Strathclyde’s Malaysian Students Help Gather Overseas Votes for Election at Home

by Vincent Tan

Speaking to the Strathclyde Telegraph a few days after Malaysia has just concluded its 15th General Election on Nov 19, Strathclyde University Malaysian Society (SUMSOC) president Muhammad Qaedi Nasir and his committee members were still in a state of suspense.

Four days after votes had been cast and counted, who would form and lead the country’s next government was, then, still up in the air.

“We were refreshing Twitter and checking the news every morning when we wake up, but there was no government still,” Muhammad Qaedi laughed.

The next day, (Thursday, Nov 24) Anwar Ibrahim, the long-time leader of Malaysia’s opposition bloc was sworn in as the country’s 10th prime minister, at the head of Pakatan Harapan, or the “Alliance of Hope” coalition, which had won Malaysia’s 14th general election in 2018.

Mr Anwar greets supporters after being sworn-in as Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister (Photo: Anwar 

But this result was a distant thought in the SUMSOC committee’s minds in the run-up to Nov 19, where the focus was on getting ready to collect and move the postal votes of thousands of overseas-based Malaysians, including students, back to their home constituencies.

Muhammad Qaedi recounted how he, vice-president Nathan Ting and SUMSOC member Wan Nur Alya Fatima Wan Yazman had attended a briefing by the umbrella body for Malaysian student societies in the United Kingdom and Ireland (UKEC), and were told they had to get ready as it was estimated that the Malaysian parliament would be dissolved within the next two weeks.

“I recall us discussing on the way back to Glasgow, that once Parliament’s dissolution was announced, we should drop everything and focus on the elections.”

“But one day after returning from London, we got the news that it had been dissolved!” he laughed.

SUMSOC’s part in the elections included collaborating with other student societies in Scotland, such as their University of Glasgow counterparts to hold workshop sessions, provided by civil society organisation VoteMalaysia UK, for new voters on how postal voting would take place.

The 2022 election is the first time Malaysia’s electoral rolls would include over 5 million 18-year-old voters, swelling Malauysia’s total eligible voting population from 15 million to over 21 million.

Due to amendments to Malaysia’s voting laws under the Undi18 (“Vote18” in Malay), promulgated during the first Pakatan Harapan administration and gazetted in Dec 2021, this also included automatic voter registration.

Hiccups abounded, and both Muhammad Qaedi and Lai noted that many students were caught out by the unclear online registration process to becoming an overseas voter.

“You had to register, and many got caught out by the short deadlines. Some thought they had registered, only to find out they only registered for an Election Commission account and there was a second online application that they had missed,” said SUMSOC secretary Lissa Lai.

Another issue was the haphazard dispatch of postal votes; many Malaysians informed this writer that they still had not received their overseas ballots three days before Nov 19, meaning it was almost impossible for their ballot slips to reach home in time to be included in the vote-count.

Nevertheless, the Malaysian student societies did their best to try and collect as many overseas votes as possible to be sent home, even setting up a collection centre in StrathUnion on Nov 15 and 16.

There, volunteers also helped explain the process and served as witnesses for those casting their votes.

Wan Nur Alya, who was also the UKEC’s Scotland Regional Chairperson, explained that besides StrathUnion, vote-collection centres had also been set-up in the University of Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh and St. Andrews.

“We had the help of many SUMSOC volunteers, because we weren’t just collecting student ballot slips, but also Malaysians working in Glasgow, and even those who were here visiting friends and family, and casting their vote from overseas,” she said.

Some volunteers, including Ting, even served as runners to go around Glasgow collecting balloting slips from compatriots stuck at work.

Malaysian students pose for a group photo after attending the in-person postal voting workshop, organised by SUMSOC at The Venue in StrathUnion. (Photo: Courtesy of Strathclyde University Malaysian Students Society)

The spotty distribution of the ballot slips meant that even as late as 6.25pm on Nov 16, Malaysians were still rushing to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station to hand in their votes to Wan Nur Alya and her UKEC colleagues, before these were rushed down to London.

“I was afraid for my safety, travelling from Edinburgh to London, and more importantly the ballots in the luggage. There are a lot of farfetched scenarios I thought throughout, and even after handing the votes over, you still worry about their safety and eventual destinations,” Wan Nur Alya explained.

Similar processes were taking place in other parts of the world, such as the United States, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, wherever there was a Malaysian diaspora. From the UK itself, volunteers managed to bring back nearly 7,000 votes to Malaysia.

Overseas back to Kuala Lumpur, it was another Herculean task by various civil society organisations (CSOs) to sort the votes for different constituencies all across the country, and dispatch them in time before voting ended on the evening of Nov 19.

VoteMalaysia UKE and UKEC Representatives show their collected overseas voting slips in London before 
dispatching them back to Malaysia (Photo: Malaysian Students Global Alliance/Instagram)  

The results on Nov 19 first turned out a hung parliament, with Pakatan Harapan holding 82 seats out of 221, not enough to form a government on its own.

One reason for the massive effort has been the anger of many Malaysian voters at Malaysia’s political turmoil since 2018, which saw the race-based National Front coalition toppled and replaced by the Alliance of Hope.

However, political backroom dealing and party-hopping among MPs saw the National Front come back to power again in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

Since 2020, Malaysians have endured political turmoil, as the country went into multiple COVID-19 lockdowns which saw desperate citizens raising white flags to seek help as well as pandemic lockdowns and economic recession.

Volunteers sort the postal votes for dispatch to the different Malaysian states and parliamentary constituencies. 
(Screengrab from Undi18/Instagram)  

For the SUMSOC members interviewed, the overall feeling was that the exercise had been worth it (before Anwar’s announcement as PM).

Lissa Lai opined that the exercise had been worth it, although there was disappointment that the haphazard overseas voting process potentially contributed to the hung parliament election result”

“While there was a majority, due to the way the system is structured, I did feel discouraged; I understood how my parents felt having gone through previous governments.

“But I also saw a post on social media explaining that when the system was such, it was because it had failed us, but we had done our best. At the end of the day, it’s about holding leaders accountable, and being transparent,” she said.

For Ting, the feeling was that of a job well-done, and to take heart from the results, which saw over 73% registered voter turnout.

“Regardless of the results, we helped give Malaysians overseas a voice and I don’t think we should be discouraged.

“I talked to many people who were dissatisfied with the results, but the main thing is that we tried, and it does show that every vote counts,” he added.

That said, Muhammad Qaedi and the team said they should compile a guidebook for their committee successors.

“Elections are always going to take place, we should compile something to highlight all the issues we faced in this voting exercise, whoever comes after doesn’t face the same problems and mistakes we did,” he laughed.