The assembling together of individuals from different backgrounds of class, religion and language, united towards a common goal, one that would (be perceived to be) make a difference to not only those gathering together but their kith and kin continents apart. This happened not in one location, but in multiple cities across the world, almost simultaneously over the space of 2 days, coordinated by people who, until then, had not met each other, and who might never cross paths again. Is this a movie worth making? At the very least, a doco might be in order!
I would never call myself a patriot. Politics never figured strongly into my motivations for deciding where my path would lead in life. Though I’m Malaysian and catch up with the news back home from time to time, I would be hard pressed to name 5 key members of the ruling party let alone the opposition. I’ve never voted, though I’m a registered voter. Global BERSIH, a clean election leading to a clean(er) government and a chance for corruption to be marginalised and fair play + equal opportunities to have their day in the sun are concepts that are vague and idealistic – something that I’d lend my verbal support to, but have little inkling of the depths, backstory and the sacrifice it takes to make it all happen.
This year I decided to register a postal vote for the first time. At the time I felt it would be a relatively easy way to support my intentions with an action rather than words alone (not that I had many words to say on the subject before in any case) but mainly because I felt the process would not be unduly taxing on my behalf. Not without warning, news began spreading that votes might not arrive on time for us abroad to sign and post back to our respective polling stations in Malaysia on the 9th of May. I began seeing texts and Facebook posts of election news and for the first time, took an interest in seeing what was up. The manifestos made for interesting reading, mainly because I could only find one side’s document easily available online!
My postal ballot arrived on the morning of the 7th of May. A courier service would by that point only arrive in Malaysia on the 10th of May, the day after voting. I spent an hour ensuring the form was filled in correctly and the next hour figuring out how my postal vote would arrive back home in time.
Unbeknownst to me, fellow Malaysians around the world were going through the same dilemma and with no help or support from the Electoral Committee back home, took matters into their own hands. Facebook and other forms of social media were used to not just complain about the situation, but purposefully for asking for help. Six degrees of separation ceased to exist as requests were answered by people who knew people who were heading home in person to vote and who would be willing to carry others’ votes home. As the number of requests mounted, meetups were organised by individuals (who largely, up till that point had not met each other, and who were likely themselves working that day) across social media. These meetups would occur at airports, libraries, common areas, all for the purpose of collecting votes and distributing them amongst those flying back on the day. The term ‘runner’ was coined. Spilling over to the 8th, those who still received votes on the day found themselves looking through Google doc spreadsheets, organised by state, country and dropoff locations, for runners that would help carry votes home. Further pickups were being coordinated at flight transit points along international routes where runners would pick up votes from multiple countries before landing in Malaysia. And upon landing, votes would then be picked up by yet another chain of volunteers, to be conveyed to the individual polling stations.
As if this was not enough, courier services like DHL found themselves inundated with calls from Malaysians checking the status of their postal ballots and their expected delivery date. And airline pilots who are travelling back home have volunteered to carry votes on others’ behalf.
Why did all this have to happen? Without speculating on the intentions of the Electoral Committee and the current ruling party, the votes could have easily been sent a few weeks ago to allow for the delay in postage and the return post home. The process of form-filling could have been explained in detail via social media videos to aid those abroad in filling up their votes correctly. And courier services could have been set up to streamline the return process and ease the increased demand on postal services. The voting day could have been moved to a more convenient time to allow more Malaysians to return home to vote. The fact that none of this occurred is at the very least, a grave oversight in the process management of a national election (and an international embarrassment) and at worst, a not so subtle disregard of the rights of Malaysians worldwide (there is of course, an even worse implication which, although left unsaid, is on everyone’s mind at present).
My own vote’s journey was as follows. Upon filling my form out, I was told to contact a person based in a nearby suburb for help in getting the ballot to the airport. This gentleman (who was at work when I called him) then directed me to his wife who was at home with their baby at the time. I pulled up outside a lovely brick house with instructions to ‘knock softly as the baby might be asleep’. With some nervousness I did so, and was greeted by a young woman in a bright yellow Global BERSIH T-shirt who kept apologising throughout the conversation for how messy the home was (it was NOT). I blurted out my thanks and at how impressed and amazed I was that Malaysians were coming out to help each other, and how most people who met today might never meet again. This ballot, along with several others delivered to this house during the day, would be collected by her husband that evening and delivered to the airport to a runner who would fly back to Penang that night (7th of May). Upon arrival, a friend’s sister had volunteered to pick up the votes destined for the polling station in my municipality of Beruas in Perak. A relatively painless process on my part, but how much of this could have been avoided with proper planning?
Much can be made of this being a flash-in-the-pan moment, never to be repeated, and potentially of little actual value in the process. But what actually transpired (and continues to happen as I type) was birthed out of a desire to see fair play and the odds evened out. And so the ‘little people’ came out of their offices, schools, hospitals, rural bedrooms and city apartments and united without fuss or making a scene, utilising the tools that made the Instagram millenials famous to coordinate an intercontinental transport system that should have existed but didn’t.
I would still not call myself a nationalist, nor would I claim to take more than a passing interest in national Malaysian politics, but this (what should have been simple) act of filling in and sending a postal vote in time for the national elections has brought home to me the need for change back home. And while change is dreaded for its’ uncertainty of outcome, and the painful breaking apart of current molds to make way for new ones; if those who are involved in this change have lived through the past decade in Malaysia, one hopes that no matter their religious or political inclinations, that they share a united desire for a Malaysia free of injustice at every level.
I was describing the days’ proceedings above to my Mauritian housemate, who replied that while he could identify with the current sentiment in Malaysia, that the general feeling in Mauritius is that of resignation that the status quo would not change and that nothing can be done about it. This, view, no doubt shared by others around the world in every situation where the odds against the perceived overarching threat are too small, is one which I hope will never come near my home.