Convincing voters to vote

Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.

– George Jean Nathan, drama critic and magazine editor

This Covid-19 global pandemic has wreaked havoc to almost all aspects of our lives and activities, including perhaps the participation of our citizens in elections.

In Sarawak, our state legislative assembly would have dissolved automatically in June 2021. However, due to the Covid-19 virus, we are currently under a state of emergency that has suspended the automatic dissolution of our state legislative assembly.

The holding of elections at regular intervals is the most important element in our nation’s democratic practices. However, if an election is conducted with no thought and safeguards for the people, it will further spread the Covid-19 virus causing more pain, suffering, deaths and economic harm.

The Sabah state election last year is still fresh in the minds of many people, not so much about the results of the election but due to its impact on the health of Malaysians. The Sabah state assembly was dissolved on July 30, 2020 and elections were held on September 26 2020.

Before the Sabah polls, Malaysia had a very low incident rate of Covid-19 infections due to strict lockdown measures under the various categories of the movement control order (MCO).

However, after the conclusion of their election, it was noticed that there was a rapid rise in the infectivity rate of the Covid-19 virus. One study estimated that 70.0 percent of Covid-19 infected people within Sabah after the state election can be attributed directly to the election.

In addition to this, the study also attributed 64.4 percent of Covid-19 cases in the rest of Malaysia as spill-over from the Sabah elections. Therefore, the overall negative impact on the health of Malaysians and the economy was significant.

Fast forward and now the media is full of speculation about the possibility of election in Sarawak being held around the corner. It is of course obvious if the 12th state election does take place anytime soon, there will be many aspects that would be very different to the past elections.

The on-going prevalence of the Covid-19 virus in the community would ring alarm bells in the minds of some constituents, especially with reference to what happened in Sabah, if they were to take part in campaigns and also go to the polling stations.

However, it is precisely due to the fallout from the Sabah elections last year — if an election were to held this year or even in 2022 or 2023 — I am confident that even more rigorous measures and SOPs will be put into place by the Election Commission and the Ministry of Health.

There must be widespread publicity about these new rigorous measures and SOPs. The effective transmission of information about all these measures will help to ensure a good turnout on polling day.

These confidence-building measures must be revealed immediately as it will take time for the information to reach all corners of Sarawak.

Very importantly, the relevant authorities must also realise that once voters receive news about the new measures to contain any possible spread of the Covid-19 virus at polling stations, it will take additional time for them to digest, understand and accept these SOPs.

Just as an example, one of the measures would possibly be that more classrooms and more schools will be used as polling stations to spread out the voters to keep them safe. From my perspective, it would be safer to go to the polling station compared to going to the supermarket.

There will of course be detractors who will stir up negative emotions about the wisdom of holding and election around this time. However, this adversarial response is to be expected. That’s why a well-prepared rollout of the SOPs is important, as it will help to dissipate much of the expected misinformation.

In general, I would say there is optimism among Sarawakians that the government here has managed the health and economic aspects reasonably well during this pandemic considering that this was a totally unexpected event. As in all such situations, there are always lessons to be learned.

To get people to turn up amid a pandemic all the authorities and parties involved in the election must give the rakyat the confidence and assurance in advance that it will be safe for them to go out and cast their votes.

Whatever your decision is related to the holding of an election this year or next, it is important to realise that upholding our democratic processes must continue.

Do not allow these processes to degrade to the point where democracy becomes an option rather than a necessity.

The views expressed are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.

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