Malaysia declares election a public holiday after outcry

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walks to the parliament house before a session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Sadiq Asyraf, AP, File)
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walks to the parliament house before a session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Sadiq Asyraf, AP, File)

The Malaysian prime minister on Wednesday declared voting day on May 9 a public holiday after a decision to hold elections on a workday triggered complaints that it would deter mainly opposition supporters.

The surprise move is seen as a bid to ease public anger a day after the Election Commission announced that voting will be held on a Wednesday, departing from the norm of having it on a weekend.

The weekday vote triggered a flurry of complains that it would deter thousands of Malaysians from returning to their hometown to vote. Some companies responded by giving their employees days off and offering to pay for their travel back home to vote. The hashtag "PulangMengundi" (Go home to vote) trended on Twitter, with many Malaysians offering financial assistance and carpool to those travelling back to vote.

Critics have said the weekday vote plus a shorter campaign period could lower voter turnout and dent support for the opposition led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who was Asia's longest serving leader before he retired in 2003.

The weekday vote would still make it difficult for some half a million Malaysians working in Singapore to return and cast the ballot.

Fulfilling duties as voters

Prime Minister Najib Razak's office said May 9 will be a public holiday so that "Malaysians can fulfill their duties as voters".

The Election Commission has said 14.94 million people are eligible to vote, including 1.7 million new voters. It set an 11-day campaign period, shorter than the 15 days for the 2013 polls. It didn't give a reason why the vote would be held on a workday, the first time in nearly two decades.

Past Malaysian elections were mostly held on weekends but weekday votes are not unprecedented. National polls in 1995 and 1999 under Mahathir were held on Mondays.

Najib, 64, is seeking a third term in office and under pressure to improve his ruling coalition's performance after support eroded in the last two elections. He has been dogged by a massive corruption scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund, which is under investigation in the US and other countries for alleged cross-border embezzlement and money laundering.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

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