2020-09-11 09:19:00  2340569

The pandemic and Sabah election


By Mohsin Abdullah

This Saturday will be the nomination day for Sabah state elections. And 13 days later, Sabahans will go to the polls to decide who will govern the state.

How would the voter turnout be? No crystal ball to gaze into the future but judging from the current political climate in Sabah and the mood of its people, I would say a good turnout can be expected.

But then what or how about Sabahans outside the state, especially those living in Peninsular Malaysia? Will they come home to vote?

A recent report by MalaysiaKini caught my attention.

Among others, the report quoted a 24-year-old Sabahan working as chef at a hotel in Selangor. The gentleman is determined to make the trip home to Keningau for the September 26 election despite the COVID-9 pandemic.

"Of course people are talking about COVID-19 now, but we need to know the rights of Sabah. We will not get what we want for Sabah if we do not vote.

"We should vote anyway," he was quoted saying by MalaysiaKini.

I'm sure many will share his view, his motivation if you like. But there are others who don't.

According to the MalaysiaKini report, some Sabahans "are disillusioned with politics while many more find the cost of flying back from Peninsular Malaysia to be prohibitive."

And worse, said the report, some are now jobless due to the pandemic and are struggling to get by as they seek new jobs in the peninsula.

If I may add (and I am stating the obvious here) that the pandemic is a big hindrance to traveling not only because of the cost.

As I write this, the health ministry has declared Lahad Datu in Sabah a red zone following a surge in COVID-19 cases. There are also recent cases in Tawau.

Another 24-year-old Sabahan interviewed by MalaysiaKini said she was reluctant to go home from Penang but said if postal voting is introduced, it would be helpful for Sabahans like her who reside outside the state, to cast their ballots.

In fact, NGO Global Bersih has urged the election commission to provide postal voting for outstation Sabah voters in the coming election. But the EC has said it is not planning to extend postal voting to outstation voters beyond the existing groups like military, police, media personnel and EC officers on duty.

In mid-August, a movement of concerned Malaysians calling itself "Malaysia First" called on the EC to introduce remote voting facilities in the peninsula as well as Sarawak and Singapore for the convenience of eligible voters.

The proposal calls for the setting up of polling centers in major cities in West Malaysia, Sarawak as well as the Malaysian high commission in Singapore.

According to Malaysia First spokesman former MP Tawfik Tun Dr Ismail, this proposal if implemented will not only protect the democratic rights of Sabahans to choose their government but also reduce their risk of being exposed to the COVID-19 virus and ensure they will not be financially burdened by traveling costs.

All they need to do is turn up at the polling centers nearest to their places of residence without having to go back all the way to Sabah.

Remote voting or distant voting as some call it, is "universally accepted practice in many democratic countries," said Tawfik.

I reached out to EC deputy chairman Dr Azmi Sharom for the EC's latest reaction on the proposal. And this was what he told me: "The EC has no plans for remote voting or postal voting for Sabahans outside Sabah. The postal voting system is not equipped for a sudden surge of numbers that an exercise like this can entail. Neither does the difficulty in logistics make remote voting a possibility."

Added to that, Azmi said, "This election is unexpected." Hence, the EC is already working all out to conduct election the conventional way as "it is felt that it is better to stick to the existing system rather than implementing a brand new system in a manner that does not guarantee vote safety and security."

Nevertheless, said Azmi, “The EC"understands the frustration of Sabahans but in this case it is opined that it is better to err on the side of caution rather than do things hurriedly which may very well cause more problems than it solves."

Therefore, based on that, Sabah voters living in the Peninsula or elsewhere will have to make the trip home if they want to make their decisions count, i.e. if they want to cast their ballots, despite the pandemic and traveling cost.

And together with fellow Sabahans in the state, they must adhere to all the SOPs and health safety measures when they are at the polls. That's the new norm. That's the reality.

(Mohsin Abdullah is a veteran journalist and now a freelancer who writes about this, that and everything else.)

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