Malaysia’s Youth Look to Take Politics by ‘Storm’ in 2022

Muzliza Mustafa, Hadi Azmi and Ray Sherman
2021.12.29
Kuala Lumpur
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Malaysia’s Youth Look to Take Politics by ‘Storm’ in 2022 Protesters march to Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur to demand that then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resign, July 31, 2021.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Some 5 million young people in Malaysia are poised to shake up the nation’s politics, analysts say, noting that the newly enfranchised voting bloc will be instrumental in who wins the 15th general election, which could take place next year.

From next month on, these 18-21-year olds will be allowed to vote, as ill-equipped political parties scramble to pander to their issues, one political scientist observed.

“There is a new political space being opened up and all the political parties are pandering to the wishes of the 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds because they will represent a major voting bloc,” James Chin, an analyst with the University of Tasmania, told BenarNews.

The year 2021 indeed has been a big one for youth enfranchisement in the Southeast Asian nation. It brought the implementation of a law lowering the voting age to 18 from 21, and the year-end registration of a youth party, MUDA, announced on Wednesday by its co-founder, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

“Muda” is a Malay word for “young” yet it was an uphill battle for the party of and for young people to become officially registered as it faced alleged political interference.

As the country begins a new year, the youth will take its political landscape “by storm,” said Nurul Ashikin Mabahwi, who heads the women’s wing of Pejuang, a political party.

And older established parties will find it a challenge to appeal to a younger electorate, according to Chin.

“This is where it gets interesting. If you were to ask most young people, overwhelmingly they will want the old faces in politics to retire,” Chin said.

MY-Syed.jpeg

Syed Saddiq, co-founder of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), a youth party, waves outside the Kuala Lumpur High Court after he won a case against the home ministry, Dec. 14, 2021. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

MUDA, the party, will face a fresh electorate during the next nationwide polls.

Many say these could be held next year in the country being ruled by a second consecutive unelected government since February 2020.

The law lowering the voting age was passed in July 2019 during the rule of the then-elected Pakatan Harapan government, but its implementation was delayed.

After several protests by a movement called Undi18 went nowhere, five youths sued the government for the hold up in implementing the law and won the case. The court ordered that 18-21-year-olds must be allowed to vote by this Dec. 31.

The 5 million new voters will comprise nearly a quarter of the total electorate of 21.1 million, and their addition has given a boost to the under-40 constituency of voters, said Zaidel Baharuddin, MUDA’s information chief.

In the last election, almost 41 percent of voters who turned out to cast their ballot were aged 21-39, local media reported.

“With Undi18 coming into force, the largest voting bloc will be those below 40 – the same group which is bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of the slowing economy, and [because of] bad decisions by the same people who have governed this country for the past 60 years,” Zaidel, 38, told BenarNews recently.

“It’s about time we have a fresh political movement that aims to gain political influence [and] have a say in how policies are being crafted and implemented in this country.”

Zaidel was referring to the United Malays National organization, or UMNO, the party which is back in power now and has dominated Malaysian government for decades.

The past two governments that came to power unelected spurred the coming of age of young social and political activists – who began protesting online late last year and on the streets this year. They held protests on a range of issues, including against a national emergency imposed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in 2020, the alleged mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to show their support for Undi18.

This demographic, the 18-25-year-olds, are the worst hit by the pandemic.

The health crisis has increased joblessness and income difficulties for Malaysia’s young workers aged 15-24, said an article published in September by Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute.

Youth unemployment touched 12.5 percent in 2020, up from 10.5 percent in 2019, the article said, adding the COVID-19 stimulus packages “prioritized the more experienced workers.”

When the Undi18 youths won their case, scholar Bridget Welsh had said the youth vote would “be decisive in GE15,” the next election which, under ordinary circumstances, would have been scheduled for 2023.

“[The court] decision puts all parties on notice that more needs to be done to address [the] needs [of the] young – education, employment and respect,” Welsh, with the University of Nottingham Malaysia, said on Twitter.

‘Entice them to march to the ballot box’

Meanwhile, will political parties be able to deliver what the youth need?

The average age of the Malaysian cabinet is 57, with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob being 61. The youngest person in his cabinet, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, is 45. And Ismail Sabri’s predecessors, Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir Mohamad are 74 and 96, respectively.

A member of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), which was part of the Pakatan coalition, agreed that for the youth it is “out with old.”

“The main challenge … is to find a policy that is responding to the needs of the youth, especially decent jobs and decent pay, and of course, the climate will be an emerging issue too,” Liew Chin Tong, DAP’s National Political Education director, told BenarNews.

“In general, the youth want the nation to move forward and not backward, and DAP has a very young slate of candidates compared to most other parties,” he said, referring to the candidates the party is thinking of nominating to stand for elections.

But merely fielding young candidates is not enough to win over the younger demographic, said Iskandar Fareez, a spokesman for Research for Social Advancement (REFSA).

“We have seen inspirational youths who champion various progressive issues and advocate for institutional change in recent years,” he told BenarNews.

“But we cannot assume that the entire segment [of voters] will have the same inclinations. Whichever party that can entice them to march to the ballot box and exercise their right, will have an edge over their rivals.”

The youth, though, have endeared themselves to Malaysians and garnered a great deal of goodwill by volunteering to help during floods that devastated the country this month.

MUDA, for instance, raised 2 million ringgit (U.S. $478,297) within a week to help the flood victims. It also brought together more than 5,000 volunteers to help with the rescue and clean-up work.

MUDA and all of Malaysia’s young were lauded on social media for those efforts.

“Dude is literally operating a shadow government on his own. Kudos MUDA! Malaysians are watching!” one Malaysian said on Twitter.

“MUDA raised close to 2 million, PKR [Pakatan member People’s Justice Party] apparently 8 million. That is more than 10 million ringgit of the people’s hard-earned money, going direct to households.  When is the Government acting? 250 million ringgit for 50,000 of Keluarga Malaysia [Malaysian family]?” said a Twitter user called Edwin.

The youth are frustrated and impatient.

It is not only the current government’s perceived mishandling of the floods, but also the preceding government’s response to the pandemic that has irked young people here. They feel they have no one in their corner, some young people have said on Twitter.

A 21-year-old marketing executive, Hawa Nadia, said she was “almost” considering not voting in the next election unless the opposition Pakatan Harapan pact or MUDA “step up their game.”

Hawa, who volunteered herself in aid missions after the Dec. 18 floods, spoke favorably about MUDA, saying the new party should be given a chance. She also said Pakatan was a good option.

“These two are our lesser evil choices,” she told BenarNews.

“They’re definitely a better option than the rest, especially for those of us who are sick of old, corrupted, and misogynistic politicians – and that’s like half of Malaysia.”

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