Exercising your right to vote as a student abroad

By Marie Tan Kiak Li

Making it into the “Top Ten” of almost any list is usually more than enough cause for celebration. However, this wasn’t quite the case at the Malaysian High Commission last Friday. “En. Airul,” asked this Little Miss Curious, “How many students have come by to register as postal voters?” Consular Officer Airul’s response was, “There have been a few-lah, but I can tell you Miss, you are in the Top Ten!” Well, *kerplonk* went my heart – ever just so slightly (because his response wasn’t unexpected; as you will see why).

As (full-time) students, we have the privilege of being one out of the four categories of Malaysian citizens living abroad who are eligible to exercise their constitutional right to vote[1]. Granted, not all those studying abroad may be of age to exercise voting rights when or if an election is called for, nor do all who are eligible to vote choose to do so. But that so very, very few of us have taken advantage of our right to postal voting is definitely a cause for concern. To lend some perspective, figures reported in 2005 showed more than ten thousand students studying in the UK[2].

My experience with getting registered as an absent voter eligible for postal voting leads me to believe that what could be a simple process made extremely complicated poses a huge barrier to any student studying abroad who wishes to exercise their voting rights. I started on this ‘quest’ in January of this year, having needed more time than I expected (read: the entire Michaelmas term plus winter break!) to adjust to living in London and studying at the LSE.

The first step involved calling the Malaysian High Commission (MHC) in Belgrave Square and getting hold of right person to talk to. This wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. “Please call back tomorrow when the person in charge will be in the office”. Okiedokes. When I eventually got through to the person in charge, I was instructed to put my request in writing to the Consular Officer at the MHC, which I duly did, enclosing my email address to be used as a more efficient means of communication if so desired. I heard back from the MHC folks via email – in which I was instructed to contact the Malaysian Students Department (MSD) for more information.

The first phone conversation that I had with the kind folks at the MSD resulted in some brow-furrowing on my part. I was told that the necessary forms “could not be found” and that they would call me back when more information was available. At this point, my incredulometer was clanging away at the thought of the possibility of there being no registered postal voters in London at all. The person on the other end of the line laughed it off when I posed that question to them. Surprisingly, I received a call back from the MSD within ten minutes of putting down the phone with them. Turned out that the forms (a certain Form A[3], to be exact) had been found and would be sent to me via post.’

With the receipt of Form A, came the perusal and deliberation over how to fill it out (without messing it up!). I learned that Form A had to be witnessed by a Consular Officer at the MHC anyway, so a visit in person over there was in order. Being the busy (aka miserably lousy juggler of time and priorities) student that I am, a good week and a half passed while I deliberated making my trip to the MHC. Lo and behold, in that time, Parliament got dissolved and Polling Day was set for March 8th.

Needless to say, that was what saw me scooting over to Belgrave Square two days ago, getting my Form A filled out correctly, witnessed accordingly and sent to the Election Commission (EC) back in KL (where I found out I’d made it into the Top Ten!).

But the story doesn’t end just there yet. The EC still has to receive my form, register me as an absent voter, send me my postal ballot, and have it received by the Returning Officer by 5pm of Polling Day[4] for it to count. As I write this, I have paused to count very carefully, using all the digits that I have on my hand, and my feet too. There remain 20 days left till polling day.

Now some of you are probably wondering, isn’t this a bit too little, too late? In all honesty, it probably is. Postal communication between Malaysia and the UK takes an average of 7-10 days – each way. I haven’t accounted for the efficiency of the EC yet either. At the MHC, I was told that Form A should’ve arrived from the EC to be made available to absent voters at least 5 months ago, but had only just arrived and become available to those requesting it recently.

Rational choice theory predicts that if a cost-benefit analysis is taken into account, there is little, if hardly any, incentive for someone to go out and vote. Yet voter turnout has proven the contrary to be true time and time again. The phenomenon of voting continues to be one of the biggest dilemmas that proponents of rational choice theory have had to deal with.

But perhaps the rational choice theory has it right when it comes to absent voters and postal balloting. One could quite validly ask me why I decided to go through this quite possibly more than anything else, symbolic, process of registering as an absent voter and participating in the upcoming elections via postal voting. My answer would simply be “Well, why not?”

Indeed, there were many times when variations of the thought “Aiyoh, is this really worth all that effort?” reverberated through my mind as I navigated my way through the morass of bureaucracy involved. At the end of the day though, if for nothing else than posterity’s benefit, I am glad that I have, in my mind, done what I have been able to, in my capacity as a Malaysian citizen, to participate in the democratic process which underlines the way our country is supposed to be governed. And that should any Malaysian Students’ Club or Organization at institutions of higher learning abroad (hopefully before the next elections, whenever that happens), decide to put on their agendas the potentially powerful force of student voting and the possible impact it could have our country’s future, that my account may be of some use to them.

