“As an overseas Malaysian, I wanted to feel proud of the country again”
Cerita Undi by Farah Mahdzan.
Not trusting the postal vote option, Farah Mahdzan flew 6,611 km from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur to be able to personally cast her ballot paper. She shares her motivation in making her voice heard and her hopes for “an inclusive country where the rights of people of all race, religious and social backgrounds [are] championed fairly.”
This is my personal journey as a Malaysian voter and why I recently travelled 6,611 kilometres from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur just to make my voice heard
Disclaimer: Opinions are purely my own, shaped by what I’ve read, seen and experienced for myself
Malaysia has just held its 14th General Elections (PRU14) on 9 May 2018 that ended with shocking but euphoric outcomes (depending on whose side you were on). At long last, the archaic and conservative ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), which has been the government for the last 60 years, has been toppled by its more progressive and liberal opposition counterpart, Pakatan Harapan (PH).
While it’s expected that ‘setiap undi adalah rahsia’ (every vote is secret), it was no secret who I and most Malaysians wanted to win in this election. We wanted leaders who didn’t harp on racial sentiments to win votes and those who aim to do a better job at governing a multiracial Malaysia in a fair and transparent manner in the 21st century.
We were especially desperate for a cleaner government that is seriously committed to eradicating corruption and clearing the smokescreen that has shrouded the kleptocracy and high-profile murder scandals plaguing the nation in the last decade.
I am just an ordinary rakyat (citizen) who isn’t savvy about politics but what I do know about current affairs and governance in Malaysia is enough for me to stay resolved in voting for the people with the values and aspirations that I share.
I wanted a ruling government with basic morals who will work for the rakyat and let us hold them accountable for their actions, not dodge or deflect criticisms like their skins were made of Teflon.
I badly wanted to reject the out-of-touch arrogant politicians living in ivory towers, especially those who were seen to undermine the people’s intelligence and get fat pockets at the expense of hardworking Malaysians.
I most especially wanted to see the demise of fear-mongering racial politics in favour of a more open democracy to support an inclusive country where the rights of people of all race, religious and social backgrounds were championed fairly.
BN has been in power for so long that I actually thought it was going be impossible to kick them out of power. I base this opinion on what happened in the previous 2013 elections (PRU13) during which I voted for the first time. Back then the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won the popular votes but BN won more parliamentary seats to form a federal government and continue leading the country.
PR has now transformed to become PH and while I held out hope that this new coalition was going to win in PRU14, I mentally steadied myself to take the blow and disappointment if the party I wanted to win lost the elections.
Hence, when the odds were turned and the results were officially in PH’s favour to govern the country, I and many others felt elated and relieved – we had a renewed sense of hope for the country. It was like a huge burden had just been lifted off our shoulders. The road to national recovery will be long and winding but it was surely happening.
I am now writing this because I want to remember this turning point in Malaysia’s history books from my point of view. This is a personal account of my journey as a Malaysian under age 40 (categorised by statisticians as the ‘young voters who made a difference’) who eventually went to live overseas but was determined to be physically present in Malaysia for PRU14.
By hook or by crook.
My voting history
When the ‘Reformasi’ political reform movement started by sacked deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 was making national and global headlines, I was a second year business student in the US. Being all of 19, I didn’t really follow what was going on at the time because I thought politics was beyond me.
I was physically far from all the happenings in Malaysia and personally could not feel the effects although I understood that some injustice was taking place and that people were voicing their dissatisfaction towards the government then. Instead, I had other issues to think about like studying for my exams and trying to make it as a young adult living far away from home in a foreign country.
I finally turned 21 at the turn of the century in 2000, a year associated with the impending digital Y2K bug scare that never quite happened as catastrophically as predicted. Twenty one is the legal age that Malaysians could register to vote but I never bothered because I was still living abroad and didn’t think it mattered. Voting in Malaysia was also not compulsory, unlike in countries like Australia where you have to pay a fine if you didn’t cast your vote.
When I graduated in 2001, I came back to Malaysia to work but my voter status still remained unregistered. Hence I missed voting in PRU11 elections in 2004 and PRU12 in 2008. I can’t even tell you what exactly happened in those two occasions, I was that tuned out with politics.
