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Frustrated Malaysian expats hasten to get votes home

Despite numerous hurdles, overseas Malaysians are racing against time and an implausible deadline to cast their votes in what is regarded as the country's most crucial election yet.

At 7:37 p.m. (1837 UTC) local time on Monday, May 7, Putri Bunk, a 36-year-old PhD student from Berlin, began a four-hour transit in London's Heathrow Airport for her connecting flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In all, her journey would last 18 hours.  

Putri was carrying with her two marked and sealed postal ballots of fellow Malaysians living in Germany, which she would pass to recipients waiting for her at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). They, in turn, would rush the ballots to the relevant voting districts to be handed over to the returning officers.

All of this would have to be accomplished by 5 pm, May 9, when polling in Malaysia's 14th general election officially closes.

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Putri is one of many Malaysians abroad who are racing against time and the implausible deadline set by the Election Commission (EC) for postal voters. Ironically, her own ballot hadn't arrived in the mail yet by the time she flew home.

"I had already booked a flight home to bring back my vote and make sure it won't be messed with. ... Now I have a case against the Malaysian government and the EC for their lack of effort in giving us overseas voters a chance to vote. We need at least two weeks to ensure our ballots arrive safely in Malaysia," Putri told DW, adding that she then decided to become a "runner" for other Malaysians who can't afford the €90 ($107) that courier agencies in Germany were charging for express delivery.

Malaysia Premierminister Najib Abdul Razak (picture-alliance/dpa/F. Ismail)

Wednesday's election pits PM Najib Razak against his former political mentor, Mahathir Mohamad

Voting from afar

In 2013, Malaysians living abroad (except in Singapore, southern Thailand, Borneo and Brunei) were finally allowed the postal vote, following the recommendations of the 2012 parliamentary select committee on electoral reform.

In the 2013 elections, the Foreign Ministry oversaw the delivery and return of postal votes, with overseas Malaysians being able to submit their votes at embassies and high commissions abroad.

This year, however, the EC announced that voters would be sent their ballots via Pos Malaysia's courier service, which they must return themselves by the stipulated deadline.

But postal ballot papers can only be printed after nomination day, when the candidates for each constituency are named. That left only 6.5 working days between nomination day, on Saturday, April 28, and polling day, on Wednesday, May 9 — not counting Sundays, Labor Day and May 9 itself, which was declared as an additional public holiday for the general election.

"This leaves only 4.5 working days for ballots to be sent out and returned by courier," Nirmala Devi Windgaetter, secretary of Global Bersih, told DW. "Many Malaysian voters abroad may therefore only receive their ballots after polling day on May 9, certainly too late for them to be returned in time to be counted. By setting a short campaign period of only 11 days, the EC has effectively sabotaged its own overseas postal-voting system."

Global Bersih is the international network and advocacy arm of Bersih 2.0, a coalition of Malaysian NGOs that demand free and fair elections.

Pos Malaysia's international Express Mail Service delivery period ranges between two and seven working days for Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Italy — just some of the countries where the Malaysian diaspora lives.

The EC chief, Mohd Hashim Abdullah, saw no issues with the time period. "I am confident that postal votes, including the overseas ballots, will return in time," he reportedly said on May 6. "We still have time, so there is no need to worry."

Yet, as feared, many Malaysians abroad only received their ballots during the tail end of the campaign period, minimizing their chances of posting their votes back in time. Others, like Putri, have not even received their ballots, leaving them unable to vote.

Hence, the race to return the ballots to Malaysia by hand, which,in an official email to Global Bersih, the EC said would be admissible.

Powered by hashtags

From the time the highly criticized midweek polling day was announced, Malaysians have created hashtags and initiated online movements at home and abroad to ensure maximum voter turnout.

Rabu (the Malay word for Wednesday) was transformed into a cheeky acronym: "Rakyat Akan Buang UMNO," or "the people will vote UMNO out." UMNO is the party that incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak heads.

#UndiRabu (Vote on Wednesday), #PulangMengundi (Return to Vote) and #CarpoolGE14 went viral on Twitter, with Malaysians offering to fund or subsidize travel costs for less-well-off compatriots. Some have organized carpool rides back to close-lying voting constituencies, while others highlighted cheap flight, bus or even ferry tickets.

Now, there's #BawaBalikUndi (Bring Back the Vote) — a movement to organize runners in various countries to collect marked and sealed postal ballots to be flown back to Malaysia.

"We're working with #UndiRabu and #PulangMengundi," Nirmala said. "We have runners in Hong Kong, Melbourne, London, everywhere. All of them have to be in KLIA by 8 p.m. on May 8, where runners of the other two movements will meet them to then rush the ballots to the voting centers by May 9."

These runners are volunteers whose flight tickets home were purchased using donations from fellow Malaysians, ranging anywhere between €50 and €300 per donor. Others who had already planned to return to vote in person also volunteered.

"I had offered to bring back ballots for other Malaysians, but when I left Berlin at 10 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, no one had received their ballots yet," Regina Ho, who moved to Berlin last year, told DW. "I'm merely trying to help however I can. This battle is a tough one, but we are not going to give up till the last second."

Nirmala underscored that many of the people involved in the #BringBackTheVote movement are not concerned with each other's political leanings.

"It doesn't matter who you're voting for: All we want is to exercise our right to vote — all we ask is for free and fair elections," she said, adding that the EC has ignored Global Bersih's repeated appeals to allocate at least 28 days for the postal vote.

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Race to the end

A tweet by caretaker Seputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed raised hackles. "The number of Malaysians voting overseas is less than 0.1 percent of the population," he wrote on Sunday night. "It won't change any result. Don't get excited [over] it."

While the EC itself has been vague about the exact number of registered voters abroad, Malaysians contend that the government apparatus should be expediting the postal vote instead of dismissing it as negligible.

Undeterred, Malaysians who received their ballots on May 7 and 8 were taking a chance and rushing to the nearest airports to spot fellow Malaysians at departure halls who might be willing to carry their ballots home for them.

In an Instagram post from Texas, Kristina Mariswamy wrote that she held up a signboard at the Houston airport in the hope of someone on the late-night flight to Kuala Lumpur to carry her ballot for her.

A Malaysian pilot spotted her sign just before the final check-in and offered his help. Shanta Selaikanu Renken did the same at the Munich airport: Her ballot is now being carried home by a Malaysian who had shortened her European holiday to return to vote.

Nirmala hopes that all these actions abroad will spur full voter turnout among Malaysians at home on Wednesday, May 9. "It doesn't matter who you vote, but you must exercise your basic right as a Malaysian citizen. Take control of your ballot."

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