The price of democracy

The difficulty Sabahans are facing in casting their votes is a scenario screaming for remedial action.

ONE of five Sabahan voters is based outside the state.

According to Senator Datuk Donald Peter Mojuntin, an estimated 18% or more than 200,000 of them don't live in Sabah.

Last Sunday, I posted the question "Any Sabahans living in KL who want to vote in the Sabah polls but can't because of the Covid-19 pandemic or expensive flight tickets, or other reasons?" on a Sabahans KL Facebook page.

The response was overwhelming. There were many like me.

From the feedback, the two barriers Sabahans cited were Covid-19 and/ or expensive airfares.

Grace Kabinchong is angry and disappointed that she can't return to vote in the Inanam seat near Kota Kinabalu.

"Not because of the flight ticket but more (because) of the pandemic. With the new strain in Malaysia, the risk is higher, not just to me but everyone else.

“All Sabahan voters want their vote to count," said the 41-year-old head of supply in a machinery and automation company in Kuala Lumpur.

Bernardine Decena is determined to vote in Likas, adjacent to Kota Kinabalu, but she can't return because of Covid-19. The 48-year-old homemaker, now living in Kelana Jaya, Selangor, lamented the fact that she feels frustrated because she can't contribute to the betterment of our home state.

Shelly Gapil, a 38-year-old undertaking a PhD in chemistry at Universiti Malaya, is bummed out by the pricey airfare because it would surely discourage many Sabahans in Peninsular Malaysia from heading home to vote.

"If there is a sudden demand for a flight to go home, the airline ticket (fare) will surely be increased – unless the air tickets are subsidised for those returning to vote," said Gapil, who will return to vote because it's "our responsibility."

Those from Peninsular Malaysia living in Kuala Lumpur may take travelling back home – to the north, east coast or south – for granted. But not most Sabahans because it's prohibitively expensive for us.

Take me, for example. For my family of four, it would cost us RM500 x four = RM2,000 for return tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu (KK).

Last year, I had a family emergency which required us to return to KK frequently. The three trips cost nearly RM6,000.

For some Sabahans, the two-and-a-half-hour journey from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Kota Kinabalu International Airport doesn't end there. They must also endure the same amount of time to travel from the airport to their home.

Take Gloria Munting, for example. The 44-year-old KL-based teacher is acutely aware of her likely arduous journey to cast her vote in Bingkor, a state seat in the Keningau parliamentary constituency.

"Being able to go home to vote is very meaningful for me because as a citizen of Sabah, voting indicates that I care, and I want change. But my location away from the polling station is the biggest challenge. It involves cost and time," she said.

If Munting's flight arrives in Kota Kinabalu late at night, she has to stay in a RM150-a-night hotel room because there's no public transport to Keningau after 5pm, which adds to her outlay.

It would cost her between RM120 and RM140 to charter a taxi from Sabah's capital for the slightly over two-hour journey to Keningau town in Sabah's interior. Then RM10 for a ride from the town to Kampung Bingkor.

And all that's just for one way. It doubles when she reverses her journey back to Kuala Lumpur.

"Isn't your vote worth the Covid-19 risk going back home?" I asked Felicita Kahin-Gobilee, a 45-year-old Gum Gum voter working in a telecommunication company in Kuala Lumpur.

"I feel every vote is important, and it's a waste if I don't exercise my duty as a citizen. I really want to vote, but this pandemic really worries me," said Kahin-Gobilee, who's from Sandakan.

"Isn't your vote worth more than the expensive flight ticket?" I asked Erwan Wan, a 32-year-old Tamparuli voter.

"Yes. But now I don't have enough money to go back. I work without a basic salary, only depending on commissions," he said.

The Covid-19 economic hardship has hit Sabahans making a living in Kuala Lumpur.

Ivy Lojitan, who has been helping struggling Sabahans during the movement control order (MCO) period, says that many people, especially youths, are barely surviving.

"Many of them lost their jobs due to being laid off or because the company closed down. Some have opted to go back home but there are those who are still searching for employment here.

“Some do odd jobs, just to survive. That's the difference between GE14 (the 14th General Election in May 2018) and now," said the 55-year-old who votes in Moyog in the Penampang parliamentary seat.

Mojuntin, the Upko deputy president, urged the Election Commission (EC) to consider setting up voting centres for Sabahans living in Peninsulas Malaysia, Sarawak and Singapore during the Sabah elections slated for Sept 26.

He said the practice had been adopted globally, given the Covid-19 outbreak, with many countries stringent in their measures to mitigate transmission risks.

Malaysia First (a group comprising patriotic Malaysians from all political beliefs) and Sabah Bersih 2.0 have also taken a similar stand.

"(We) urge the EC to ensure safe and fair elections by implementing remote voting facilities so that Sabah voters reduce the risk of exposure to the virus during the Covid-19 pandemic and not be financially burdened by the cost of travelling to distant polling centres from the peninsula, Sarawak and Singapore," said Mohamed Tawfik Ismail on behalf of Malaysia First members.

Most of those I communicated with through the Sabahans in Kuala Lumpur Facebook page support the proposal. They don't want to lose their vote just because of Covid-19 and expensive flight tickets.

The EC should be flexible so that Sabahans can exercise their right to vote. After all, the route to democracy should always prevail.

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