Thousands of Malaysians voted abroad during the 13th general election. Many more returned from Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, London and Taiwan, traditionally places with large numbers of Malaysians, to exercise their right to suffrage on May 5th.
This is a peculiar phenomenon.
Why do Malaysians who have found greener pastures abroad feel compelled to return to the country to cast their ballot? This certainly goes against the thesis of Albert O. Hirshman — who argued in a famous treatise in 1970 that when people have the chance to leave, they will, especially if they have found the entity to be increasingly dysfunctional and inefficient.
Malaysia, or rather its government, over the last few decades, has certainly manifested such features.
Concurrently, those who decided to ‘stay back’ would attempt to improve the country by voicing out. Be that as it may, those who have left the country are not expected to express their voices anymore let alone to vote. Yet, vote they did.
The quick and short answer to the above phenomenon is that they care. Indeed, not only do they care about the future of their immediate and extended families still in Malaysia, but they care about Malaysia, period.
And that is where Malaysia draws its greatest pride from — Malaysians and their sense of belonging, of camaraderie.
Beyond caring, they also know, through their collective exposure in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, if not as far away as United Kingdom, Japan and Australia, that Malaysia has been back-pedaling, especially on issues like corruption and crime let alone in building a vibrant democracy.
Take corruption, for example. The national debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio at 54 per cent, it is one per cent shy of the constitutional limit; and this figure is a conservative estimate. When one lumps in the debt of the government linked companies (GLCS), often with the element of corruption still at work, the ratio is easily in the range of the mid-70s.
While many do not like to use the B word (i.e. bankcruptcy), the next generation is expected to foot the financial profligacy of the present one. Malaysians abroad share the same concern and anxieties with those at home.
Not surprisingly, up 75 to 85 per cent of the voters abroad, almost without fail, voted for the opposition according to exit polls.
Like the 51 per cent of the people in Malaysia, they chose to throw their lot with Pakatan Rakyat, this despite the fact that Pakatan Rakyat did not have any offices or representatives outside the country.
In fact, one may even wonder if they did so purely to register their disgust with Barisan National, rather than due to any objective attachment to Pakatan Rakyat; a trend that was discernible across all racial groups in urban areas from 2008 onwards.
Even in rural places ostensibly ‘won’ by the government, the establishment is not out of the woods, if ever they can be, due to their indulgent attitude to corruption and sheer exploitation of the natural resources that impacts rural communities directly.
My PAS colleague, Dr Dzukefly Ahmad, noted in a Malay op-ed that of the 11 constituencies with Dayak majority in Sarawak, all of them had experienced a dip of 10 per cent or more in the votes for the government.
This is unprecedented in areas that are customarily the vote banks of the state government. Thus, if Sabah and Sarawak are the ‘fixed deposit’ of the government, the yield is only decreasing, not enlarging.
Yet, this election, has allowed a minority government to be in Putrajaya, the seat of the Malaysian government. Like many in the country and abroad, the opposition is not so much shocked as it is outraged by the ‘enforced limitations’ of the electoral system; some of which are now being legally challenged by Pakatan Rakyat.
The limitations were ‘enforced’ because the Electoral Commission, which was under the Prime Minister’s Office, failed to reform the electoral system in the more than four years available ahead of the recent 13th general election, the ‘disappearing’ indelible ink fiasco included.
Electoral reforms were all the more imperative after repeated rounds of feedbacks from non-governmental groups like Bersih I, II, III, Tindak and Transparency International. But, whether by design or default, they chose to sit tight indifferent to the loud calls for free and fair elections. Even to the extent of allowing tainted electoral rolls to remain on the register, especially in my constituency that is Lembah Pantai.
In moments like these, it is easy to hate the arbitrary nature and high-handedness of the ruling government too. This is all the more the case when the ruling establishment, once again, is showing signs of attempting to remain in power on the sly.
Instead of seeking ‘national reconciliation’ advocated by the Prime Minister, the very first things that the Ministry of Home Affairs and Inspector General Police did was to arrest opposition figures and dissidents. A dragnet was imposed on those who spoke out against the unfairness of the election.
Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, the co-chairperson of Bersih, was right to affirm that “the government has been using words (such as national reconciliation), which it doesn’t even understand”; this when the Prime Minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is also a patron to a Global Movement of Moderates Foundation (GMMF) whose rhetoric is not even echoed by his own immoderate party at home.
But Malaysians near and abroad must not fall into the temptation of blind hate, just as I am reminding myself too. To do so would be to stoop to the level of extreme jingoistic and mirror the narrative of such rabid malicious press likeUtusan Malaysia - the UMNO mouthpiece.
On the other hand, Pakatan Rakyat’s demand for substantive action such as the immediate removal of the Election Commission’s leadership before participating in the Prime Minister’s offer of a Parliamentary Select Committee to manage the Election Commission, which now falls under the Prime Minister's Department will test the government’s readiness for reforms.
Indeed, revamping the Electoral Commission is urgently needed, especially on boundary redelineation which have to be completed over the next two years which once again will determine the next election’s fairness.
Beyond electoral petitions and all, the opposition has to govern well in Selangor and Penang, too, without which they would not be able to arrest the growing skepticism of politicians emerging through out the country.
Pakatan Rakyat will continue to push for legislative reform in Parliament, as we have done since Malaysians gave us their mandate. The opposition mandate is to stay vigilant, alert and efficient, even as it is confronting a set of legal electoral challenges. Failure is not an option in the face of an increasingly hawkish and change-resistant minority government of Barisan National.
Indeed our march of history towards democracy will go on even if it is slightly bumpy, facing temporary roadblocks. For a mandate is still a mandate and should be the fodder for continued fortitude, determination and sacrifice for greater democracy in Malaysia.