Life was good for me in the aughts decade, the economy and political scenes weren’t particularly bad (to me) then. I was making a good living as a young IT professional and enjoying life with family and friends.
It was only sometime before PRU13 in 2013 (perhaps around 2011) that I felt the urge to register as a voter. This was the trigger:
One day I got stopped over by a police for a supposed traffic offence somewhere on the way to work in Cyberjaya. The way I was treated by the policeman that day made me seethe with anger. I can’t quite remember if it was rudeness or if an element of corruption came to play, but it was one reason or the other. I somehow associated this unsavoury experience with having an incompetent government and wanted a way to make a difference in the way we were treated as civilians.
And for some reason I thought it was a good idea to finally get an overdue personal errand out of the way: I immediately went to the post office to register myself as a voter.
I went to vote for the first time in 2013 and I voted for change. History would show that we came out defeated and that the opposition party Pakatan Rakyat would not win this time. The fight to change an institution long rooted in Malaysia’s political DNA would be a long process. 2013 was not to be the year of change. We had to wait 5 more years for this opportunity.
By 2015, the Malaysian public and the world at large were exposed to international media coverage of financial scandals involving a sovereign wealth fund named 1MDB and billions of ringgit being embezzled and wired into the current Prime Minister’s personal bank account.
What was maddening was that external agencies like the US Department of Justice was publicly declaring Malaysia as a “kleptocracy at its worst” based on what seemed like legit money laundering investigations. To add insult to injury, the Malaysian PM denied any wrongdoings. It was enough of a push for people like me to want to vote for a new government, convinced of abuse of power by higher authorities.
In April 2015, I left Malaysia to go live in Australia. Some people asked me if I did it because I hated the government. I have to laugh in amusement at this assumption. I love Malaysia but my motivations to migrate were more personal and not that overarching. I just wanted to experience working life abroad after spending 15 years contributing to the local workforce, it was time to seek an adventure elsewhere.
Life as a new migrant is tough initially in terms of job hunting. After patiently scouting and waiting, I finally found myself a respectable job after 6 months since my move and continued my IT career in the banking sector. I started my service in the new office in late November 2015.
Four months later on one particular night in March 2016, Australian TV channel ABC aired a one-hour documentary called State of Fear – Money and Murder in Malaysia. My colleagues who watched the show and knew I was Malaysian asked me what was happening in my home country. Worse yet, they asked, “What’s wrong with your prime minister?”
Admittedly I was embarrassed to have to clarify what was going on (I didn’t even know the answers!), and I am sure many Malaysians living overseas have also had to face with a similar situation. It was not nice when your prime minister, a supposedly democratically elected leader, back home is linked to million-dollar money laundering activities and murder sprees! It was the stuff of Hollywood movies and crime thriller novels, but the scary thing was, it wasn’t.
“Go home and vote”
In November 2017, I met up with an old friend of my mother’s from secondary school, a lady named (Dato’) Ranita Hussein who came to Sydney for a holiday with her family. My mom and her had just reconnected after more than 50 years(!) of leaving school, all because Aunty Ranita happened to visit my niece Nasreen’s art exhibition. Later I learned that Aunty Ranita paints too in her retirement time and has an inspiring list of achievements to her name, including Commissioner in the Human Rights Commission Malaysia (Suhakam) and adviser to Bank Negara Malaysia.
Over dinner, Aunty Ranita and I talked about the upcoming PRU14 elections and we were trying to predict when it might possibly take place. “Probably before Ramadan,” says Aunty Ranita, “but it’s anyone’s guess at this point!” I nodded and slurped up my beef ramen noodle as we continued talking.
I asked her if she thought I should do postal voting or go home and vote. She then told me of her experience at the last PRU13 election when she was living in south France and went to vote at the Malaysian embassy in Paris. Much to her surprise, her envelope was empty and did not contain the ballot papers!
Aunty Ranita was obviously frustrated at this predicament but could only file a complaint with the Election Commission officers on duty who were indifferent to her request for a new ballot paper – they didn’t have extras to spare! That’s when she reiterated to me, that if I could go home to vote, I should, because the overseas/postal voting system has proven to be inconsistent and unreliable.