So in a nutshell, here’s the process of registering as postal voter in seven relatively simple steps as I have found it to be:

  1. First, and probably most important of all: register as a voter with the Election Commission back home in Malaysia.
  2. Upon arrival/return abroad, hightail it to the High Commission/Embassy closest by and request for Form A.
  3. Fill up Form A with your voter information, have it witnessed by the Consular Officer at the High Commission/Embassy and then sent back to the Election Commission.
  4. Wait for Parliament to be dissolved and an election to be called for.
  5. Await arrival of postal ballot.
  6. Fill up postal ballot, send it back to the Election Commission and have it reach the Returning Officer by 5pm of Polling Day.
  7. *Sit back and hope that your votes will count and make a difference.

*Step 7 = optional

Marie Tan Kiak Li is pursuing a MSc in Political Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She hails from Penang, and enjoys embarking on and exploring seemingly futile life experiences and has learned to spot silver linings on most clouds.


[1] http://spr.gov.my/index/elecroepreliminary.htm

[2] http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/17/10/39308963.xls

[3] http://spr.gov.my/index/2002formA.htm

[4] http://spr.gov.my/index/elecpvissueofballotpaper.htm

[Published with permission from CEKU, the online journal of the United Kingdom and Eire Council for Malaysian Students (UKEC)]

19 responses to “Exercising your right to vote as a student abroad”

  1. You have no idea how much that few step helps! I’m 21 and not a registered voter yet and BADLY want to participate in the GE although as far as i understand, this is impossible under the current legislations which is such a shame.

    However one question, i’m abroad at the minute and how do i actually register as a voter with the EC back home without actually being physically present there as i do want to make a vote when the next GE comes as i’m unable to do so at this point in time? Cheers and keep up the good work.


  2. hey im studying in sg and i did call the high comm but the operator was sooo rude and offered me no alternatives at all other than “go back to Malaysia.” I didn’t know I could apply for postal voting till NOW. So should I go to the High Comm or just forget it?

  3. Hi Marie,

    Thanks for your insightful post.

    I don’t believe you’ve mentioned but out of curiosity have you already been registered to vote in Malaysia?

    I was at both the MSD and High Commission earlier this week to try and get registered. Unfortunately I was informed that as I am not already registered and the electoral roll was already gazetted on 5th Feb I would not be able to register for these elections.

  4. Erm.. from what I hear though, from other blogging Londoners, if you did all this before Feb 5, it is still too late.
    All this is crazy.

  5. Hi svllee, yes, I’ll definitely report on any happenings (or non-happenings for that matter). I’m striving to remain hopeful.

    That’s said, there’s this account by a fellow M’sian coursemate that’s got my alarm bells ringing – this is just a couple days after I visited the Malaysian High Commission here in London and wasn’t told of any such deadline for registration as a postal voter (which would’ve made sense if there’d been some publicity/information about it before):

  6. Marie,

    Thanks for posting such a detailed account of your experiences with the High Comm in London.

    I am a student in NYC. I just checked in with the Consulate-General here, but the instructions I was given differ quite significantly from those given to you.

    I also registered back in Malaysia. However, Mr. Raimy of the NYC C-G informs me that I do NOT need to register again as a postal voter. As long as my name appears on the electoral roll (and one can check this online at http://www.spr.gov.my), I am good to go.

    Good to go meaning I have to show up in person at the C-G to cast my ballot about one week ahead of polling date, March 8, to ensure that the ballots arrive in Malaysia on time. It seems that the C-G will assign one specific day for postal voting for those who qualify at their office. At the moment, that day has not been set. One can send an email to malnycg@yahoo.com and asked to me notified about the NYC C-G polling date.

    We’ll see how it goes in the weeks to come, but I’m curious as to the different procedures/instructions being given out!

  7. you are not the only one who happened to experience the dilemma. many of my friends in Germany did not know that they need to register as postal voters with the embassy in berlin. when the news broke out that malaysia goes to election on 8 march, enquiries were made at the embassy and the answer was that students indeed need to register as postal voters and only those who registered before the end of october 2007 are eligible for the coming election. others have to go back to malaysia to vote.
    my problem is that i am a registered postal voter but unfortunately will be in malaysia during the election. Unfortunately because i can not vote as normal people votes (i.e. votes at the polling station) rather i have to vote using the postal vote that will be sent to my residence in germany. i do not think that i will be going back to germany just to vote as my holiday will not end until at the end of march. and this is the my first holiday in malaysia since 2 1/2 years. so yes, i have to forgo the chance to vote in this election.

  8. Fiona,
    It sounds like the NYC C-G has a more efficient system of doing things, though that’ll only work to the advantage of those within the NYC vicinity. I imagine it would be quite a task for students in other states esp those where there’s no High Comm/Embassy/C-G nearby, like in say, Iowa or Ohio where there are huge M’sian student populations. darnit!


