Malaysian expats return home to vote

Voters have been rushing to return to their hometowns to cast ballots in the country's closest ever election.

Last Modified: 04 May 2013 11:29
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Thousands of Malaysian voters have returned, with many fearing postal polls may be manipulated [Al Jazeera]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - When Shamini Mahadevan Flint casts her vote in her Kuala Lumpur constituency on Sunday, she will have travelled 400 kilometres from Singapore to do so. Her brother, who'll be joining her in the queue, will have come from Qatar, just two of thousands of Malaysians who are returning home to take part in what is expected to be the closest election in the country's history.

Shamini, who trained as a lawyer and is now a best-selling author, has always made the effort to vote, but this time the long-time opposition supporter has more of a sense of a purpose.

"On previous occasions, it was a duty. An obligation," she told Al Jazeera by phone from Singapore. "This time it's fun. People are keen to vote."

About a million Malaysians live and work abroad and, in this election, were allowed for the first time to cast their ballots by post. Still, overseas voting wasn't extended to Malaysians living closer to home, including Singapore - where some 200,000 people are thought to be eligible to vote.

In-depth coverage of May 5 vote to select new parliament

Many decided to make their own plans to get home, joined by Malaysian expatriates from further afield, who fear that the vote could be manipulated.

The impact "will be huge", said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist who works with the Penang Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Penang state government. "The turnout could be lifted to 90 per cent. For the first time, there could be a new government. That's why you hear so many stories of Malaysians overseas who will do their best to get home."

More than 13 million Malaysians are registered to vote in the election that takes place on May 5. They face a choice between Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional coalition, which has run the country almost since independence, and the Pakatan Rakyat, an opposition grouping led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Hui Mei Liew Kaiser flew back to vote from Switzerland - a journey of some 10,000km. In a blog for Foreign Policy she explained why she thought it was better for her to vote in person, given the continuing lack of trust in the voting process.  

On Thursday, such concerns were underlined when the incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition admitted that it had chartered a number of flights to bring voters from Borneo to the mainland. Barisan Secretary-General Adnan Tengku Mansor told the media the flights were "normal" and financed by "friends" of the ruling coalition.

There have also been problems with indelible ink, being used in a Malaysian general election for the first time, as well as questionable voter registration.

Bersih, a group that has championed the campaign for free and fair elections is helping Singapore-based Malaysians return home. Its Jom Balik Undi ["Let's go back to vote] programme provides transport information, and triggered a slew of other initiatives from car pools to private buses.

Bersih itself has chartered a 30-seater bus which will be taking 30 registered voters to Penang, where they'll have enough time to cast their ballots before returning to the city state. 

Organiser Guan Sin Ong lived in Singapore for 18 years and returned to Malaysia in July with his wife and five young children.

"After living there so long they are probably feeling a little disillusioned with the government in one way or another and have put Malaysia to back of their minds," he told Al Jazeera. "But you cannot just cut those links. We want to reconnect them. This is their home country."

It's a sentiment Shamini understands only too well. Each time she returns to visit her family she is reminded of why she will always be a Malaysian.

"Like many Malaysians I work abroad because that's where the opportunities are," said Shamini. "But every time I come back, I'm struck by how vibrant it is. Malaysia still feels like home."

Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry


Al Jazeera
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