By UPKO President Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau
KOTA KINABALU: According to an estimate, at least 250,000 out of 1,252,014 Sarawakian voters are living in Semenanjung, Sabah and Labuan. That means one in every five Sarawakian voters is expected to fly home before 18 December to vote, just a week before Christmas, or give up their right to decide their home region’s future for the next five years.
Can you imagine the size of 250,000 voters? If they are shipped by Airbus A320 with 160 passengers, that would take 1,560 flights one way.
If all airlines operate on full capacity, and say we have 30 flights a day from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu to Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu and Miri, that will take 52 days, or 7.5 weeks, to ship them, one way.
Why does this not concern the Chairman of the Election Commission and the Sarawak State Government? Because they know most Sarawakians just cannot afford to go home.
On Sunday, when the election is nearly two weeks ahead, an outgoing flight from Kuala Lumpur on 17 December and a returning flight on 19 December will cost around RM 1,200, yes, the monthly minimum wage in Malaysia. And if RM 1,200 is multiplied by 250,000 voters, that’s RM 300,000,000 in total.
If you are from Kabong, Kerian, Pelagus, Telang Usan or Bakelalan but now working or studying in Kuala Lumpur, would you go home to vote? If you have planned your home trip for Christmas or New Year, would you have enough money to buy another ticket? Alternatively, would your boss or university allow you to be away for two weeks?
Should you be deprived of your right to vote, to decide the fate of your village and home region, simply because you cannot afford it?
Sons and daughters of Sarawak, do you choose to be away from your hometown or Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu or Miri if the land of Sarawak is full of job or educational opportunities? And is it Sarawak’s fault for having rich endowment of natural resources from oil and gas to timber but still being left behind in socio-economic developments, with many inland villages still denied tar roads, electricity and even tap water?
So, if you are forced to seek education or employment out of your region which is a victim of unfair centralisation after 58 years in Malaysia, why should you be punished in an election? Why must you be forced to choose to part with your vote or your bank notes?
When our Kalimantan cousins who work in Malaysia can queue up and vote in the Indonesian Embassy, why can’t we have advance voting centres in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru, Penang and Kota Kinabalu where Sarawakian diasporas are mostly domiciled, so that our Sarawakian brothers and sisters can just queue up and vote a few days in advance before 18 December? In fact, we can even have this in the main cities to reduce the need for inland voters to travel home?
If our Health Ministry can set up vaccination centers (PPV) to bring protection to every eligible citizen, why cannot the Election Commission (EC) bring the right to vote to every diasporic Sarawakian in Malaya and Sabah? Why is it so difficult?
Allow me to refute the EC’s story line – “register where you are, so that you don’t have to travel home and vote”. This line is legalistic but outdated and devoid of context, and must be rejected by Sarawakians and Sabahans, if not all Malaysians.
The idea that a voter’s interest should be tied down to his/her residence is simply outdated because people move around frequently. People may work in one place, stay at another place and own property in the third place – why must they vote at a place where they may only spend the night after work?
More importantly, many move between short-term jobs and change their rented room when necessary. For Sabahans and Sarawakians, some may be prepared to move home if they can’t find a decent living.
To ask them to change their voter registration is to ask them to uproot themselves from their home district where they have permanent interests and vote in a new place where they are too busy earning a living to pay attention too. If the EC cares about local representation, advise the Federal Government to introduce local elections.
Insisting that diasporic Sarawakians and Sabahans change their constituency or fly home to vote is nothing but deliberate vote suppression. What else would you call it?
When sons and daughters of Sabah and Sarawak are forced to seek education or employment away from home because their homelands are neglected, why must they be rich enough before they can decide their homeland’s future?
When 250,000 voters can fill up nearly the smallest 40 out of Sarawak’s 82 state constituencies, is this vote suppression driven by calculation that diaspora voters are more sophisticated and demanding, hence harder to be bought over with cash or development promises?
With pandemics, travelling home on public transport increases the risk of infection. And cross-state travelers may also have to go through quarantine in the event of sudden spikes, making it harder for voters to travel home even if they can afford the airfare.
So, why has the EC been sleeping for the past 21 months? When will they wake up?
When we demanded absentee voting for the Sabah State Election last September, the EC said it was not ready. Would it be ready for GE15? Or, should Sarawakians and Sabahans just expect their diasporic votes to be forever suppressed and regret why their grand parents did not outright tell the Cobbold Commission in 1962 that they outright rejected the Malaysian proposal?
If the Federal Government and the EC cannot understand how wrong this is for Sarawak, let me tell you why you fail to understand: 58 years of Malayan-centrism! As a Sabahan, I understand this because we
have nearly 300,000 diasporic voters, or one in four of Sabah’s 1.2 million voters. In contrast, only 1 million out of Malaya’s 13 million voters (8%) are in Sabah or Sarawak, because most Malayan states are not neglected.
Malayan political elites must understand this, Malaysia as we know it may not exist in two generations’ time if Sarawakians and Sabahans continue to get a bad deal as compared to their Kalimantan cousins, who will see more development and advancement with Indonesia’s new capital in East Kalimantan by 2024.
Expand absentee voting right to out-of-region voters before GE15 so that Sarawakians and Sabahans won’t need to choose between their vote or their money. Otherwise, introduce Party-List seats in Parliament so that Sarawakians and Sabahans outside of their homeland can still vote for parties that champion their aspiration.
The need to uphold voters’ sovereignty is not rocket science. Two of the seven Election Commissioners are representatives of Sarawak and Sabah, who surely understand the plight of their diasporic brothers and sisters. Do we need to have an EC Chairperson from Sabah or Sarawak before we can see changes?
I hope all parties in Sarawak will highlight the outrageous absence of absentee voting facilities for diasporic 250,000 Sarawakians. We must shout out loudly so that the Federal Government and the EC can wake up from their sleep. End