    Yes. I did register with the EC while back home in Malaysia. That in and of itself was an interesting experience. (had a mini-debate with the lady at the post office about the existence of God b/c I asked the question “What if I or anyone else registering to vote tak pegang pada apa-apa agama, tak percaya pada Tuhan then how, which kotak to tick?” to which she responded after processing my form with a “What do you mean there’s no God? God is everywhere” “Yes but that’s not the point….” and so it went. You get the idea. it was quite funny in retrospect I suppose). Sorry, I digress.

    So yes. Registering back home is key. I missed out on participating in the 2004 elections because I’d turned 21 while studying abroad at that time and didn’t have a chance to go home between then and when the 2004 elections were called.

    Which was why I wasn’t going to give up my vote this time around without some fight on my part because I do believe that it is darn worth something; otherwise they (they being the powers that be) wouldn’t make it so hard for me to have a go at casting it right? I’m crossing my fingers and making a few follow up phone calls in the next couple of days and just hoping against hope that it just might all work out. But even if it does, that’s just not enough, is it? The number of potential votes from postal voting, even though from a marginal proportion of Malaysians living abroad, could very well be significant. And all that isn’t going to figure into the votes counted at the end of Polling Day. What.A.Shame! =(

    What I am astounded by is the lack of information AND then the misinformation being handed out left right and centre. It almost feels like some kind of systematic disenfranchisement mechanism is at work, in a very haphazard, almost hard to believe kind of way!
    ….We’ve had 11 elections prior to this one, and the Akta regarding postal balloting has been around since 2002/3, so how is it that we’re all still running around like headless chickens, trying to claim our rights to our votes? Registering as voter back home has been an issue that has been well highlighted since last year, the year before even — but the issue of postal voting, especially that of the student population has definitely been overlooked.

    What I really hope comes out of having done this is that other students (esp those who will be studying abroad for multiple years) will galvanize, be it via university organizations etc and be better sources of information for each other in preparation for the next elections whenever those happen.
    To my chagrin, I found no student organizations which could provide any comprehensive guidelines/resources, for example when I wrote to the folks at UKEC/CEKU.org.uk, they said no we haven’t any advice for you, but would you like to share you experience with us? Hence this article.

    Ensuring that you get access to your voting rights isn’t “indulging in politics”(a supposed no-no when one’s a student) – it’s upholding one of our Constitutional rights and lord knows how easily we can be deprived them! There will be more elections to come – 4-5 years go by relatively quickly and hopefully when the next round comes along, those who can and want to vote should have their ducks in a row already by then. I’m doing my part by bugging the Malaysian Students’ Club at the esteemed LSE… *grin*.

    wow that was quite a bit of a response. ok. that’s all from me for now.

  9. “absent voter” means a citizen who has attained the age of twenty-one years
    on the qualifying date and is-

    (a) a serving member of any regular naval, military or air force of Malaysia, the Commonwealth or other country;

    Does this mean that a military officer of the commonwealth or other countries are allowed to be absent voters ?

  10. Thanks for your detail account of the absent voter registration process.

    I emailed the NYC Consulate on Feb 20, but the VC (Mohd Jamil Mustapa) referred me to SPR and told me to email info@spr.gov.my and my email to SPR bounced.

    If there is such thing as a postal voting day at NYC Consulate General, why didn’t the VC just tell me to go to the Consulate on a certain day to vote?

    Anyway, I’ll wait till after nomination day and then start calling NYC-CG for the postal voting day. But it sounds too easy…


  11. Dear Marie,

    Thanks for sharing yr “overseas voting” experience. it’s interesting to see a supposedly simple procedure turns out to be a complicated one. I salute Malaysians abroad who take this matter seriously, even many Malaysians in Malaysia are not registered voters. I will go back to my hometown to vote. This is my first time, I missed 2 elections- on purpose. Am glad that my conscience has finally awaken!! Happy voting everyone, i pray that it will get easier for all of u abroad. do make a wise choice!!

  12. Marie,

    Thanks for your reply.

    I was quite tempted on my Borang A to put down “Irrelevant” under Agama and Jantina as well as “Bangsa Malaysia” under Bangsa but I figured as I wanted my application processed ASAP there was no point in doing so.

    I was told that it is possible to register for the first time from here as well but that I was too late for it as the Roll was already gazetted on 5th Feb.

    I believe that the large bulk of the blame for all the miscommunication and misinformation must lie with the EC itself. If your source is right and there are 10,000 Malaysian sutdents in the UK alone, what about the rest of the world? How about the US or Australia for instance? If we were talking about any other country heads in the EC would roll for such gross mismanagement. But no…in Malaysia…semua pun boleh.

    On a separate but related issue, what are these 2002/3 Regulations that prevent Malaysians who are working overseas (but not for the Msian Govt) from voting? What possible justification is there for that?

    We need to query that as well for that’s another large group of people who have had their voting rights unreasonably taken away from them.