And with that story embedded in my head, I was more determined than ever to return home to vote, postal vote be damned.
Postal vote blues
When the Election Commission (EC) started to announce the postal vote registration for overseas Malaysians in early 2018, I ignored it even when I received the link in Whatsapp by contacts reminding me to register. There were many questions in my mind about voting overseas, and I wasn’t sure how it all worked.
Previously overseas Malaysians had to register and physically go to the nearest embassy to vote, but now it seemed that the ballot paper is sent directly to your home address. Somehow I distrusted this method even more, what if the ballot papers got lost on its way to my home?
The caveat to postal voting was, if you were registered to vote overseas but then suddenly find yourself back in Malaysia and elections happened to be taking place while you were there, you could not physically vote in Malaysia as you’ve already registered the vote overseas!
It would not be funny at all if I was in that situation, so this was another reason why I didn’t bother with the postal vote. What if the government decided to run elections while I was in Malaysia for Hari Raya and my voting paper was back in Australia?
The Malaysian Parliament was eventually dissolved on 6 April 2018 and there was still no word on when election day was. As soon as the government in-waiting announced PRU14 was to be held on 9 May, I immediately spoke to my boss about arranging for a flexible work agreement to allow me to head back to Malaysia without digging into my saved Hari Raya leave plans. After a discussion, I was given this flexibility and I counted my blessings. I quickly logged online and booked my airline ticket.
Meanwhile, some friends overseas started receiving their ballot papers. A close friend here in Sydney had received hers in early May and managed to quickly get it witnessed by another fellow Malaysian and sent it off back to her Returning Officer and constituency in Bentong. Others, however, were not so lucky.
As the election date drew nearer, it became clear that many Malaysians who registered to postal vote were not going to get their papers on time. People started venting in social media of their frustrations with the EC’s incompetence to deliver the letters promptly and properly.
For instance, one friend had relatives in the UK who received their ballot papers, only to find that the return envelope did not have the Returning Officer’s address printed on it. And there were no instructions on where to send the vote back to!
Another friend, also in the UK, received her voting paper on election day itself and by then it was useless. She claims she will frame it as a reminder of Najib Razak’s regime. When she challenged SPR (Election Commission), they told her they had mailed the letter out on 30 April. When she checked the postmark on the letter however, Pos Malaysia only sent it out on 5 May. This begs the question: why was Pos Malaysia hanging on to the letter for 5 days after EC mailed it?
Hence, many overseas Malaysians were robbed of their rights to vote in PRU14. In hindsight, Malaysians became innovative and helped each other out in ways never seen before. People who did get their postal votes before 8 May and had friends or knew of people returning home to Malaysia gave their ballots to these folks (sometimes complete strangers) to carry and hand deliver them because courier services were not quick enough to meet the submission deadline.
I did not carry anyone’s vote with me as my small circle of friends either were not interested to vote or had already mailed in their ballots, and by the time I read the Bersih post of plea on Facebook to coordinate potential hand mailers from Sydney, time was short and I was already getting ready to make my way home.
My first political rally
After being able to only watch live ceramah (rally) video streamings online from afar, I decided to take the opportunity to attend my first Pakatan Harapan ceramah in Segambut at Padang Jambu Golok on the eve of PRU14 on 8 May with my best friend Hana and her family.
Among the lineup of speakers included Member of Parliament candidate for Segambut Hannah Yeoh, Rafizi Ramli – former Member of Parliament for Pandan and the brains behind think tank Invoke, Wong Chen – former Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, (whom I had seen speak in Sydney) and many more.
By the time we arrived (which was after 8:30pm), Rafizi had already spoken so we missed him and another gentleman was already speaking on stage. I was really there to see Hannah Yeoh as I’m currently reading her autobiography book, “Becoming Hannah Yeoh”. I found her particularly inspiring and relatable as she and I were born in the same month and year, so I definitely associated her with being the true voice of my generation. Hannah was the Selangor state assembly person for Subang Jaya at age 29 – now she was running for MP of Segambut at age 39.
