Malaysia GE15: Low political literacy and indecisiveness limit youth votes
Surveys show that young voters are more politically undecided, with "many pollsters unwilling to call, one way or another, because of the indecision among youth," said an observer.
At Malaysia’s upcoming 15th general election, a new generation of young voters have been touted as kingmakers who could determine its outcome.
Yet, low political literacy and indecisiveness among the young electorate are causing some observers to instead view the youth votes as "wildcards".
"For as long as we've had elections, the youth have always historically been less engaged and less active than other age groups," Ms Lee Min Hui told CNA’s Asia Now on Wednesday (Nov 9).
She added that Malaysia ranks as one of the lowest in the region for youth political and civic participation.
"The general expectation is that the youth will be kingmakers. But in fact, I think the youth vote will likely be a wildcard," said Ms Lee, who is an analyst at Kuala Lumpur-based research organisation Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
LOW POLITICAL LITERACY AMONG YOUTH
A recent study showed that less than half of the youth surveyed – 40 per cent – have sufficient knowledge about Malaysia’s voting system, and only 42 per cent understand the different political parties.
The same survey conducted by Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Tun Tan Cheng Lock Center for Social and Policy Studies also showed a lack of independent thought, with many youth saying they attained their political knowledge from family and friends, who also have significant influence in their voting decisions.
About 63 per cent of those surveyed want education institutions to equip them with the knowledge for voting, indicating that a majority of youth voters are hungry for, but likely missing, trustworthy information.
Political parties are not helping the cause either – a lack of social media prowess has left platforms devoid of electoral information needed to educate and woo the youth, said observers.
PARTIES ABSENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Most parties this election are sticking to traditional forms of campaigning such as walkabouts, said Mr Jason Wee, co-founder of non-profit organisation Architects of Diversity.
He added that even youth party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) has been lacking in presence on social media.
This means parties are failing to connect and communicate with the largest voting bloc on their most-frequented platforms.
"Since the campaign period started, much is left to be seen to meet youth at the policy level on social media, leaving most significantly, a gap in clarity on what the parties are offering to the youth," Mr Wee told CNA’s Asia First.
"It will not be surprising to see low turnouts if political parties do not amp up their game to provide this information on social media in digestible ways for the youth," he cautioned.
A LACK OF MORAL ANGER
The impact of youth participation was evident in the last general election four years ago, when Pakatan Harapan (PH), bolstered by support from the youth, especially those aged 21 to 29, upset the then-Barisan Nasional (BN) government.
But unlike 2018, when voters saw a clear binary choice between BN and PH, and as well as anger surrounding former prime minister Najib Razak’s 1MDB scandal and corruption charges, the upcoming election is "incredibly complex", said Mr Wee.
This time, more seats are multi-way contests, which can be confusing for a majority of youth who are not following politics in an intricate manner, he said.
"Also, there is a lack of moral anger (as seen in 2018), that is known to drive people out to vote," he added. "So it won’t be surprising if the youth turnout (this time) is lower in comparison to other age groups, especially those above 50 who are known to be consistent voters."
DIFFERENT MOTIVATIONS TO VOTE
However, young voters may find in themselves other motivations to vote.
About 79 per cent of those between 18 to 24 years old have indicated that they will turn up to vote, said Mr James Chai, visiting fellow from the Malaysian Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
This is despite, or perhaps – motivated by – dissatisfaction towards politicians. About 63 per cent of these young voters have expressed disappointment in the government and rival political parties.
The urge to vote mainly stems from a sense of duty and the desire to contribute to youth empowerment, Mr Chai told CNA’s Asia Tonight, adding that the novelty of voting for the first time also plays a part in their enthusiasm.
"They haven’t entered into a stage where they felt like their voting power had no ability to change the outcome and therefore, that certain sense of hopefulness that comes with youth is still very much present in Malaysia," said Mr Chai.
Despite the anticipated turnout, observers remain reserved in the direction young Malaysians are expected to vote.
Surveys show that young voters are more politically undecided, with "many pollsters unwilling to call, one way or another, because of the indecision among the youth," said Mr Wee.
RURAL VS URBAN VOTES
The largest turnout of young voters yet is expected at the upcoming election, following a historic constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
However, Malaysia’s malapportioned electoral system – where voting districts see unequal distribution of voters – will likely limit the impact of the youth vote, said Ms Lee.
Candidates in rural constituencies are expected to have an advantage because they need less votes to win.
Meanwhile, young Malaysians are largely concentrated in richer urban areas that afford more economic and employment opportunities, and more votes are needed in those mega-constituencies with higher population densities to make a difference, said Ms Lee.
"Unfortunately, the youth are working in environments where the votes are not equal. So the impact can go both ways," said Ms Lee. "For them to really make an impact and for their voices to be heard, we need to see at least 80 to 90 per cent turnout of youth."
However, this also means youth voters in rural areas have the increased ability to unseat incumbent politicians, and secure upgrades and improvements, Mr Chai said.
"A huge portion of (rural seats) are currently held by ministers and (these) areas are also in need of infrastructure development like clinics, schools, highways, etc. Therefore, this gives voters an outsized ability to change the outcome of the election," he said.
With universities giving students five days off to go home and vote, Mr Wee said that this will be a "critical campaigning period" that will "greatly facilitate the magnitude of volatility".
Across the major coalitions, parties are recognising the power of the youth vote, but questions remain if they are reaching these voters.
"One of the key things that Malaysia has struggled with in terms of government is the criticism that we're running under a gerontocracy, where our leaders are significantly older than the population," said Ms Lee.
While the current median age of Malaysians is 30.3 years, around 70 per cent of lawmakers are over the age of 50.
Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s rejection of PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim’s proposal of a debate among prime minister candidates is also likely not sitting well with the youth, said Mr Wee.
"It’s unclear if we’ll ever get to see a wide range public discourse on policies to address primary concerns. Thus, it’s a big factor when youth are not hearing solutions to these concerns and that might be a push factor away from the ballot box," he said.
Ms Lee said that while many of these parties offer comprehensive plans for younger voters, such as employment and insurance, they lack one aspect: improving the youth’s bargaining power.
"The next step really is to improve that bargaining power, and also provide autonomy to youth instead of just basic handouts and upskilling and things like that. There's still so much that political parties have not really been able to do when it comes to the youth," Ms Lee said.