ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Youth Moving to the Forefront of Malaysian Politics

A lowered voting age, and rising discontent with the country’s rusted-on political elite, are stimulating youth involvement in politics.

By Crystal Teoh for
Youth Moving to the Forefront of Malaysian Politics

Malaysian students at the campus of a public university in Selangor.

Credit: Flickr/World Bank

On July 4 and 5, a group of Malaysian youth associations successfully organized a virtual mock parliament. This event, known as Parlimen Digital, saw the involvement of 222 young Malaysians representing actual constituencies, who came together online to debate a range of topics, ranging from economic challenges to the state of the country’s education system. The initiative was born of the dissatisfaction about the government’s decision not to hold a virtual parliament sitting, despite the urgent need for debate over a number of pressing issues, not least how the country can best recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the new government called for a mere one-day sitting on May 18, in order to satisfy the constitutional requirement that the parliament meet at least once every six months or otherwise face dissolution. The sitting was also carried out without debate, in order to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infections.

With this in mind, Parlimen Digital was created with two purposes: first, to serve as a platform for young Malaysians to engage in politics; and second, to prove that a virtual parliament session was possible in a Malaysian context. In the first 24 hours of registration, Parlimen Digital received an overwhelming 1,500 applications, which subsequently grew to nearly 6,300. More than 200,000 viewers tuned in as participants debated, voted and passed bills addressing various issues affecting Malaysia’s young population.

About a week later, on July 14, the nation’s actual Parliament convened physically and drew widespread criticism on its first day as experienced lawmakers were kicked out while shouting matches erupted across the floor. Riding on the success of Parlimen Digital, groups of young Malaysians flooded social media with their frustrations on the juvenile behavior of their Members of Parliament. Some voiced their desire for a new generation of political leaders to takeover, disseminating the #MasaKita (#OurTurn) hashtag on Twitter.

While youth-led political movements are not new to Malaysia, there has been a notable uptick of interest since March, when backroom politicking resulted in a change in the federal government. As it stands, Malaysia could soon face a snap election, given that the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin commands only a slim majority in parliament. As the country navigates a political crisis and a pandemic-stricken economy, young people in Malaysia have become increasingly impatient and frustrated with the state of their country’s leadership.

The unifying theme is a feeling of frustration and disdain toward Malaysia’s current political elite. Young Malaysians are growing increasingly unsatisfied with the political climate of their country, which has long been dominated by senior politicians who have consolidated power and influence over many years, making it difficult for the younger generation to gain representation at the highest levels of politics. Just this year, 27-year-old Member of Parliament Syed Saddiq was ridiculed and heckled by senior politicians as he tried to speak in parliament, an incident which many saw as typical of the disdain with which older politicians treat the needs and perceptions of the country’s youth.

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Interestingly, Saddiq, who was also the previous Minister of Youth and Sports, recently announced his plans to establish the country’s first youth-based political party. Citing inspiration from Future Forward in Thailand, and En Marche under Emmanuel Macron in France, he hopes that this new party will be able gather young technocrats, professionals and politicians from various backgrounds, inside and outside parliament, in order to force the political establishment to take youth needs more seriously. He aspires for the party and the country to depart from an old style of politics based on “power, division or money and contracts” and move towards a style organized around a “politics of service.”

Although Saddiq has gained a lot of support, especially from those who wish to see more fresh faces in politics, his proposal has also been met with skepticism, with one of his most notable critics being the 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s previous prime minister and also Saddiq’s one-time mentor. While Mahathir acknowledged that youths make up a major portion of the electorate, he also downplayed the prospects of a youth-based party being successful in a general election, arguing that its appeal would necessarily be limited to younger voters. Considering that the average age of Malaysian politicians is around 55, while the median age of the population is just 29, there is no doubt that the road ahead for these youth political movements will be challenging.

Furthermore, the growth of youth-led political movements in Malaysia may still be limited, as many in the country still lack reliable access to the Internet. In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, Veveonah Mosibin, a university student in a rural part of Sabah, East Malaysia, resorted to spending 24 hours on top of a tree in the jungle in order to get an Internet signal strong enough for her to take online exams. In fact, one of the major challenges in coordinating the Parlimen Digital event was the fact that many of their participants simply did not have access to the Internet. With the Internet and social media becoming the de facto method of mobilization for young Malaysians, unequal access to the web, especially in outlying rural areas of Malaysia, means that youth in the country are unable to enjoy equal access to information, nor to participate equally in these movements.

However, with Malaysia’s voting age having recently been lowered from 21 to 18, the country’s politicians may have political incentive to focus on luring young people into the political process. Although the new voting age only comes into force in July 2021, the government estimates that the amendment could add 3.8 million voters to the electoral lists by 2023. As a result, politicians looking to secure these new voters might also show more interest in appealing to the younger generation. With more and more youths speaking out and engaging in politics, it would be interesting to see how policymakers will react to this moving forward. As a matter of fact, there have already been signs that the government intends to be more proactive in developing policies that address the needs of the younger generation. This can be seen in the Ministry of Finance’s indication that youth will be one of the priority target groups in the upcoming 2021 Budget.

Although Malaysia has yet to see a youth-led movement as large and widespread as that propelling the current wave of demonstrations in neighboring Thailand, it bears careful observation as Malaysia moves in the direction of a possible snap election in the near future.

Crystal Teoh works in knowledge management for a professional services firm. She graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Master’s Degree in International Relations with a focus on East Asia and Southeast Asia.