In just over two-and-a-half years since Malaysia’s 2008 “political tsunami” loosened the Barisan Nasional’s stranglehold on political power in the country, Malaysia has had no fewer than 13 by-elections — an average of one every 10 weeks. Speculation is rife that a snap general election, not due till 2013, will be called together with the Sarawak state elections which must be held by the middle of next year. Politics and electioneering have dominated the news headlines as never before.

Yet of the 15 million potential electors in Malaysia, no more than 11 million are currently registered to vote. And a further 1 million Malaysians living overseas are unable to vote unless they belong to a limited number of categories of citizens linked in some way to the Malaysian government.

Malaysia’s Federal Constitution gives the right to vote to all Malaysian citizens of or above the age of 21 who are registered to vote, either as voters resident in a constituency or as “absent voters” registered in accordance with the applicable regulations (read here).

The regulations which have been drawn up by the Election Commission allow members of the armed forces, public servants and students in higher education, as well as the spouses of any of the above, to register as absent voters. Once registered as absent voters, they are automatically entitled to postal ballots; but for anyone else, there is no way to vote unless they can afford and find a flight to return to Malaysia to vote when an election is called.

Although in theory any university or college student of the required age can register to vote as an absent voter, Malaysian Embassies and High Commissions in practice regularly turn away any student who is not tied to a government scholarship. Roughly 20,000 Malaysians are engaged in postgraduate study outside Malaysia, and should in theory be old enough to qualify to vote.

But the vast majority of Malaysian citizens living overseas are neither government employees nor students, but rather ordinary people with ordinary jobs, retirees or the unemployed. Their estimated numbers vary between 700,000 and 1 million, but they are the very people whom the Malaysian government wants to attract back to Malaysia, and for that reason need to be encouraged to retain their Malaysian nationality despite leaving the country to pursue education, training and work experience and opportunities overseas.

Many Malaysians eventually take up the nationality of their adopted countries after many years of living abroad, and because Malaysia does not allow dual nationality, lose their Malaysian citizenship as a result. Yet it is ironic that those Malaysians permanently resident in the UK or New Zealand who choose to retain their Malaysian citizenship are able to vote in those countries’ elections, while being deprived of any right to impact the outcome of elections back home in Malaysia.

MyOverseasVote is a campaign group that was recently launched in London to seek to re-enfranchise all Malaysians living overseas, without discrimination on the grounds of occupation and employment. It aims firstly to force the Malaysian authorities to follow their own regulations and allow all qualified Malaysian students to register to vote as absent voters.

Secondly, it aims to challenge the regulations that discriminate against Malaysians living overseas on the basis of their occupation and employment. It is impossible to think of any rational grounds for discriminating between citizens who are government employees and students, on the one hand — and citizens who are private-sector workers, the retired and the unemployed, on the other — in the matter of something so fundamental as the right to vote.

MyOverseasVote plans to bring a legal action against the Election Commission in the Malaysian courts on the grounds that its discriminatory regulations violate the right to equality granted by Article 8 of the Federal Constitution. To that end, it aims to raise ┬г40,000 ($A 65,000) to cover the cost of taking the legal action all the way to the Federal Court (and to cover the risk of being penalised in costs by the courts should the action be unsuccessful). It is currently looking for volunteers, litigants and donations.

For more information, please visit the site.

*Andrew Yong is a lawyer recently returned to Malaysia after 15 years living in the UK, and is the international coordinator of the MyOverseasVote campaign