As Malaysia heads to the polls today (May 9 local time), some voters will have beaten long odds to cast their ballots. Malaysians around the world have used social media in recent days to spontaneously form volunteer networks to generate funds, transport postal ballots, pool car rides, and otherwise go to extraordinary lengths to cast their votes. The efforts are largely in response to frustrations with the way a watershed election is being conducted.
For four Malaysians living in Texas who only knew each other from Facebook, that meant scrambling to Houston’s international airport the minute they received their postal ballots—which were delivered late—in the hope of convincing a passenger headed for Malaysia to carry the papers home. Armed with a Malaysian flag, the group lurked near the check-in desk for Eva Air, which was carrying the day’s last flight bound for Kuala Lumpur. “People were avoiding eye contact with us,” laughs Kristina Mariswamy, a marketing manager at a non-profit called HealthCorps, and one of the four Malaysians trying to send their ballots home. “The airport is the one place people tell you not to take anything from strangers!”
With minutes to go before the check-in counter closed, the quartet had nearly given up hope. Then the flight crew walked in. Eva Liew, a stay-at-home mother who arrived in Houston six weeks ago, spotted a man in a pilot’s uniform who looked like a possible countryman. The group had been listening for Malaysian accents and watching for the Malaysian passport’s crimson covers. “I asked if he was going to KL,” Liew recalls. “When he said ‘yes,’ we were practically screaming and pushing our ballots at him.”
The Houston quartet’s ballots will arrive in the capital with just hours to spare before polls close. But that’s not the end of the trip. Mariswamy’s papers, for example, must then be collected by a volunteer who will (hopefully) deliver them to the northern state of Penang, where her constituency is located. When she spoke with Quartz, Mariswamy was digging for leads to find such a volunteer in the thicket of informal groups that have sprung up online to address these electoral challenges.
Mariswamy could have posted her request on a public Facebook group run by Alex Yap, a Malaysian e-commerce executive who lives in Hong Kong. Yap started the group just over a week ago, on April 29, and it has already attracted nearly 3,000 members, mostly overseas voters who need to get their postal ballots back to Malaysia. The group also provides a pool of Malaysian citizens ready to act as witnesses; the election commission decided this year that postal ballots are only valid if an adult Malaysian witnesses the postal voter signing his or her ballot, and then signs a separate form.
Yap says postal ballots were sent out so late this year that, in Hong Kong, some Malaysians have been going straight to courier-company warehouses in order to fill out the ballots the moment they arrive and mail them back immediately. The DHL service center in Kowloon was”like a mini overseas polling station” at times because of all the Malaysians filling in ballots there to post back, he says.
Through Twitter hashtags and Facebook pages, Malaysians coalesced to crowd-fund election travel, so voters could cast their ballots in person; offer rides on carpooling platforms to reduce the cost of getting to a polling station; and volunteer to find Malaysians to act as witnesses and to hand-deliver completed postal ballots. One platform that arose from this effort, PulangMengundi.com (which means “go home and vote”) says (as of writing) it raised RM72,000 ($18,000) to pay for the travel of 2,600 voters, and matched 4,000 people to carpool rides since it launched just over three weeks ago on April 13.
The Malaysian efforts seem like a showcase for social media’s capacity to do good—a rare moment in the sun for the likes of Facebook and Twitter, who are embroiled in election scandals in the US and UK involving lax controls over their user data. “With social media there is a chance for true democracy,” Liew, of Houston, says. But the medium’s dark side is never too far away. An army of Twitter bots suspected to be linked to the ruling party has recently flooded the #PulangMengundi hashtag, HuffPost has reported.
One of PulangMengundi.com’s founders, technology consultant Sue Ling Gan, says she was spurred into action after the election commission announced that polling would take place on a Wednesday, potentially depressing voter turnout. ”It felt like access to vote for Malaysians was limited. We felt we had to do something to help,” she says.
The weekday elections could reduce turnout by up to 10%, opposition lawmaker and economist Ong Kian Ming has said. And a new system for overseas voters has resulted in frustration, late ballot papers, and miscommunication, Malaysians abroad have complained. The election watchdog Bersih estimates that there are 2.7 million Malaysians residing overseas, the majority of whom are registered voters. It has called the election commission’s handling of postal votes a “sabotage” of the electoral system. The election commission’s chairman has claimed there were no technical problems with the way postal votes were sent out.
Gan and her partner, Wong You Jing, wanted to develop a crowdfunding site to help some of these voters ensure their ballots were cast, but when they tried to buy the domain PulangMengundi.com, they discovered it had already been snapped up by Timothy Teoh, a programmer. “We offered to buy it off him,” she said. Instead, Teoh, Gan, Wong, and others collaborated to build a crowdfunding system and Teoh’s idea for a carpooling platform together.
The stakes in tomorrow’s general election, Malaysia’s 14th, couldn’t be higher. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition could lose power for the first time since the country gained independence from the British in 1957. The incumbent prime minister Najib Razak is shrouded in allegations of massive corruption linked to the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB. Challenging him is former PM Mahathir Mohamed, a strongman who jailed political opponents without trial over a 22-year tenure, now playing the previously unthinkable role of democratic reformer.
For Mariswamy, who still doesn’t know if her vote will be cast in time, just getting her ballot on Malaysian soil is enough. “It’s more about making a point,” she says. “No matter how complicated and hard they made it for us, and all the inefficiencies, I wanted to prove a point that we won’t just quit. We will try our hardest until the last minute to try to get our vote in. You cannot try to play around with us.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article named a co-founder of PulangMengundi.com as Timothy Tiah and the year the country gained independence as 1963. In fact, his name is Timothy Teoh and independence was gained in 1957.