At the end of June, when Malaysians were grappling with a drastically worsening coronavirus pandemic, pictures of black flags, and people waving them from their cars or their homes, appeared on social media.
Hashtagged #lawan, which means “fight” in the Malay language, the flags became a rallying cry against the government’s failures in handling the outbreak. The discontent spilled onto the streets in a series of largely peaceful protests in July.
By that time, COVID-19’s toll had hit a new peak, with more than 20,000 new infections and 200 deaths daily, and the protesters demanded that then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resign. As the protests continued, the police picked up at least 47 participants for questioning.
The black flag movement was initiated by a loose coalition of about 40 youth activist groups calling itself Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR), which first came together in March to protest against the delay in implementing the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, which was passed in Parliament in July 2019.
Political analyst Bridget Welsh told Al Jazeera the government’s delay in implementing the legislation after it was passed was the catalyst for the disaffection felt by many young people.
Other factors include the high unemployment rate among 15 to 30-year-olds – almost double the national average – stagnating wages, unaffordable housing, and the lack of any real social safety net in a pandemic.
All this has been exacerbated by Malaysia’s political upheavals since the 2018 general election, which resulted in two changes in government since February last year, and the devastation wrought by the pandemic.
“There are young people who lost their family members. I know someone who, within a week, lost his grandparents, granduncles, and his uncles and aunts,” said Qyira Yusri, the 27-year-old co-founder of Undi18, an NGO that led the campaign to lower the voting age. “They’re just looking to our government and wondering what’s going on.”
While Malaysia coped with the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well – even after the power grab that brought Muhyiddin to power – the situation spiralled out of control after a snap election in the Borneo state of Sabah in September 2020.
In January this year, as politicians within his fragile coalition continued to jostle for power and coronavirus cases surged, Muhyiddin announced a state of emergency and suspended Parliament. Then came an extended lockdown.
Much of Malaysia turned to social media and young people found themselves thrust onto the front line of political activism at a time when older generations were more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Welsh describes the movement as largely urban, but one that aims to be inclusive by traversing geographic, class, and racial divides.
A few days after SSR’s protest on July 31, attended by as many as 1,000 people, Muhyiddin resigned as prime minister.
“While I can’t say for sure that the protests made a difference, what’s important is that it provided an avenue for people to articulate their frustrations,” Qyira told Al Jazeera.
Since then, Ismail Sabri Yaakob of UMNO, a scandal-tainted party that dominated the Barisan Nasional coalition that ruled Malaysia for decades and was voted out in 2018, has been named to the top job. Like Muhyiddin’s government, Ismail Sabri’s is not popularly elected.
Cultivating new youth leaders
The pandemic and the issues it raised have pushed youth activism well beyond the right to vote.
Youth groups are now campaigning for an array of causes – from refugee rights to climate change and decriminalising suicide – dissecting legislation and policies into more understandable and shareable forms across Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.
But their activities also attracted the attention of the Malaysian authorities.
Two days before the July 31 protest, Sarah Irdina, the 20-year-old founder of youth group MISI: Solidariti, was arrested for alleged sedition and detained overnight by the police, purportedly for tweeting about the upcoming protest.
Participants in earlier July protests had also been previously investigated, so SSR was prepared.
It used crowdfunding to pay off fines and cooperated with the Young Lawyers Movement (YLM) to ensure participants would have ready access to free legal representation should the need arise. YLM is itself advocating a minimum wage for legal trainees and a more effective mechanism for processing sexual harassment complaints within the profession.
Still, at a time when young people from Myanmar, Thailand and Hong Kong have taken to the streets to demand institutional reform, analysts say Malaysia’s young people have adopted a less confrontational approach.
“Their main aim is to give the youth a platform and make Malaysia a more inclusive place politically for them,” BowerGroup Asia analyst Darryl Tan told Al Jazeera. “What they believe in is that if you give the youth a political platform to air their views, you will also have other kinds of conversations happening.”
Undi18 recently announced a new umbrella initiative called UndiNegaraku, which aims to cultivate 10,000 youth leaders nationwide by 2023, when the next general election will be held.
