KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government has declared that Polling Day on May 9, a Wednesday, will be a holiday, as it reacted to public anger over the plan to ask citizens to return to their home towns to vote in the middle of a working week.
The announcement by the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday (April 11) mollified some people. But others said it would still be tough to travel home, queue for hours to vote, and then return to their workplaces within 24 hours.
The weekday polling date was announced on Tuesday by the Election Commission (EC). It will be the first weekday vote in a general election (GE) since the 1999 polls - 19 years ago. The 1995 and 1999 GEs were both held on a Monday, allowing many to make their way home.
Millions of Malaysians work in industrial and commercial hubs in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Penang and southern Johor. While many cast their ballots in nearby constituencies, millions more must drive, or take planes, buses or boats, to reach remote states such as Kelantan, Kedah, Sabah and Sarawak.
More than 400,000 Malaysians working in Singapore must make their own arrangements to take annual leave if they want to vote.
The statement yesterday from the Malaysian Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said May 9 will now be a public holiday nationwide. "This is to enable Malaysian citizens to carry out their responsibilities as voters."
For Sabah and Sarawak, the state governments must declare that day as an additional public holiday based on their state ordinances, the statement added.
Malaysian executive Angel Lam, 40, who works in Singapore, said: "One day to vote is reasonable - the travelling time should be absorbed by the voters. How can people expect three days off?"
A media report had quoted several companies as saying they were shutting down for three days to allow employees to go home to vote.
Opposition parties and electoral reform groups have slammed the choice of a Wednesday for Polling Day, claiming it was a ploy by the ruling coalition to ensure a lower turnout that would help Barisan Nasional win more seats. Voting is not compulsory, and a prevailing view is that many people would not turn up at polling centres in the middle of a week.
Said housewife Diana Razid, 45: "It is not fair for those who need to go back to their home towns. A one-day holiday is not enough."
Just minutes before the PMO announcement, over 118,000 people had signed an online petition asking the Malaysian King to declare May 9 a national holiday to make it easier for voters to return home.
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Yang Razali Kassim said: "PM Najib's declaration of a public holiday on voting day is the right thing to do. But it may be a bit too late to correct the damage from the EC's strategic error of not declaring the holiday in the first place."
Early voting for military and police personnel as well as voters living abroad has been fixed for May 5.
This gives political parties a campaign period of 11 days.