Malaysia’s youth forging a new future?

Three million new voters have registered for Sunday’s election – and they could tip the balance of power.

Malaysia''s Prime Minister Najib Razak talks to youngsters after he launched the
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) has been trying to court the youth vote [AFP]

Much has been written analysing Malaysia’s thirteenth General Election, due to be held on May 5. No-one is able to accurately predict voting trends, as was evident in the previous election in 2008.

Young voters, many of them casting a ballot for the first time, will play a key role in deciding this close race.

The influence of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has played an important role in a vote that has been called “the mother of all elections”.

Mahathir’s influence continues to loom large both over public policies and the direction of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a leading political group.

UMNO and its allies in the Barisan Nasional coalition, led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, continue to shore up support from the populace using a unique brand of ethnic-based politics.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, on the other hand, leads the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat or PR), a coalition comprising three parties with diverse ideologies, collectively attempting to adopt a more centrist approach.

Voting blocks

Up to three million new voters have registered for this election, of whom 60 percent are under thirty. They make up 25 percent of the electoral roll. The University of Malaya Centre of Democracy and Election (UMCEDEL) found in a recent poll that 48 percent of first-time voters were undecided on which party to vote for.

UndiMsia!, a non-partisan movement that works to educate voters on the important issues facing the nation, has been using a set of questions in the form of a Report Card [Laporan Rakyat] to gauge the level of awareness of Malaysians regarding members of parliament and state assembly members.

For all the carefully designed questions, the majority of the answers returned by first-time voters have been resoundingly empty and unsatisfying. For example: Which constituency are you voting in? Not sure. Who is representing your constituency in the State Legislative Assembly? I do not know. Where is your member of parliament’s service centre? I don’t know.

The knowledge of young voters regarding their representatives is ambiguous at best, yet their hopes and expectations for Malaysia are concrete. They are aware of the many problems affecting them and their immediate surroundings – transport and crime as examples. They also emphasise larger issues that plague the nation, such as corruption and racial discrimination – and want their elected representatives to solve these problems.

But the failure of our education system to provide sufficient understanding of our democratic system and involve our young in nation-building has created a large gap between youths and elected representatives. Politics is seemingly, by design, detached from education. Politically linked activities – especially those organised by the opposition – are portrayed by school administrators as having no relevance to the lives of young people, and thereby discouraged.

Protest movements

With the exception of a few vocal politicians who receive blanket media coverage, many others remain strangers to the younger constituents. Yong people do not know who to turn to, much less where to find their elected representatives. How then would one expect the youth to decide who should lead them?

The answer for the moment – unsatisfactory as it may seem – is to rely on the political parties that the candidates represent and investigate whether these parties represent similar sentiments to young people here. The stance of the candidate on gender equality or freedom of expression matters little, compared with the perceived general opinion of the candidate’s party on the same issues. We say this when an overwhelming majority we questioned using the Report Card were unable to properly rate their representatives’ performance.

Why does it matter whether or not a candidate has the ability to perform – when parliamentary voting is still very much based along party lines? This state of affairs supports the understanding that first-time voters would probably be absorbed by party politics, as opposed to the issues the parties champion.

On this score, the fight for the youth vote will be determined by the extent to which the mega-rallies organised in anticipation of the election continue to feature in the youth psyche.

A rally organised by Bersih, an opposition group, on July 9, 2011, drew more than 50,000 protesters – out of which more than 1,500 were arrested, including Bersih’s chairperson, Ambiga Sreenevasan.

The group’s sit-down protest held on April 28, 2012, had varying crowd estimates ranging from 80,000 to 200,000. More than 500 protestors were arrested and 50 injured. About 20 police personnel were hurt.

The emergence of several grassroots environmental rights lobby groups – Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL), Stop Lynas Coalition (SLC) and Green Assembly (Himpunan Hijau or HH) – to challenge the government’s decision allowing an Australian company, Lynas Corporation Ltd, to build a rare-earth processing plant in the east of Peninsular Malaysia led to numerous protests across the country.

The most recent important rally organised by various NGOs and opposition parties on January 12, 2013. The People’s Uprising Assembly [Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat] – was a culmination of a series of forums around the country which began in December 2012. It brought together demands of various NGOs and included the call for free education, the return of oil royalties owed to several states and the preservation of language, culture and heritage. About 100,000 people reportedly attended the assembly.

The big picture

The current system skews much power in favour of the incumbent Barisan Nasional government. Constitutional institutions such as the Election Commission, the judiciary and the police have not been as effective as many would have liked, due in part to political control and interference.

For more than 50 years, one political party has had a monopoly on politics and state ideology, through informal structures such as education and the media.

In this final lap of campaigning, the opposition faces a juggernaut in the BN. The opposition says it has no access to the government-controlled mainstream media and competes on an unequal playing field against government machinery, money and fear-mongering.

Yet many of the social movements which organised widespread protests with their sometimes disparate demands have – whether fortunately or not, by accident or otherwise – given reason to ordinary Malaysians to support the call for a change in government. And these movements have sparked the imaginations of citizens that a different Malaysia is possible.

Youth voters have experienced – directly or indirectly in the age of social media – the abuse of government powers in crushing the massive protests and rallies after 2008. Most, if not all, remain unsatisfied that the demands of these movements have not been fulfilled. This, for a large part, will determine how they will vote.

Edmund Bon is a co-founder of the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism & Human Rights (MCCHR) also known as PusatRakyatLB, and is one of the organisers for the part of newly established citizen education movement, UndiMsia!