KOTA KINABALU, Aug 21 — Kuala Lumpur-based web designer Deiseree Daniel has been flying home to Inanam in Sabah regularly just to cast her ballot, even though the tickets can get very expensive.

The mother of two considers herself a proud Sabahan and has been keenly following the colourful politics unrolling here even after leaving her home state some 10 years ago.

She was proud to have done her duty in both GE13 and GE14, which also doubled as the state polls. But come this September 26, Deisiree will not be doing so.

“I have no plans to return this time. I’ve now got kids with me, and my parents in KK are old, so travelling during the pandemic is just too risky,” she told Malay Mail when contacted recently.

Deiseree is among some 250,000 Sabahans estimated to be living in peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and abroad who will not be able to vote in the statewide polls called less than two years after GE14, after the Election Commission (EC) decided to do away with postal voting.

The EC said there are some 1.125 million registered Sabahan voters who will be eligible to vote on September 26; meaning absentee voters account for roughly 22 per cent of the electoral roll. However, the EC is still aiming for a 70 per cent voter turnout.

“I’ve always voted every time since I left home. I would be at home now if it weren’t for the pandemic. It is so disappointing that I won’t be able to vote again this time.

“It’s especially painful for me because I vote in Inanam,” Deiseree said, pointing out that the election was triggered due to the defection of some 13 assemblymen, including the Inanam representative Kenny Chua.

For Deiseree, putting her kids’ and parents’ lives at risk is simply not worth it.

For many other Sabahans, the main reason is that the cost of flying home this time is too prohibitive.

“Prices for flights are no less than RM600, we checked. For two of us, husband and wife, that’s RM1,200, and that’s if we leave the kids at home,” said Herwana Ismail, who is from the northern district of Pitas, about three hours’ drive from the state capital.

To return home, Sabahans would have to travel by land and air, very possibly in crowded places, putting them at risk of infection or subject to quarantine. 

During a time when many are reeling from the economic slump brought on by the pandemic, this was not a journey they could risk.

“We really consider it our duty as citizens to vote, but the cost is just too much,” Herwana who is married to a civil servant, also a Sabahan, told Malay Mail.

“I will have to get someone to look after the children, and then I worry that I might contract the virus during my travels. As much as I will be disappointed about missing the state polls, this is the best decision for my family,” said the mother of three.

“It is frustrating to not be able to vote. If we had a sponsor that’ll fly us home, I’d not hesitate at all,” said Karen Willie, who also votes in the constituency of Inanam.

For many others who are willing to brave the risk of Covid-19, the cost also comes coupled with other reservations as well.

“Yes, the will to return to fulfil my patriotic duty is as high as Mount Kinabalu, but the cost is even higher than that mountain, in addition to the pandemic.

“I’m not saying that having an election now is a bad decision — I can see how the state government may have been forced to make a tough decision because some parties were impatient in their efforts to topple the government,” said Chrispin Michael.

“But I don’t think Sabahans should have to risk their lives for politicians who frankly, will not hesitate to put themselves first when it comes down to it. They have to learn not to put their own personal profit first,” he said.

Many others like Chrispin are lamenting the actions of politicians who defected, earning themselves a “frog” title, and ultimately the reason behind the snap polls.

Isnadi Nadi said that it would be a waste of money and effort if they returned home to vote, only to have the politicians jump again at the end of the day.

“Whoever wins, they can jump anytime anyway. They just jump without putting thought into their voters. We know many politicians like this, who only have their own agenda,” she said.

The absence of these voters may likely affect the incumbent Warisan Plus state government, which is banking on voters’ sympathy and anger towards the defections.

Those who can afford to return are almost certainly going to be voting for the incumbent government, who had even before GE14 shown their displeasure with the Barisan Nasional government and Umno. Like Aaron Chen, an officer with a marketing firm in Kuala Lumpur.

“I booked my flights on the day they announced the dates. Will definitely want to vote. I feel I’m one of the lucky ones who can afford to, and I want to send a message to the politicians that we Sabahans are not stupid and not to be taken for granted,” Chen told Malay Mail.

The September 26 election was called following the dissolution of the Sabah legislature on July 30 and a move to prevent the collapse of the Warisan-led state government through the defections of 13 assemblymen who switched allegiances from Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal to Umno leader Tan Sri Musa Aman.

While not a component party, the Sabah-based Warisan party, under the leadership of its president Shafie, had been working in partnership with the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition since prior to Election 2018, which catapulted them into power at both the state and federal level, until earlier this year.

Shafie and Musa has had a long rivalry which came to head last GE14 when Musa and Shafie’s political parties had 29 seats each but Parti Solidarity Tanah Airku’s two assemblymen joined forces with Musa to form government.

“Most of those who are disenfranchised would be those who work overseas or in Malaya or Singapore, and thus more exposed to more liberal and progressive values. They would thus be more predisposed to support Warisan or PH Plus. So their disenfranchisement would be disproportionately detrimental to Shafie’s side,” political analyst Oh Ei Sun told Malay Mail.

The senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said that postal voting should at least be an option for the thousands of Sabahans who are stranded without the means to perform their democratic duty.

Numerous organisations including Sabah Bersih 2.0, Global Bersih, United Progressive Kinabalu Organisation (Upko), Undi Sabah, DAP and Malaysia First have called on the EC to implement remote voting facilities, either by way of postal voting, remote voting centres, or other methods.

“It is a constitutional right for a voter to cast his or her vote to choose the government of the day, and that outstation Sabah voters should not be penalised just because of the Covid-19 pandemic and be financially burdened by the cost of travelling to their polling centres from peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak,” said Sabah DAP secretary Chan Foong Hin.

Official campaigning for the state election begins with nominations on September 12 and ends with polling on September 26.

However, the Sabah High Court is set to hear today a legal challenge filed by former Sabah chief minister Musa and his band of 32 assemblymen against Governor Tun Juhar Mahiruddin for dissolving the assembly.

Musa also has a separate court suit against Juhar for unconstitutionally swearing in Shafie as chief minister in May 2018, which is pending in the Federal Court.