Yasir Naveed was just 16 when he arrived in Hong Kong in 2006 with his parents and sister, after his father landed a job in the city.
“The sorrow of leaving your own country was there,” he says.
Naveed often recalls taking a bus to the northern part of Pakistan and looking at the hills up in Gilgit-Baltistan, known as the “Switzerland of the East”. He also misses celebrating the local festivals and the flavours of the food in Karachi, his home city and the largest in the country.
Although Hong Kong is now also home, his mind often drifts back to Pakistan. So much so that the environmental engineer took time off from work and flew to Karachi to cast his vote for Imran Khan, the newly elected prime minister, in the July 25 polls.
It is from Hong Kong – where there are about 35,000 Pakistanis – that Naveed started taking a greater interest in his country’s politics. And now, he and thousands of others spread across the world will be able to get closer to Pakistan’s politics, without taking an aeroplane.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently ordered the Election Commission to ensure that Pakistani expatriates could exercise their right to vote in October’s by-elections, which will involve only some constituencies, in a pilot project.
Following the court’s decision, Pakistan’s authorities decided that a voting system via the internet would be used, although concerns about its transparency and security have been raised. Those who live abroad – about 7.6 million people – have welcomed the pioneering move, but many remain unsure about its procedures and some also fear it may be unviable.
Naveed considers the recent developments as “the best news for us as overseas Pakistanis”.
“A large portion of us who live abroad are educated and we want to have a say and bring change to our country,” says Naveed, who became the president of a branch of Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Overseas Chapter, China and Chinese SARs, this year.
Despite his optimism, Naveed, 28, still has some concerns. “The commission has not given clear instructions yet … We don’t know if we need to register or if it is automatic before [people can cast] their votes,” he notes. “I am also worried that the system may not work.”
Naveed fears that voting through the internet may exclude thousands of people. “I would say that about 95 per cent of the people I know here don’t have an email address. I think the best way would be to put a terminal in the consulate [in Hong Kong] where people could cast their vote,” he suggests.
Fabio Khalid, 33, welcomes the news but feels detached from the political developments in Pakistan.
“It’s good if overseas Pakistanis are allowed to vote, but I feel that my issues are here [in Hong Kong], where I was born and raised. I don’t think I will be voting in elections in Pakistan,” says the sales manager.
Ansah Malik, 32, also feels closer to the city where she was born than to her parents’ country.
“I think my friends who also grew up here are more aware and concerned about the issues in Hong Kong,” she says. Yet, unlike Khalid, she would consider voting in the Pakistani elections.
“Previously, only families who went back to Pakistan during elections could vote. This is another opportunity for us to contribute back home,” social worker Malik says. “If we are given this chance, we will feel more connected to our country.”
Houston-based Amina Mirza says she is “happy” and “overwhelmed” by the possibility of voting while living abroad. However, she adds: “What kind of elections are they going to be? Are they going to be clean?”
Mirza says it is important to raise awareness among those who may not have valid documents and involve them in the process too, while women should be allowed to play a greater role.
“I want women to participate more in politics, to be involved in the voting process and to join the debate,” says Mirza, a teacher who moved to the United States about 18 years ago. “Education is the key. We need to give them the chance to become whatever they want and we also need to educate our men, so we can have a better Pakistan,” she says.
“Deep down, it is still a strict structure when it comes to politics. Chauvinism is still there. The men are the leaders and we need to address this issue.”
Overseas Pakistanis like Mirza have been in the spotlight since Khan’s election.
In a televised speech on August 19, he called on overseas Pakistanis to send more money to their home country and invest there, amid a serious trade deficit and declining foreign reserves.
“We want you to send your money and deposit it in Pakistani banks … I feel ashamed begging for loans and funds from foreign institutions,” Khan said.
Pakistanis living abroad sent back about US$20 billion to Pakistan in the last financial year, which ended in June. The highest remittances came from those based in countries in the Middle East, followed by the US and the United Kingdom.
“We want to have a say in the elections, participate and elect our leader,” says Mirza Chaudhary, president of the PTI Canada East, and a real-estate developer based in Toronto.
Chaudhary, 47, is convinced that those living abroad can bring a change to their country, and not just through money. “We have a broader vision and we saw other systems while living abroad. We hope to bring some of that knowledge to our country.”
Asim Khan, 48, who lives in London, has that same sense of wanting to give back to his home country. Khan talks about Pakistan as if a part of him has never left it. He often relives the smell of oranges, and its lakes, mountains, and deserts are etched in his memory. It is in Pakistan that he sees himself building a house on a remote mountain and writing poetry and books.
In the meantime, Khan, an IT expert who moved to the UK in 1998, is eager to vote while abroad. He thinks this is just the beginning for overseas Pakistanis to take a greater part in their home country’s affairs.
“Remittances and investment in property, for instance, are the first stage,” he argues. “The next step should be intellectual investment. Similar to what China did many moons ago … Our intellectual capital should be moved back. We live in a digital age. We can contribute even without being there,” he says.
Like most Pakistanis in his home country, he welcomes Chinese investments in Pakistan, which include US$62 billion in infrastructure projects.
But he says there is a dark side to it: “If corrupt rulers remain in place, they will destroy Chinese investments in Pakistan. We need a clampdown on corruption like China did. We need to get rid of corruption, so the Chinese investments won’t go to waste.”
While in Hong Kong, Naveed hopes to show that despite its problems, Pakistan is a land of opportunities. “I am hopeful,” he says. “Pakistan is in such a strategic position and it has so much potential. We just need a chance.” ■