First published on Channel NewsAsia on 17 April 2018, here.
Commentary: Travel inconveniences and work exigencies may discourage blue-collared Malaysians from returning home to vote
Train and bus tickets are in shortage, suggesting that many blue-collared Malaysians may not return to vote in Malaysia’s general election, says one observer.
KUALA LUMPUR: For the first time since the first parliamentary election in Malaya in 1959, Malaysia will hold its general election on a Wednesday, right smack in the middle of the week.
After many months of speculation, the Election Commission finally announced polling day will fall on May 9.
Previous elections have been held on weekdays, but these were on either Mondays or Tuesdays, or across a few days, but most have been on a weekend.
As many observers have pointed out, this creates unnecessary inconvenience for voters, schools (schools are not on holiday that week) and companies. Although the Malaysian government hastily declared it a public holiday after some public backlash, this still requires employees returning home to vote to take additional days of leave to travel long distances.
Malaysian civic action responded rapidly, with multiple platforms being set up to carpool and raise funds for those unable to afford the transportation fees to return.
Airlines such as Cathay Pacific, AirAsia, and Malindo also announced a waiver for flight charges or rebooking fees for Malaysians.
Several companies have committed to sponsoring their staff’s travel expenses, while one homestay in Johor is providing free accommodation for returning voters.
NOT ENOUGH TO ENSURE HIGH VOTER TURNOUT
These are commendable acts on the part of Malaysians to promote citizens’ duties to exercise their right to vote, but will this be enough to ensure a high voter turnout?
Voter turnout in the last three general elections was relatively high, with an 86 per cent turnout in 2013 (the highest ever recorded in a Malaysian general election), 76 per cent turnout in 2008 and 73.9 per cent in 2004.
However, the last time the election was held on a weekday, voter turnout was 69 per cent, in 1999. Even so, this was a Monday, and a Wednesday polling day would conceivably have a greater impact on lowering voter turnout even further, despite efforts to provide commute.
OVERSEAS MALAYSIANS IMPACTED
Companies and Malaysians working overseas will be forced to deal with disrupted work activities on at least two to three days of that week.
Those who cannot afford to give up either their Tuesdays or Wednesdays due to previous work arrangements that cannot be rescheduled, whether they be conferences or meetings will simply have a much lower incentive to travel back to vote.
This includes professionals, managers, executives, technicians and workers living in neighbouring countries, including Singapore where there are an estimated 400,000 or more Malaysian work permit holders, and Hong Kong.
While several Singaporean companies have granted leave to their Malaysian staff to vote, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi was reported to have said if employers from Singapore do not permit them leave, the best thing to do is not to come back to vote.
BLUE-COLLARED WORKERS IMPACTED
It is also unlikely that blue-collar factory workers in particular, including those working in menial labour would have the option of taking leave to travel home to vote.
The Election Offences Act 1954 requires every employer to give its staff a reasonable period to vote. Employers who do not allow their staff to vote on polling day may be subject to a fine or imprisonment.
However, while some companies have the luxury of closing shop for several days, construction projects are typically set on strict schedules. Factories, eateries, and other service providers also need to be operational despite Wednesday being a public holiday.
This may impact overseas blue-collared workers working in Singapore the most. A study by financial inclusion group Microfinance Gateway found that the majority of Malaysian work permit holders in Singapore work within the manufacturing and service sectors. The majority of the 400,000 Malaysians working in Singapore are in blue-collar jobs, whose salaries average around S$2,500 per month, according to Malaysian news reports.
These workers are unlikely to be connected to well-intentioned carpooling or funding initiatives active on social media platforms.
They might therefore simply choose not to have their wages reduced for the chance to vote, especially if they have to cough up their own money for the return journey or if taking additional days off would impact their jobs.
Even for Malaysians planning to return home to their hometowns to vote, they may not be able to given limited tickets.
The national train service announced last week that tickets for its Electric Train Service (ETS) from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh and other northern destinations have been sold out for both May 8 and 9. Express bus tickets from Kuala Lumpur to the north, Kelantan and Terengganu have also sold out, and it remains to be seen if bus companies will provide additional services. Traffic on the roads that week will be an additional hurdle for voters and transport providers alike.
TIME TO EXERCISE RIGHT TO VOTE
Voting every five years is a chief opportunity for Malaysians to meaningfully exercise their right to participate in the country’s democratic processes. It is therefore unfortunate that authorities called for polling day on a mid-week. It is even more unfortunate that a political analyst has predicted that a lower voter turnout of 70 per cent would restore a two-third majority to ruling incumbents Barisan Nasional, suggesting that the choice of voting day was motivated by a political agenda.
While it is positive that Malaysians have responded quickly and organically to encourage fellow citizens to return home to vote, unless citizens are truly individually motivated by the need for change, it is unlikely that this will significantly impact the likely lower voter turnout in the upcoming general election. But against the odds, matching the previous election turnout figures would surely reflect a keen and healthy desire of voters to express their democratic rights and have a say in the future of the nation.