The Potential Force of Overseas Malaysians

By Jennifer Frentasia

Malaysians in Hong Kong participating in Bersih 3.0. Only 20,000 out of one million Malaysians overseas are registered to vote under the current law. Source: Inmediahk's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Malaysia’s Election Commission chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof announced October 8 that, pending parliamentary approval, most Malaysians overseas will be able to vote in the next general election. Overseas Malaysians working in the private sector stand to benefit most, as the right to vote overseas was previously given only to full-time students, civil servants, and their spouses.

The new amendment’s only restriction is that those living overseas must have returned to Malaysia at least once in the past five years to be eligible to vote. The Election Commission said it would be unfair to extend the vote to those who have not followed developments in Malaysia. The amendment could alter the electorates’ demographics and have real repercussions if implemented before the next election, which must be called by April 2013.

While the new amendment might signal that Malaysia is ready to reform its electoral system, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has resisted speeding up the reform process. The Election Commission was reluctant to push the issue forward, despite being prioritized by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). In July, the commission missed a three-month deadline it received from the PSC April 3 to formulate mechanisms allowing overseas Malaysians to vote, and promised that the system would be implemented by September of this year.

In July, Deputy Chairman of the Electoral Commission Wan Ahmad Wan Omar downplayed the issue by saying that overseas Malaysians were uninterested in voting as the number of registered voters overseas was much lower than what some activist groups claimed. According to the Electoral Commission, only 20,000 of the one million overseas Malaysians are registered to vote. This low number, however, could be due to the fact that restrictions prevented most Malaysians from voting, and thus registering to vote was moot. It is believed that this number will increase significantly once the amendment is passed.

This likely would not bode well for BN, which has dominated parliament since 1973. Many overseas Malaysians left the country at least in part due to BN policies. This includes many ethnic Chinese and Indians who left out of frustration over affirmative action policies that benefit ethnic Malays. These soon-to-be-eligible overseas voters will constitute a significant portion of the electorate, and a dangerous one for BN, considering that the coalition won the 2008 elections by just 280,000 votes.

Reform-minded groups like the Bersih movement for clean elections and the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat are fighting for the rights of overseas voters, while BN has tried to restrict them. Winning those votes now will prove a serious challenge for the ruling coalition. Many observers already predict that Prime Minister Najib Razal and his coalition will not be able to regain BN’s historical dominance in parliament next year. The new voting regulations, if passed as expected, will make that task even more difficult. But, while dangerous to its rulers, the amendment is also indicative of a slow but steady trend toward reform in Malaysia.

Ms. Jennifer Frentasia is a researcher with the CSIS Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.  


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