a snap general election, not due till 2013, will be called together with the Sarawak state elections which must be held by the middle of this. Politics and electioneering have dominated the news headlines as never before.
Yet of the 15 million potential electors in Malaysia, no more than 11 million are currently registered to vote. And a further 1 million Malaysians living overseas are unable to vote unless they belong to a limited number of citizens linked in some way to the Malaysian government.
Article 119 of the Federal Constitution gives the right to vote to all Malaysian citizens of or above the age of 21 who are registered to vote, either as voters resident in a constituency or as “absent voters” registered in accordance with the applicable regulations.
The regulations which have been drawn up by the Election Commission allow members of the armed forces, public servants and students in higher education, as well as the spouses of any of the above, to register as absent voters. Once registered as absent voters, they are automatically entitled to postal ballots; but for anyone else, there is no way to vote unless they can afford and find a flight to return to Malaysia to vote when an election is called.
Although in theory any university or college student of the required age can register to vote as an absent voter, Malaysian embassies and high commissions in the past have regularly turned away any student who was not tied to a government scholarship. Only now is this being addressed by the Election Commission, and many embassies are still without guidance or forms. Roughly 20,000 Malaysians are engaged in postgraduate study outside Malaysia, and would generally be old enough to qualify to vote.
But the vast majority of Malaysian citizens living overseas are neither government employees nor students, but rather ordinary people with ordinary jobs, retirees or the unemployed. Their estimated numbers vary between 700,000 and 1 million, but they are the very people whom the Malaysian government wants to attract back to Malaysia, and for that reason need to be encouraged to retain their Malaysian nationality despite leaving the country to pursue education, training and work experience and opportunities overseas.
Many Malaysians eventually take up the nationality of their adopted countries after many years of living abroad, and because Malaysia does not allow dual nationality, lose their Malaysian citizenship as a result. Yet it is ironic that those Malaysians permanently resident in the UK or New Zealand who choose to retain their Malaysian citizenship are able to vote in those countries’ elections, while they, like their counterparts elsewhere, are deprived of any right to affect the outcome of elections back home in Malaysia.
MyOverseasVote is a campaign group that was recently launched to seek to re-enfranchise all Malaysians living overseas, without discrimination on the grounds of occupation and employment. It aims, firstly, to force the Malaysian authorities to follow their own regulations and allow all qualified Malaysian students to register to vote as absent voters.
Secondly, it aims to challenge the regulations that discriminate against Malaysians living overseas on the basis of their occupation and employment. It is impossible to think of any rational ground for discriminating between citizens who are government employees and students, on the one hand – and citizens who are private-sector workers, the retired and the unemployed, on the other – in the matter of something so fundamental as the right to vote. In our view, the distinction is arbitrary, and contrary to the grant of equality contained in Article 8 of the Federal Constitution.
MyOverseasVote is seeking donations to cover the cost of taking the legal action all the way to the Federal Court, and to cover the risk of being penalised in costs by the courts should the action be unsuccessful. We are currently looking for volunteers, litigants and donations.
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.