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GE-15 and the scramble for youth voters

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

This November, Malaysians go to the elections weary from years of political unrest and anxious about the economy. After constitutional amendments to lower the voting age and automatically register voters, the youth vote is gaining new emphasis.

Since the most recent general election, which was held in 2018, as a result of these revisions, there have been an additional 6 million voters. The majority of voters today are under the age of forty, making up 51% of the overall voters and could swell the Malaysian electorate by about 40%.

GE-15 will definitely be a contesting point for political parties to appeal to the youths and policymakers will think twice about young Malaysians when designing policy.

How the Undi-18 movement changed the landscape

“For the first time, the youth are the biggest electoral bloc,” Pillai says.

Tharma Pillai, co-founder of advocacy group Undi18 which campaigned to give 18-year-olds the vote, describes it as a “huge change to Malaysian democracy”. The reason behind the advocacy on Undi 18 was so that the youth could voice out their concerns and bring youth empowerment to life.

After three years of advocacy, the bill to lower voting age from 21 to 18 has been met with full support from both sectors of the political aisle and it includes automatic registration of voters which previously had to be done manually.

Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman pinned on a support for the Undi 18 Bill button on Ayer Hitam MP Datuk Seri Wee Ka Siong at Parliament on July 16, 2019.

What are at the back of the minds of young voters?

Malaysians are frustrated after years of instability. Voters are also grappling with rising living costs as the economy, still recovering from the Covid pandemic, and dealing with a global slowdown and inflation pressures.

Student unions from public universities have also come together to voice out their youth-related concerns. Amongst the demands are free higher education for those from low-income backgrounds and subsidised tertiary tuition fees for those from the middle-income groups. Other demands include abolishing the University and University College Act and capping the tenure of the prime minister to two terms, and MPs to five terms.

Alif Naif Mohd Fizam, President of the International Islamic University Malaysia Student Union, says that political parties would get their whole-hearted support and campaign backing

if they would just include these 15 items as part of their respective election manifesto this year.

This notion was also agreed by Ibrahim Suffian, pollster and co-founder of the Merdeka Center. He says inflation and political stability are the top issues in voters’ minds. Suffian says the general mood in Malaysia is “fairly negative” and polling conducted in July found nearly two-thirds of respondents thought the country was heading in the wrong direction.

Economic concerns made up a big part of the dissatisfaction, while continued political uncertainty also troubled voters. For young people, jobs and the economy are the main concerns. Youth unemployment is high, many graduates struggle to find jobs and wage growth has been stagnant.

Bread and butter issues will definitely be the main talking points heading into GE-15 as the people wait on the manifesto announcements from each coalition.

Political coalitions have their predictions too

Umno information chief Shahril Sufian Hamdan told Utusan Malaysia believes that Barisan Nasional can win the elections as youth voters will make wise judgements and not simply rely solely on perceptions. “I don’t agree with those who say that many young people support the opposition. Any party has strong voters and support from all age groups. “Any parties that offer solutions particularly on wage issues for example, that will be the party that will be chosen by the youth voters,” he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, PN youth deputy chief Wan Ahmad Fahysal Wan Ahmad Kamal said that youth voters will favour the coalition due to the so-called reputations of its main rivals BN and Pakatan Harapan (PH). He said that the image of both of the opposing coalitions is visible to the demographic, and will manifest in the election results. To him, this will hinder the support from conservative and centrist youth voters towards PH and BN as PN have a much better moral appeal.

Rafizi Ramli (PKR-PH) on the other hand said how youths vote would be unpredictable in GE15. However, based on his party’s statistics, he said, 84% of young voters were unhappy with Malaysia’s economic situation as well as the government’s handling of their future.

Not every youth out there is excited about the elections

Andrea Chow, a 19-year-old from Selangor, a state on the country’s west coast, is another new voter. She describes feeling anxious and excited about casting her first ballot. Chow is involved in political activism but says her friends aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the election.

“My peers who are not as politically engaged, they are not as excited. They have this belief that even if they vote, their vote doesn’t matter because of the instability,” Chow says, adding as a result, they are not sure if they’ll turn out.

Pillai reflects this sentiment, saying a lack of faith in political parties has made it “challenging” to inspire young voters. At the same time, he says young Malaysians tend to share party affiliation with older generations and their beliefs are often not different to those held by their elders.

Protesters hold placards during the Turun protest at Sogo shopping complex, in Kuala Lumpur July 23, 2022

“Unlike in the west where young people tend to be more progressive, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in Malaysia,” Pillai says.

Professor William Case, head of politics, history and international relations at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, argues that unless the attitudes and political outlooks held by young people change dramatically between now and the election, they are unlikely to have a “distinctive impact”.

James Chin, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, says it will come down to turnout. If young Malaysians show up in large numbers and back the opposition, there could be regime change.

“If [young voters] come out at 40% to 50% they will have no impact,” Chin says. But he says if turnout is high, between 80% and 90%, and if almost all of that group vote for the opposition “then the current government will fall”.

The rising tide of protests

International Islamic University Malaysia’s student union president Aliff Naif (third from left) says the student groups will take to the streets if their demands are not met. (ref/Malaysiakini)

Now more than ever before, Malaysia has seen the growth of youth groups becoming more politically engaged, even student unions in Malaysian government universities have become extremely vocal. In June of 2022, the President of the International Islamic University Malaysia’s student union, Aliff Naiff was charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act for protesting rising inflation. Naiff who was the spokesperson for the IIUM student union listed 5 demands from the government, including salary cuts for ministers and additional provision of subsidies, price controls for food sold at universities.

This led to fellow student group, the United Kingdom and Eire (Ireland) Council for Malaysian Students (UKEC) filing a statement of solidarity in support of Naiff, signed by over 52 Malaysian Societies in the UK. Legal aid to Naiff was even offered through the Malaysian student organisation Kesatuan Penuntut Undang-Undang Malaysia (KPUM), a society of law students based in the UK and Malaysia.

Organisers of the protest movement Gerakan Tolak Kerajaan Gagal holding a press conference in Bangsar, August 20, 2022. – Malay Mail photo

The Malaysian youth is also leading protests in the form of the Gerakan Tolak Kerajaan Gagal (translating loosely to ‘Mobilise the Rejection of the Failed Government’) has been organising protests throughout Malaysia, with campaigns from Kuala Lumpur to East malaysia. The group has been extremely vocal about their displeasure with the government and has even challenged the leadership of the current government and their shortcomings. In a August 2022 Press Conference, spokesman for the movement, Muhammad Syahmi Shamsuddin said:

“This government under Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob has failed the people miserably especially the MPs from Umno and Barisan Nasional. We have the littoral combat ship scandal, Tan Sri Azam Baki’s shares issue, personal data breach by MySejahtera, lack of facilities for the handicapped and failing public transportation as well as the news that the police are operating a troll farm.
“Not only that, we the students and protesters have been harassed, bullied and intimidated by the police for raising these issues. Hence we must be brave and strong in our convictions and we decided to take this show on the road so everyone will know how Ismail Sabri’s government has failed us miserably,” he added.

This all spells one thing for clear in Malaysia, the youth has woken up and is more politically engaged than ever before. We now not only hold a majority in voting, but we hold the reins of information and media to be able to voice our opinion. With the next general election peeling around the corner, Malaysia’s youth is surely to play a part in the years to come.

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