Last year, it organised Parlimen Digital, a mock online session with youths playing the roles of the 222 members of parliament, to show that sessions could continue virtually in a pandemic after the physical one was suspended. For this too, some of its participants were reportedly called in for police questioning.
Undi18 also coordinates several policy initiatives, collectively run by some 200 volunteers, that range from conserving the environment to getting more women in Parliament. “When you want to push for a cause you have to hyperfocus on issues, on certain legislation and reforms,” Qyira said.
She wants to provide a platform for youths that prioritises understanding the issues they want to champion as a starting point, not toeing the line of any political ideology.
But that does not mean avoiding politics.
Qyira points out that Undi18 alumni have gone on to join different parties, from UMNO to Anwar Ibrahim’s Keadilan and MUDA (Malaysian United Democratic Alliance) – a new youth-centric party co-founded by Syed Saddiq, a 28-year-old member of parliament and former minister of youth and sports.
“We want to give them equal exposure to the political parties out there without undue influence from any of them,” Qyira said.
Some Undi18 alumni have also gone on to build their own activist groups.
Nineteen-year-old university students Rifqi Faisal and Izanna Azuddin founded MYER Movement in April to call for education reform – especially urgent during the pandemic when many students lack resources for online learning.
The two activists say they have seen whole families sharing just one device, taking turns to attend classes, while the government’s promise to provide several thousand laptops to underprivileged students remains unfulfilled. They also point out the lack of mental health counselling for students studying in isolation at home and the neglect of students in rural areas and those with learning disabilities.
“I feel like our government looks at our education as a one-size-fits-all system,” Izanna said.
Other young Malaysians are also making their voices heard. Junior contract doctors, who make up the bulk of medical workers handling COVID-19, went on strike in July as part of their fight for greater job security.
Ain Husniza, a 17-year-old student, is campaigning to make schools free from sexual harassment after one of her teachers made a joke about rape in class. Heidi Quah, a 20-something refugee activist, is challenging the constitutional validity of a law that has been widely used to criminalise “offensive” comments after being charged for a Facebook post describing the ill-treatment of refugees in detention centres.
“Obviously, there are some people who are very against the idea of youths speaking out. It’s that whole top-down culture, especially in Malaysia, where you have to respect your elders, and older people don’t really respect youths,” Izanna said.
As such, young people have had to demand that their voices be heard. “The surge of youth organisations in the past year has created enormous space for young individuals to begin doing work about the issues that they care about,” Rifqi said.
New activism and politics
Welsh describes the new activism as a grassroots movement.
“The youths do support young leaders like Syed Saddiq and MUDA, but there isn’t the direct involvement or leadership from political leaders,” Welsh said.
A former champion debater, MUDA’s Syed played a key role in getting the Undi18 bill to the attention of lawmakers when it was first proposed. But he is not himself part of the SSR movement.
MUDA, too, is promising a new future: eschewing the race-based politics that has long dominated Malaysian discourse and focusing on the potential of youth leadership although its application to register formally as a party has been rejected twice, with reportedly no reasons given.
Amira Aisya, who is 25 years old and one of the party’s 13 co-founders, tells Al Jazeera that the proof is in the diversity of MUDA’s central executive committee – not just in terms of ethnicity but also in education and profession. It includes Dr Thanussha Francis Xavier, a medical practitioner; Lim Wei Jiet, a lawyer; and Shahrizal Denci, a farmer. Amira herself worked at an educational think-tank.
Amira also emphasises MUDA’s aim to put young people on an equal footing to adults, allowing teenagers to join from the age of 15.
“Unlike other parties, we don’t have separate youth or women’s wings. If you are capable of becoming a part of the leadership of MUDA, you will be,” she said.
As the youth movement grows, Qyira feels that political parties of all stripes are watching closely what young people are saying and feeling.
A court has ordered the government to implement the new minimum voting age by December 31, which could mean 7.8 million new voters for the next general election.
The government on Monday said it would follow through on the directive.
“I think young people are growing more and more cynical about political parties and politicians, but we’re still able to articulate our visions for policies,” Qyira said. “And we will hold politicians accountable to them.”