By Keith Leong. A version of this article was published in The Sun 6 January 2012

Whenever people talk about electoral reform and student involvement in politics, I always recall this particular incident from my university days.

It was March 2003 and I was in my first year at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. My residential hall, Goldstein College was having a training day for its House Committee at a hotel near the famous Bondi Beach.

I wasn’t on the House Committee then, but I was invited to attend and decided to tag along. I woke up early one Saturday and headed up High Street with some Australian friends of mine to Randwick, where we would catch the bus to Bondi.

As we were walking up High Street however someone remembered that it was Election Day in New South Wales, so we made quick detour to the nearby Presbyterian Church in Allison Road, which was the polling station. My Australian friends all went in to vote while I waited outside.

I was only twenty years old and not eligible to even register to vote back home in Malaysia. Some canvassers for the political parties approached me while I waited, and I had to very shyly tell them I was not Australian.

UNSW is part of the Maroubra legislative assembly constituency. At the time, its incumbent was Bob Carr, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) premier of New South Wales. Maroubra was hence pretty much an ALP safe seat and not much campaigning was going on there.

Anyway, my friends eventually returned and we went to Bondi. On the bus, I kept asking them questions about what they had just done. They seemed surprised that I was so interested in the very act of voting.

It turned out that none of them were Maroubra voters, but rather were from rural seats all over NSW. They had registered as outstation voters beforehand and hence their ballots were waiting for them at the church.

One of them told me that Australians can even register to vote early if they have to go overseas before polling day! Another point that’s worth making: voting is compulsory in Australia and you get fined if you don’t.

But they move heaven and earth to make sure you do: I was at the Perth Airport a few years later and noticed that there were ballot boxes in a corner. They had set up a polling station there so that people could vote on a state-wide referendum.

What was it over? Whether or not Western Australia should adopt daylight savings.

Flash backwards to 2003 and I was struck by how nonchalant my Australian friends (most of whom were my age or younger than me) were about elections, although they were very conscientious about discharging their obligations indeed. I felt a secret joy at seeing democracy in action, but also a deep pain that at that time I could not yet vote “back home”.

Indeed, I missed being eligible for the 2004 General Elections by a few months, and wouldn’t have been able to vote anyway because I was still in Sydney then. But on March the 8th 2008, I voted for the first time in my young life.

These experiences made me realize how important voting is. It has also made me aware that there are deep deficiencies in our electoral system and how much reform is needed in this regard.

It’s true that there have been many promising changes but there are still great flaws that need to be rectified.

We have been told that there are some 4.384 million Malaysians who are eligible to vote but who are not registered. It could very well be that they are too lazy or apathetic to do so—it could also be that they are unaware of their rights or how to go about registering. Have we really done our best to enfranchise them?

The right of our fellow citizens who are overseas to vote is still elusive although the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) has backed this. We must ask what is stopping us in this regard when many countries that are not only larger but far less prosperous and developed than Malaysia have been doing so for decades.

Furthermore, the right to vote and take part in politics is still being denied to a great many of our young people. Indeed, recent events seem to suggest that those among them who would seek these rights can only expect to be treated like criminals or worse than the authorities.

Let me explain what the point of all this is as simply as possible: yes, it is the duty of citizens to get out and vote, but it is also equally the responsibility of their governments to make sure that as many of them are able and willing to vote as possible, rather than attempt to limit the franchise. Any state that does so puts its legitimacy and functionality at grave risk.

Malaysians must therefore continue to champion the cause of electoral reform from this New Year. And when the next election comes, we need to make sure we turn out and vote.

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Keith Leong is a fellow at IDEAS

Image Credit: Delirium

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