Obstacles to Voting from Abroad

By Hwa Yue-Yi

AFTER nine months of vacation – two of which were packed with goodbyes – I was raring to leave for college last August. But amid the high-strung euphoria, the timing of my departure for the US bothered me: it was scarcely a year since I’d learnt to adore rendang, and four months till I’d be old enough to vote.

A semester passed, the temperature dropped by about 40 degrees Celcius, and Feb 14 rolled around. That morning, an American friend asked me whether things were going to get interesting in Malaysia. I answered to the effect of, “Well, things are always interesting in Malaysia because we’re an amazing country.” When I checked an internet news feed that night, my cheeks flamed at my ignorance that the general election had been announced that day.

What I did know was that I wouldn’t be able to vote: as a full-time student, aged 21-years-and-one-month old, I’m constitutionally entitled to, but systemically denied, a postal vote – geography and time make it impossible to get on the electoral roll for this GE [general election]. Nevertheless, hope springs at least sporadically, so as a responsible product of the internet age I trawled the Election Commission [EC] site: no dice. Borang 1 [Form 1], the application for a postal vote, requires applicants to name the constituency they are presently registered in.

Inspired by some blog posts documenting my peers’ travails to register, I called the Consulate General in New York. The lady who answered informed me that it was too late to register for this election, nonchalantly adding that she thought only government-funded students were eligible for postal votes – apparently I wasn’t the only one confused by the EC aktas [laws].

The incumbent Barisan Nasional government is telling Malaysians there's only “One Choice”. But students abroad face obstacles towards making any choice in this elections. Photo by Jacqueline Ann Surin.Had I been able to register, I’d be taking on other logistical challenges now: according to online sources, postal voters in the US have to vote in person at the consulate, meaning that I’d have to cut classes and hightail from my beautiful Massachusetts boondocks to Manhattan on the frustratingly provincial bus network.

While I appreciate that it takes time to rigorously establish electoral rolls, I’d much rather be a bedraggled skiving voter than the frustrated non-participant that I am now. I may be distant from the elections – I didn’t argue with the lady at the consulate as I was hurrying to interview a college official; I don’t know what constituency I’d be voting in because my parents have been transferred twice since I renewed my IC and went to Singapore for the O and A Levels; I probably spend more time talking about rendang than politics when I see the only other Malaysian on campus – but I would like to think that I care. Deeply.

But all I can do here is join in conversations – I’m particularly excited about the inaugural Northeast Malaysia Forum coming up in March – and pray. Not necessarily for parties or mandates, but principles. At the top of my wish-list is consistency. According to the EC website, Borang A [Form A] is used to register for the electoral roll and Borang 1 is needed to obtain a postal vote. However, the lady at the New York consulate and, going by blog anecdotes, staff at other consulates seem to treat Borang A as a postal voter registration. A brief online jaunt turns up a plethora of other procedures and deadlines for voting through Malaysian embassies. Somehow I don’t think this is the kind of diversity we want to celebrate.

It would be nice, though, if we approached all valid variety with fairness. Sure, I’m a Chinese Christian immersing myself in a budaya kuning [yellow culture] education system, but I’m grieved that someone would suggest I’m less worthy to participate in my nation’s democratic process because I’m on a biasiswa swasta [private scholarship]. I’d already gone through a bout of misery the day before, when it hit me that I’ll be spending my post-university life half a world away from the exquisite people whom I call schoolmates and friends. I can only hope that I won’t be spending my post-university life in a Malaysia where my government sees some as more equal than me.

Another thing that I dare to dream for is freedom of information. As infatuated as I am with the emancipated internet, it’s disappointing that I have to depend on vigilante bloggers and independent news sites to find out about postal voting opacity: I should see electoral protocol in glorious clarity on the EC website; I should hear the real deal when I digitally stream Muzik FM to maintain my flagging Malay competence.

For now, aided by conscientious, passionate web reporting, I can sustain a connection with my homeland. And I can hope. Maybe by the next general election I’ll be able to laugh about everything I’ve written here as growing pains that our adolescent nation eventually transcended.

Hwa Yue-Yi is in her first year of a B.A. program at Williams College in Massachusetts. She has lived in Alor Setar, Taiping, Seremban, Oak Park (Illinois), Melaka, Ipoh, Singapore, Bentong, PJ and Williamstown, and likes Malaysia best.

Exercising your right to vote as a student abroad