The grassy field that we stood on was muddy and wet from the rains of previous days, but that didn’t dampen our spirits (just our toes). Two PH volunteers came around with a huge plastic box for donations to help the coalition with their campaigns and we dropped a few notes.
As Hannah gave her rousing speech, we paused halfway as the time was already 10 pm and Tun Mahathir was scheduled to give a final address via Youtube Live to all Malaysians. The ceramah organisers had already setup big screens so that we could all watch together.
After Tun Mahathir’s broadcast was done, and Hannah Yeoh finished her speech, she brought out all of her volunteers on stage to introduce them to the crowd. One particular boy who helps her hails from Seremban and is only 18 years old. He decided to help Hannah’s campaign after losing his mother and makes the daily commute from Seremban to KL every day, which is true dedication.
As usual, Hannah always closes off her ceramah with a sing-along to “Sejahtera Malaysia.” As some of the crowd dissipated to leave, we decided to go meet and greet Hannah. My best friend Hana’s mother, who used to be a school teacher, managed to bulldoze her way through the many people surrounding Hannah Yeoh, hugged and smothered her affectionately. I could only watch her in amazement. I wasn’t sure if Aunty actually knew Hannah personally, but she knew some of Hannah’s volunteers who used to be her students.
I finally got to shake Hannah’s hand, wished her good luck and told her I was reading her book and that I came back to Malaysia to vote, to which she said “Very good! Thank you!” (or at least that’s what I think she said, over the loud noise of the crowd).
We didn’t want to take much more time from Hannah as she had other people to speak to, so we stayed back for some group pictures on stage. We left the venue soon after so that we could get home quickly and rest before the big day.
The morning of 9 May started fine and bright with no rain in sight. I went to vote in Kampung Tunku constituency with my brother and sister at Taman Sea Secondary School. My parents had already zoomed off for Kedah the day before where they were voting in Kubang Pasu and Alor Star. I also had another sister and a niece who were going to vote in Ampang area. I was very proud of my niece because she is the youngest voter in our family at age 23!
My siblings and I left home around 8 am and walked for 10 minutes before we reached the secondary school. There were many people of course, and since we were due to queue up according to different saluran (channel), we split up.
My saluran was on the third floor of a school building while most of the elderly voters cast their votes on the ground floor. As I tried to find the end of the line that was snaking along classroom corridors, I heard someone call out my full name. I was a bit startled because it’s been a while since anyone’s called me out so formally. It turned out to be an ex-schoolmate who I used to take the bus with. Voting days are often occasions of unexpected reunions for many people who grew up in the same area. I gave my former classmate a smile, said hello and firmly shook her hand.
I then went to the end of the line for Saluran 6 and waited for my turn to vote, which took a good one hour and a half. As I got nearer to enter the classroom entrance, I felt anxious and nervous. This vote was going to mean a lot more than on any other day and I wanted to make sure I didn’t spoil my vote and crossed the right boxes on the papers.
When the policeman at the door motioned for me to go in, I entered and gave my identification card to the first SPR officer at the table who read my name out loud. Then I went to the next officer who checked my hands for any marks before dipping my left forefinger into a bottle of dark purple indelible ink.
I was so afraid that the ink would not dry in time so I blotted my finger with a tissue paper before I carefully took my ballot papers from the third and last officer who had folded it in advance for me.
I walked over to the voting booth to make my mark. Took a quick glance at the names of the federal and state candidates of my choice. Then zeroed in on the correct party logo and made sure I used the pen given to make my ‘X’ as neatly as I could in the box so as to not spoil the votes.
I then dropped the ballot papers into the two transparent plastic boxes located in the middle of the classroom. My duty was done!
Now we pray and wait.
Waiting for results
After I voted, I met up with my sister on the school’s ground level – she was done 30 minutes earlier than me (less people in her saluran!), so we waited together for our brother. My sister’s forefinger had turned dark purple while mine stayed pretty light. Later on the ink would set in and my finger also turned this disgusting purple hue too. But I was proud.
