Uncertain transformation: Malaysia’s first ‘youth’ election

By Dr Bridget Welsh
Honorary Research Associate, University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, Malaysia

Malaysians in the southern state of Johor head to polls on March 12 in a pivotal state election.

Not only will the result set the timing for national polls if the former dominant UMNO/Barisan Nasional coalition wins big, it will be the first election that includes voters from ages 18-20 and previously unregistered voters who have now been included in the electoral roll - disproportionately voters under 30.

This reform - one of the most impactful democratic institutional reforms in Malaysia’s history - was led by a youth movement, UNDI18.

To appreciate the effect of this reform is to recognise that one out of four voters will be first-time voters in the state electorate of 2.6 million, a trend that will extend nationally in the next general elections that have to be called before next year.

There is understandable uncertainty whether these voters will actually come out to vote and even more uncertainty about who they will support.

Political players new and old

Former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad
Former PM Mahathir Mohamad is still active in politics at age 96. Pic credit: Tasnim News Agency

The first youth-based party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) hopes to capitalise on youth’s greater numbers in its maiden election.

Parties across the political spectrum have fielded more youthful candidates and ratcheted up their engagement with youth, recognising that their political fortunes will be determined by Malaysia’s young in a youthful country.

Recently released 2020 census data shows that over half the country’s population is between the ages of 18 and 40.

The dynamics in Johor election speak to broader political changes taking place in Malaysia, as the political fulcrum moves toward Malaysia’s future generation.

In a country that had the world oldest Prime Minister in office, Mahathir Mohamad (2018-2020), who at 96 is still active in politics, the search for new leaders and inclusion of a new generation is telling; more Malaysians are looking toward a different future, not bogged down by the past, even as the conflicts and personalities of past continues to haunt national politics.

Along with Mahathir, Malaysia’s political landscape still features convicted former prime minister Najib Razak, known for his 1MDB fame (the largest kleptocracy scandal in the world) and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, seen increasingly as a product of an earlier political era.

Former Malaysian PM Najib Razak speaks into a microphone
That Najib Razak walks free despite a corruption conviction shows a double-standard in how elites are treated. Pic credit: Flickr/Firdaus Latif

What do we know about young voters in Malaysia?

Studies of Malaysia’s youth identify three themes:

1) diversity of views (from liberals to conservatives) In fact, what distinguishes youth is the broad range of views over social policy, religion, democracy and global affairs. Gen-Z has been raised in an era of greater political openness and widespread social media. Increasingly they are less socialized by national media and Malaysian government narratives.

2) less political engagement with a politically engaged vanguard; Malaysian youth are described as ‘apathetic’ and studies show that they are less likely to join political parties, follow news or discuss politics compared to older generations. Yet, the emergence of a youth vanguard, activists setting national narratives over inclusion, climate change, and social policy contradict this. While youth may be more disengaged in numbers, those that are engaged are making more impact.

During the height of the Covid pandemic, young protestors were pivotal in the White and Black flag movements challenging the government’s handling of the effects of lockdowns. From school closures to unemployment, youth were on the front line and protested. January youth-led protests over the compromised leadership of Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Agency in show they still are.

3) unique cohort outlooks; As with earlier cohorts, they have been socialized in a particular period in national history – weaker political parties, coalition and compromise politics, greater democratic space and the pandemic.

People take a selfie in front of a fountain
More than half of Malaysia's population is aged 18-40. Pic credit: Pixabay/Peggy Marco

On the whole, young Malaysians are less hung up on the zero-sum post-1969, racialised politics that permeates the discourse of current leaders. There is a more ‘Malaysian’ outlook rather than the ethnonationalism of specific communities.

Equally important, there is greater realism about politicians and politics, with strong anti-elite views resulting from a record of political abuse and impunity on the part of Malaysian leaders. That Najib walks free despite his conviction personifies the double-standard in how elites are treated.

Nevertheless, Malaysia’s youth simultaneously are more optimistic and hopeful than older Malaysians, believing in the country and themselves. There is a louder clarion call from youth for politicians to ‘get real’ – to solve problems and deliver better governance.

Youth politics has moved from universities to the ballot box, with younger leaders such as MUDA president Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, and get-out-the-vote activists (former UNDI18’s) Qyira Yusri and Tharma Pillai gaining prominence.

The number of candidates under 35 contesting has increased four-fold from earlier elections, bringing with them energy, creativity and a focus on Malaysia’s future.

Why elections in Johor matter

Johor’s state polls will be a first ‘youth’ poll in many that will come. Research on voting of youth in Malaysia so far shows that they are pivotal in outcomes.

Without a youth swing to Harapan in 2018, there would not have been a change of government. In the three state elections since 2018 (Sabah, Malacca and Sarawak), young have shown that they are more willing to change their political loyalties and more open to new parties.

This youth swing has contributed to the increased voting share of Muhyiddin Yassin’s party Bersatu in recent post-2018 elections. The young swing will set the direction of all parties ahead, including the fortunes of Harapan and UMNO/BN, the latter of whom is seeking a comeback to power without large youth support to date.

From their greater inclusion in the electoral roll and higher numbers of candidates for office to vanguard activism, developments regarding youth in Malaysia show that their empowerment has already been transformative.

Recent history in Malaysia shows however that there remains considerable resistance to change. Herein lies the source of uncertainty, as the old guard remains deeply entrenched in a self-serving political system where alternative perspectives and demands for sharing power and representation are opposed.

Johor’s election will test this system, in what will be many tests ahead.

Banner image: Thilipen Rave Kumar/Unsplash

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politics; election Politics; Election southeast-asia; malaysia Southeast Asia; Malaysia

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