As their plane took off from Sydney, a Malaysian woman in Melbourne was boarding a flight to KL with the votes of 137 others in her luggage, many of which were delivered to a central meeting point just hours ahead of her journey.
Steven Wong’s round trip to the Malaysian ballot box began at 8.45pm on Monday — eight hours after his voting papers finally arrived at his suburban Sydney home — when he boarded a flight for Kuala Lumpur carrying his sealed vote and that of 12 other Malaysian Australians. On board his flight was Jer Min Kok, another Malaysian Sydneysider who was returning to vote in today’s critical general elections carrying the postal votes of 30 others in his luggage. Aiport terminals across Australia over the past 48 hours, volunteer vote-runners from Malaysia’s 166,000-strong diaspora community have begun ferrying the votes of hundreds of overseas citizens whose ballot papers arrived only this week, too late for any courier to deliver on time for an election seen as one of the most critical in recent history.
Many represent the first leg of an extraordinary democratic relay race by volunteer couriers across two countries and dozens of cities and towns who are now meeting in departure and arrival terminals to ensure votes are cast across Malaysia. Delays in delivering the postal ballots, and the failure of many more to arrive at all, have sparked fury among Malaysian communities worldwide and seen similar last-minute courier efforts.
Malaysia has been governed by the same United Malays National Organisation political party that formed the country’s first government after independence in 1957. But the appetite for change after 61 years of unbroken and increasingly divisive rule — and a recent multibillion-dollar corruption scandal that has reverberated across the global financial system — has lent a sense of urgency to this poll both at home and abroad.
“This is so important because everyone hopes that we can finally change the government,” Mr Kok told The Australian yesterday as he delivered votes to postal ballot boxes across Kuala Lumpur.
Hundreds of others were being delivered to a central location in Kuala Lumpur where they were dispatched by bus last night with other volunteers to returning officers in provincial cities and towns across the country.
“Many feel that there have been a lot of dirty tricks this election, including with postal votes which we feel have been sabotaged so we could not deliver our votes on time.” The 39-year-old IT worker says he left Malaysia almost 20 years ago because he did not want to live under the repressive regime of Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s longest-serving premier.
“Now I am going back because of Mahathir,” he said.
At age 92, the former strongman is running against scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak for office after quitting UMNO in protest over the corruption scandals.
He is doing so under the opposition coalition banner of his former political nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, now serving the last days of a second jail term on dubious morality charges.
Their political reunion has galvanised support for the opposition, which won the popular vote in 2013 but lost the election because of electoral gerrymandering.
Steven Wong says he moved his family to Australia after the last election in 2013, dispirited by the divisive, racially tinged politics of the government, but the prospect of a possible opposition victory this time convinced him it was worth a 24-hour round trip to ensure his vote for change was counted.
Many fear a similar result to 2013 this election after parliament recently rubber-stamped a further realignment of electoral boundaries that critics say dramatically favours the government. In recent weeks, the Election Commission suspended Dr Mahathir’s opposition party, and banned his picture from being used on election material outside the Langkawi electorate he is contesting. Two days ago it announced it had “run out” of identity cards for polling agents and counting monitors.
The Global Bersih free and fair elections movement, which helped co-ordinate the diaspora vote through crowdsourcing on its social media platforms, has accused the Election Commission of sabotaging the overseas postal voting system and is now planning a class action against it.
“The election commission is not carrying out an election which is free and fair,” Global Bersih president Bala Chelliah said yesterday.
“Postal voting is one of many obstacles they have put in place. Eleven days from nomination to polling day is not enough time for postal ballots to be sent out and returned.”