While waiting for our brother, I helped to take photos for a Chinese mother and her daughter, then an Indian lady with her mother and grandmother. Malaysians of all races were all present there on that day and I felt really good about that.
When my brother was done voting, we rejoined and finally left the school compound together to go have roti telur and maggi goreng for breakfast
Later that afternoon at around two o’clock, my parents had already arrived home in PJ after a speedy less than 5 hours drive back from Kedah! My sisters then came to my parents’ house in the evening and we all had a potluck. We wanted to eat and watch the polling results together on KiniTV.
When I suggested that we also turn on the TV to channel RTM or TV3, I got loud objections from my family members! I guess that’s what these mainstream TV channels have become, biased sources of truth that no one wanted to tune in.
As the voting numbers rolled in on screen on KiniTV, it looked as though Pakatan Harapan was leading. But then BN numbers took over and our hearts stopped, and for a while I remember it was stagnant at 60-something for both sides. PAS still had something like 0 seats for Parliament.
Apparently it was worse on the mainstream TV channels, the numbers were not as quickly updated as KiniTV! We knew something was up. We were reading up news online and soaking up social media posts like crazy. We even called an uncle at a newspaper to get more real-time updates. It was pure madness.
The night was well past midnight but results weren’t out yet and my eyelids were so heavy. I ended up taking a nap on the couch while my family continued to monitor the numbers.
By 2 or 3 o’clock we sort of knew for sure, Pakatan Harapan had won the elections by a simple majority, winning 112 seats out of the 222 that were contested. It was the news we had been waiting for: BN was not going to be the new government again!
The following day after everyone had caught up on sleep, my family and I went to the local mamak restaurant and together with other patrons, watched as our 7th prime minister Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad got sworn in for duty in front of the King. There were definitely loud cheers and clapping when it was done!
I respect everyone’s right to vote, no matter who they chose. Voting is a very personal matter but in PRU14, it became an open book and most people who saw reason wanted change.
PRU14 was a stressful yet exciting time in Malaysia. It was almost funny to see how friends and even spouses got into arguments defending their choice for political leadership. What were we really defending, politicians, parties or manifestos? I for sure voted a side that reflected my desire for a clean and corrupt-free government. New young passionate faces with fresh ideas in politics like Syed Saddiq also helped me to decide.
As an overseas Malaysian, I wanted to feel proud of the country again and not be seen as someone who hails from somewhere whose prime minister and family lived lavishly while the common folk suffered from the rising cost of living, caused by a taxation mechanism that is in place to service billion-dollar debts brought about by corruption and mismanagement of public funds.
I have been out of the country for a few years but I can see things have changed a lot. What I can buy with the ringgit is less today than when I was still working in Malaysia. I am told businesses are closing down because of poorly implemented GST. People are worried about the rising cost of living and the future of their children and even grandchildren had we stayed on course and not elect new leaders who could help us implement good governance, rule of law and ease the burdens that many people were already carrying.
Pakatan Harapan is now being led by a former prime minister that I grew up with in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Tun Mahathir bin Mohamad who is now aged 93 and is as sharp and witty as ever. He is now the oldest elected leader in the world. Tun Mahathir wants to fix the flawed foundations and practices that were established during his leadership which gave rise to the corruption and scandals committed by the very people at the top which have caused the nation much reputational damage. I think we should allow him to lead the country until such time he is able to pass on the reins to a suitable successor.
The father of ‘Reformasi’, Anwar Ibrahim, is now released from prison and has been pardoned by the King. As we speak, former PM Najib Razak and his family’s residences have been raided and evidence taken away for investigation in relation to 1MDB. There is just a whole lot going on that the nation needs to process, accept and wait patiently while justice does its job.
Lastly, I wish the Pakatan Harapan government well and hope that they can carry out their promises as listed in their Book of Hope manifesto towards a better Malaysia for everyone. I and many others will be watching from afar and will not be silent if we see something amiss.
And if ‘janji dicapati’ (promises are unmet), then we, the rakyat, will start the whole democratic process again with PRU15 in 2023. Hopefully, by this time, the electoral process would have improved by leaps and bounds, including postal voting!
This story was first published here on 19 May 2018.