Sarawak polls reveal inadequacies, risk creating marginalised, disenfranchised voters

Sarawak’s 12th state election is long overdue, having been held back by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But this crisis is far from over, with new variants, like the Omicron, emerging. If the polls were to be held right now, at the cusp of a new surge, the democratic process could be affected.

Not everyone is willing to risk their health and head to the polls.

Some do not trust that SOPs at polling stations would be adhered to. Others, working in West Malaysia, have commitments, while many may not find it cost-beneficial to return home just to cast their votes.

With stricter regulations and perhaps, costlier airfares, returning to their hometowns is not as easy as hopping onto a bus, or driving back home. The reasons would have to be compelling enough to make it worth their while.

Many Sarawakians working in West Malaysia find it challenging to travel back home, particularly during the pandemic.

Sarawakian Daniel Yakup, 29, has been working in Kuala Lumpur for more than a year as a marketer.

He will be one of the many who would not be returning home to cast his vote, due to financial, as well as time constraints.

“It’s a cost issue… not only from the standpoint of finances, but also in terms of my time – figuring out the remote working arrangements and making sure that I don’t bring Covid back home. The ‘payoff’ is just not worth the risk, or effort,” he told Twentytwo13.

“It shouldn’t be this ‘expensive’ for a citizen to exercise their rights.”

He said, perhaps the Election Commission (EC) should extend its absentee voting system to Sarawakians working abroad, either by way of mail-in votes, or distant voting, for those unable to return home.

“If there is anything that we have learnt in the past 20 months, it is to think on our feet, and adopt new ways to live our lives. It is unacceptable that we do not change and adapt to our current situation. The EC should look at options and not rely on the ‘old way’, and make voting difficult for the voters,” he said.

Another Sarawakian who wants to be known only as Yong, said he would not be casting his vote on Dec 18.

The 34-year-old, who is in the branding and communications field, has been working in Kuala Lumpur for the past two years.

“We have commitments here that make it difficult to fly back, just to vote,” he said.

He also agreed that the EC should look into absentee voting for those unable to return home.

“If the people’s vote is important enough, the system can, and should, be structured for the convenience of both the people, and the government. In the future, voting should be digitalised and properly audited, since the government is already focused and investing into the digitalisation of Sarawak,” he added.

Recently, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had urged the EC to address the issue of absentee voting for Sarawakians working elsewhere.

They estimated that there are some 250,000 Sarawakians in West Malaysia.

Seventeen Sarawak-based NGOs, including Bersih Sarawak, also sent a memorandum to the EC to provide the means for Sarawak voters outside the state to vote by post.

While some were unable to return home to vote, there were those in Sarawak, who said that they did not want to put themselves at risk by heading to the polling stations. This group comprised mainly of senior citizens.

And then there are those who are under quarantine, at home or hospitals. How would they cast their votes?

Would these groups then be forced to sit this one out? Are we to deny their rights to participate in the democratic process?

Clearly, a better system is needed, lest we create a large pocket of marginalised and disenfranchised voters, under the pall of a global pandemic.

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