By Marie Tan Kiak Li
Making it into the “Top Ten” of almost any list is usually more than enough cause for celebration. However, this wasn’t quite the case at the Malaysian High Commission last Friday. “En. Airul,” asked this Little Miss Curious, “How many students have come by to register as postal voters?” Consular Officer Airul’s response was, “There have been a few-lah, but I can tell you Miss, you are in the Top Ten!” Well, *kerplonk* went my heart – ever just so slightly (because his response wasn’t unexpected; as you will see why).
As (full-time) students, we have the privilege of being one out of the four categories of Malaysian citizens living abroad who are eligible to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Granted, not all those studying abroad may be of age to exercise voting rights when or if an election is called for, nor do all who are eligible to vote choose to do so. But that so very, very few of us have taken advantage of our right to postal voting is definitely a cause for concern. To lend some perspective, figures reported in 2005 showed more than ten thousand students studying in the UK.
My experience with getting registered as an absent voter eligible for postal voting leads me to believe that what could be a simple process made extremely complicated poses a huge barrier to any student studying abroad who wishes to exercise their voting rights. I started on this ‘quest’ in January of this year, having needed more time than I expected (read: the entire Michaelmas term plus winter break!) to adjust to living in London and studying at the LSE.
The first step involved calling the Malaysian High Commission (MHC) in Belgrave Square and getting hold of right person to talk to. This wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. “Please call back tomorrow when the person in charge will be in the office”. Okiedokes. When I eventually got through to the person in charge, I was instructed to put my request in writing to the Consular Officer at the MHC, which I duly did, enclosing my email address to be used as a more efficient means of communication if so desired. I heard back from the MHC folks via email – in which I was instructed to contact the Malaysian Students Department (MSD) for more information.
The first phone conversation that I had with the kind folks at the MSD resulted in some brow-furrowing on my part. I was told that the necessary forms “could not be found” and that they would call me back when more information was available. At this point, my incredulometer was clanging away at the thought of the possibility of there being no registered postal voters in London at all. The person on the other end of the line laughed it off when I posed that question to them. Surprisingly, I received a call back from the MSD within ten minutes of putting down the phone with them. Turned out that the forms (a certain Form A, to be exact) had been found and would be sent to me via post.’
With the receipt of Form A, came the perusal and deliberation over how to fill it out (without messing it up!). I learned that Form A had to be witnessed by a Consular Officer at the MHC anyway, so a visit in person over there was in order. Being the busy (aka miserably lousy juggler of time and priorities) student that I am, a good week and a half passed while I deliberated making my trip to the MHC. Lo and behold, in that time, Parliament got dissolved and Polling Day was set for March 8th.
Needless to say, that was what saw me scooting over to Belgrave Square two days ago, getting my Form A filled out correctly, witnessed accordingly and sent to the Election Commission (EC) back in KL (where I found out I’d made it into the Top Ten!).
But the story doesn’t end just there yet. The EC still has to receive my form, register me as an absent voter, send me my postal ballot, and have it received by the Returning Officer by 5pm of Polling Day for it to count. As I write this, I have paused to count very carefully, using all the digits that I have on my hand, and my feet too. There remain 20 days left till polling day.
Now some of you are probably wondering, isn’t this a bit too little, too late? In all honesty, it probably is. Postal communication between Malaysia and the UK takes an average of 7-10 days – each way. I haven’t accounted for the efficiency of the EC yet either. At the MHC, I was told that Form A should’ve arrived from the EC to be made available to absent voters at least 5 months ago, but had only just arrived and become available to those requesting it recently.
Rational choice theory predicts that if a cost-benefit analysis is taken into account, there is little, if hardly any, incentive for someone to go out and vote. Yet voter turnout has proven the contrary to be true time and time again. The phenomenon of voting continues to be one of the biggest dilemmas that proponents of rational choice theory have had to deal with.
But perhaps the rational choice theory has it right when it comes to absent voters and postal balloting. One could quite validly ask me why I decided to go through this quite possibly more than anything else, symbolic, process of registering as an absent voter and participating in the upcoming elections via postal voting. My answer would simply be “Well, why not?”
Indeed, there were many times when variations of the thought “Aiyoh, is this really worth all that effort?” reverberated through my mind as I navigated my way through the morass of bureaucracy involved. At the end of the day though, if for nothing else than posterity’s benefit, I am glad that I have, in my mind, done what I have been able to, in my capacity as a Malaysian citizen, to participate in the democratic process which underlines the way our country is supposed to be governed. And that should any Malaysian Students’ Club or Organization at institutions of higher learning abroad (hopefully before the next elections, whenever that happens), decide to put on their agendas the potentially powerful force of student voting and the possible impact it could have our country’s future, that my account may be of some use to them.
So in a nutshell, here’s the process of registering as postal voter in seven relatively simple steps as I have found it to be:
- First, and probably most important of all: register as a voter with the Election Commission back home in Malaysia.
- Upon arrival/return abroad, hightail it to the High Commission/Embassy closest by and request for Form A.
- Fill up Form A with your voter information, have it witnessed by the Consular Officer at the High Commission/Embassy and then sent back to the Election Commission.
- Wait for Parliament to be dissolved and an election to be called for.
- Await arrival of postal ballot.
- Fill up postal ballot, send it back to the Election Commission and have it reach the Returning Officer by 5pm of Polling Day.
- *Sit back and hope that your votes will count and make a difference.
*Step 7 = optional
Marie Tan Kiak Li is pursuing a MSc in Political Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She hails from Penang, and enjoys embarking on and exploring seemingly futile life experiences and has learned to spot silver linings on most clouds.