Malaysian voters living abroad will be mobilising in their thousands to make the dash home for the 2013 election to make their vote count. And nothing, it seems, will stop them.
From Singapore, Australia and across the region, to the US and UK, voters will be travelling by car, bus and plane to vote in an election ear-marked as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change.
There are more than a million Malaysians living overseas from a population of about 28 million people – enough to make a real difference come election day.
Buoyed by the online activism that spurred the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Malaysia’s bloggers and campaigners have been encouraging people to make the trip home.
“We saw successful social media campaigns like the (2008) Obama election, the Arab Spring and the ‘Israel Loves Iran’ campaign, and wanted to emulate something that would bring expatriate Malaysians worldwide together to show their support and solidarity towards Malaysians at home,” says Kevin Bathman, an expat Malaysian living in Sydney.
His Facebook-driven campaign – called ‘Malaysia, It’s Time for Change‘ – shows images of Malaysian voters and their messages of hope and it has quickly picked up a following online.
“Many of us have family and relatives and our bond is still very strong, so we felt we needed to do something to show them that they were not alone,” he adds.
A similar campaign, organised by Singapore’s Bersih movement – a branch of the global Bersih campaign for transparency in Malaysia – is offering a car pooling service for expat Malaysians in the city state. Coaches are also being booked to travel to places as far away as Penang and Ipoh in the Northeast of the country.
There are between 300,000 and 500,000 Malaysians living in Singapore; the Bersih campaign will match drivers and passengers to get as many voters back over the causeway.
The big voter migration has been pushed by growing doubts that votes cast overseas will really count.
Previously, only Malaysian students, civil servants and members of the armed forces living overseas were allowed to vote by post.
However, In January Malaysia’s Election Commission (EC) mandated that overseas citizens who had registered to vote and had returned home at least once in the five years before an election would be allowed to cast absentee ballots.
But arrangements haven’t been clear. MyOverseasVote, a London-based campaign group dedicated to securing the right to vote for all Malaysian citizens living overseas, says there is still uncertainty about how and whether they will be able to vote by post.
Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was returned in the last election in 2008 but the Opposition took more than a third of parliamentary seats – a huge setback for the government and one of its worst results since 1969.
Part of the government’s dismal showing in 2008 was put down to the rising influence of Malaysians online.
William De Cruz, part of the team behind the ‘Malaysia, It’s Time for Change’ Facebook campaign, says that no one is really convinced of the EC changes to postal voting. He will be flying home with his wife to vote even though he is now eligible to register for postal voting in Sydney.
“Malaysia is still a long way from a proper, transparent and verifiable postal vote,” he says.
The internet has become a critical medium for voter participation and Malaysians are vocal critics of their government; increasingly it is social networks that are being used by young Malaysians eager for a change. A Facebook group called ‘100,000 People Request Najib Tun Razak Resignation’ has amassed more than 250,000 likes.
“Malaysia’s young have decided they want a say in the country’s future – you only have to see the reports and view film footage of past rallies calling for reform to see this – and social media is their platform,” says De Cruz.
“It’s the best way to raise awareness of the idea that as Malaysia heads to its most important election ever, every vote must count.”