How Malaysia's youth propelled Pakatan Harapan to power - and are already keeping them in check

How Malaysia's youth propelled Pakatan Harapan to power - and are already keeping them in check

Pakatan Harapan supporters
Supporters of Pakatan Harapan outside the national palace following the coalition's victory during the 14th Malaysia general elections. (Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsayana)

KUALA LUMPUR: In Malaysia's 14th general election, 41 per cent of the country's 14.9 million eligible voters were under 40 years old, and 1.6 million or about 10 per cent of the electorate were first-time voters.

These groups were credited by Pakatan Harapan for helping them to take power - the first time an opposition force has done so in more than six decades since Malaysia's independence.

"I think Harapan took a huge piece of the youth vote which then propelled us into Putrajaya," said Syed Saddiq, a 25-year-old member of parliament for Muar in Johor and youth chief of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's party, Bersatu.

The new government has been analysing the results of its shock victory on May 9 and so far, it suggests at least 80 per cent of young voters had voted for the former opposition coalition.

"Of the about 80 per cent, it's not just those voting for Harapan, it's also them voting for (opposition party) PAS," said Saddiq. 

He said the "huge shift" could be felt in southern states like Johor but in the east coast states, he noted that younger voters continued the tradition of voting for Islamist party PAS.

Despite the overall strong support from the young for PH, however, 92-year-old Dr Mahathir has yet to announce a Cabinet minister under the age of 40.  On the day he took office, he promised "one young person" - but Saddiq is sure there will be more. 

He thinks that the government should aim to have youths, including young women, in 30 per cent of the Cabinet posts. "I'm very confident that the top leadership will include more young people," he said. 

"I mean, to be fair - we haven't released more than half of the Cabinet list."

Will he be on that list? Saddiq said he has no expectations. But as one of the youngest MPs in the country, with a big social media following to boot, he is widely speculated to take up a post.

Syed Saddiq Pakatan Harapan
Mr Syed Saddiq, a 25-year-old Member of Parliament and youth chief of Bersatu, is confident that the Malaysia's top leadership "will include more young people". 

Saddiq is also seen to be close to Dr Mahathir, although he says there are many people who advise the prime minister on "youth" issues. 

"One thing about Dr Mahathir is that he listens and he listens well, especially if it comes from young people and he knows that the suggestions do not come with any personal motive or hidden motives behind it," he said.

"He's a good listener but he scrutinises everything - so it's not just when we propose it, he says, 'OK done'."

This description of Dr Mahathir being receptive to feedback is starkly different to the popular image of him as a "dictator" during his last stint as prime minister between 1981 and 2003 - something the man himself has alluded to in jest on more than one occasion.

However, he has already made decisions that have prompted surprise from cynics. One of them, his statement on social media condemning the arrest of a man in Langkawi for allegedly insulting him. 

Another instance was his decision to drop the education minister portfolio after the public took to social media to remind him of his coalition's "no double portfolio for the PM" pledge.

"He wants the government to be more responsive. He doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past of shutting (out) people's opinions and viewpoints in the formation of government policies ... so that is why you see him being so responsive. As soon as the person got caught, he released a statement, he also informed the police (about his desire to let the man go)," said Saddiq.

"I think the best example was the Ministry of Education issue. He really wanted it. He really, really wanted it. I mean, you saw the press conference? His passion for education is beyond anything else ... but at the same time, he had to fulfil his promise to the people."

All this being said, Saddiq is calling on Malaysia's youth to keep being cynical. The thing about young voters, he said, is that they are not loyal to one party, shifting support to whoever is more deserving - placing needed pressure on those in power.

"Always be sceptical, always be critical towards the government and the opposition and of all political parties and characters," he said.

"And try not to be loyal or blindly loyal to any politician, any political party because I think the youth strength comes in our scepticism and our critical thinking which means that all parties will be on our toes to cater to the youth interest.

"Because if we do not get their support, we know we will lose the (next) election."

Source: CNA/ng(hm)