Commonwealth citizens in Britain get to vote too

Singaporean student Andy Wong Ming Jun. ST PHOTO: TAN DAWN WEI

When British citizens go to the polls today to vote if they want to remain in the European Union (EU), Singaporean student Andy Wong Ming Jun will also be there to cast his ballot.

As a Commonwealth citizen living in the country, he has the right to vote in a national election under British law. His vote would be for a Brexit, because he believes he is disadvantaged as a non-EU citizen.

"I find it unfair that law-abiding non-EU citizens... have to face a disproportionate number of hoops to jump through in order to seek a future in the UK after graduating from university, while EU citizens get to have a free pass by virtue of the passport they hold," said the 23-year-old politics and history undergraduate at the University of Hull.

A post-study work visa that allowed international students from non-EU countries to stay in Britain and work for up to two years after graduation was scrapped in 2012. Now, they have only four months after graduation to find work here.

The people of 54 Commonwealth countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Sri Lanka, as well as Ireland, have voting rights here - a legacy of the British empire. Census figures from 2011 show that about 960,000 Commonwealth citizens living in England and Wales are eligible to vote. But this voting entitlement has not gone down well in certain quarters.

Think-tank Migration Watch argued that the right to vote in British general elections should be confined to citizens as well as people from countries that offer reciprocal voting rights, such as Ireland and certain West Indies countries.

A petition asking that only British citizens be allowed to vote in the EU referendum garnered more than 40,000 signatures in April. In response, the British government said that the franchise for the EU referendum is based on the franchise for parliamentary elections.

Singaporean Helena Lim- Poole, 43, concedes that it is not entirely fair that Commonwealth citizens who are here for the short term have a say in a national referendum.

"But I am not complaining. At least I have a voice in it," said the entrepreneur, who will vote "In".

Brexit jitters have hit her real estate and food import businesses. The property market has slowed, while the prices of food imports from Asia have started rising because of the weaker pound.

Ms Lim-Poole is concerned that the immigration issue has been played up by Brexiters and the press. But London has been home to her for the past 10 years, and she plans to be here for the long run. "For me, I have been paying my taxes, working hard as a foreigner based here. So far, I have not seen any hostility from any locals," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline Commonwealth citizens in Britain get to vote too. Subscribe