Hope, apathy, unhappiness: How will Malaysia’s youth vote at the coming polls?
The youth vote could be a political game changer, with the lowering of the voting age and a seeming desire for non-racial politics among factors at play. But analysts tell the programme Insight the issue is not so clear-cut.
KUALA LUMPUR: At the 2018 general election in Malaysia, Johor musician Azizan Afi cast his vote for the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition.
Despite graduating from state-funded Mara College, he had grown disillusioned with the Government’s race-based policies, which he felt were benefitting upper-class Malays instead of the people the policies should serve.
Mara refers to government agency Majlis Amanah Rakyat, established in 1966 and which trains bumiputeras — comprising Malays and indigenous communities — in areas of industry.
Inspired by the message of change, Azizan also wanted to see that a change of government was possible without the country crumbling. “The whole narrative (at the) time was like, ‘We can’t let the Opposition take power,’” the 31-year-old noted.
But it was a short-lived Pakatan Harapan government, which fell apart within two years.
At the country’s 15th general election, which must be held by September 2023, youths younger than Ali might emerge as the next kingmakers, as explored on the programme Insight.
Malaysia changed its constitution in 2019 to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 and register voters automatically. This added 5.8 million new voters — of whom 1.2 million are 18- to 20-year-olds — enlarging the electorate to about 21 million.
They are a force to be reckoned with by weight of numbers, but how exactly should political parties court young voters?
For some, the answer may lie in appealing to youths who are dissatisfied with race-based policies.
WATCH: Malaysia lowers voting age to 18 — will youth reshape race-based politics? (47:39)
Affirmative action programmes have existed in Malaysia since its independence and expanded with the New Economic Policy for bumiputera advancement since 1971. Policies include preferential access to tertiary education, entry to professional and managerial positions and ownership of equity and assets.
“There’s a lot of unfairness that you can see,” said auditor Yuvern Sundram, 24, who called race-based politics “very old-school”. “Now that the economy has developed … and the disparity has been adjusted … why aren’t we innovating the laws?
“People should be measured not by their race but by their intellect and their ability to lead.”
Dissatisfaction with race-based policies was cited as a reason behind the surge in the number of young voters in the 2018 general election, and research has shown that the majority of youth votes went to Pakatan Harapan.
Young Malaysians are also “more independent-minded”, able to think critically and are not dependent on “sources of information that are controlled by the Government”, said Ibrahim Suffian, co-founder of opinion research firm Merdeka Centre.
DISILLUSIONMENT MAY STAND IN THE WAY
But things are not so clear-cut. For one thing, events since the 2020 disintegration of the Pakatan Harapan government have left a sour taste.
For young people who had voted, thinking that they were contributing to change, “it makes you less hopeful”, said Yuvern.
Political observer Norshahril Saat agrees. “I could sense political apathy or unhappiness because of what they saw post-2018,” said the senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Three people have held the post of prime minister in the past four years, which “couldn’t lead to any form of political stability and change that (Malaysians) were expecting”, he noted.
And during the pandemic, amid problems with employment and the economy, it was “disappointing to wake up every day and read the news (of) who’s in power instead of who we should be helping in these tough times”, Azizan lamented.
“There was a general feeling amongst a lot of people that, ‘Oh, this is just a game (to the politicians).’”
In recent state elections, the turnout of younger voters was “significantly lower” than that of the older generation, which had not been the case for 15 years, noted Ibrahim.
Total voter turnout at Johor’s state election in March was 55 per cent — compared to 83 per cent at the 2018 state election — which made it unclear how much impact, if any, the lower voting age had.
Across the country in 2018 — when voters aged between 21 and 40 made up about 41 per cent of the electorate — their turnout rate exceeded that of older voters “by a couple of percentage points”, noted Ibrahim.
“But I think in this particular (general) election, if there isn’t a strong narrative (of) change … (younger people) will (have) less inclination … to show up to vote.”
BARISAN NASIONAL ‘HAS CHANGED’
The results of recent state elections also show that Barisan Nasional (BN) has turned around its fortunes.
While the 1MDB corruption scandal that engulfed former Prime Minister Najib Razak lost the coalition some votes in 2018, BN swept Melaka’s state election last November and the Johor election in March, winning a two-thirds majority or more.
At the Sarawak state election last December, the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) coalition scored a landslide victory. Its four component parties had been part of BN but left to form GPS after BN’s defeat in 2018.
These results show that “people are looking for political stability”, said James Chin, a professor of Asian studies at Australia’s University of Tasmania.
“The only product Umno (United Malays National Organisation, BN’s biggest party) can sell … (is) that if you vote for us, you’ll get a stable Malaysia.”
The wider public is also still driven by identity politics; and increasingly, this includes the younger generation, he said.
Umno supporter Khairunnisa Jamal, for example, does not want race-based politics to be erased, although the 23-year-old graduate believes everyone has an equal right to education.
The way things are, Chin is confident enough to make a prediction: “I’m happy to go on record (to say) that if elections are held this year, BN/Umno will win hands down. Not a problem.”
He also believes “it isn’t possible to change things like the affirmative action policy in Malaysia”, because that would mean having to “get rid of all the mainstream Malay political parties”.
“If you take this (policy) away, you’re actually attacking or taking away the core ideology of the two main Malay political parties,” he said.
Even the youth-centric Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) — the party co-founded by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the former minister of youth and sports in the Pakatan Harapan administration — recognises that race is a factor in Malaysian politics.
While co-founder Amira Aisya Abdul Aziz said Muda wants “every child to believe that they belong in Malaysia”, party vice-president Lim Wei Jiet told news site Free Malaysia Today in April that it is not opposed to race-based affirmative action but wants the policies to be implemented better.
The new party’s performance at Johor’s state elections was “relatively significant” — it garnered more support among younger voters than opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat did — but there are limitations, said Ibrahim.
“Parties like Muda can probably grow support within the urban context, but it’s still very difficult to break through in rural areas … into the Malay heartland where it really counts,” he said.
Aisya won the only seat out of the seven Muda contested in Johor, but none of its candidates lost their election deposit.
Such parties are competing for the same bloc of voters who are likely to vote for the Opposition, Ibrahim added.
On the other side of the fence, BN is eager to show that it can change and has changed. Umno veteran and former Cabinet minister Shahrir Abdul Samad said its younger candidates were a reason it has done well recently.
In Melaka, 87 per cent of BN’s candidates were new faces; while in Johor, the proportion was 79 per cent, cited Umno Youth chief Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki.
“Can’t you see how far we’ve changed?” said Shahrir.
BN had also introduced targeted subsidies, such as 1Malaysia People’s Aid cash transfers from 2018 that were needs-based and not race-based, he noted. The National Higher Education Fund Corporation’s student loans are also needs-based.
“Change doesn’t mean you have to overturn everything. It can be gradual, but it’s moving in some direction,” said Shahrir.
Last month’s apex court decision to uphold Najib’s conviction and 12-year jail term on corruption charges is another opportunity for Umno — to tell people it “doesn’t interfere in the courts” and fend off such accusations from the Opposition, said Norshahril.
Does that issue still stir political passion among the youth?
Ibrahim sees “a lot of uncertainties” about how the youth will vote at the coming election.
“We just have a new crop of new voters who are coming into the electoral pool,” he said. “First of all, are they going to come out to vote at all?”
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9 pm.