ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Youth Present New Challenges to Malaysia’s Old Politics

Youth pose challenges to the country’s aging political elite, but they are far from a monolithic bloc.

Youth Present New Challenges to Malaysia’s Old Politics

Students on the campus of a public university in Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia;

Credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection

In July 2019, the Malaysian House of Representatives made history by unanimously passing the constitutional amendment bill lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years. Almost two years later, the bill is at the center of attention once more due to claims made by Senate President Rais Yatim that it is logistically impractical to implement the new voting age in the near future.

Rais Yatim’s claim runs contrary to earlier assurances that the new voting age would be implemented by July of this year. This in turn has raised concerns that an estimated 3.8 million youth could be excluded from voting in the next general election.

The uncertainty over the fate of the bill adds to the growing list of vulnerabilities faced by Malaysia’s youth. Even as the country’s economy has experienced strong growth over the past decade, averaging 5.4 percent annually prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, these economic benefits have not been distributed equitably. This has resulted in a generation of youth grappling with underemployment, stagnant wages and escalating house prices in cities.

The COVID-19 crisis has further deepened existing economic inequalities. As the pandemic disrupted lessons, students from low-income households and rural areas struggled to attend online classes due to the lack of necessary electronic devices and stable internet connections. This predicament was highlighted in the viral story of Veveonah Mosibin, a university student from the state of Sabah, who spent a night in a tree in her rural village just to get a stronger internet signal so that she could sit for her online exams.

Meanwhile, the new Perikatan Nasional government is finding it difficult to project a consistent stance on youth empowerment. One of its deputy ministers drew public backlash after he accused Veveonah of being an attention seeker, reflecting the dismissive and skeptical attitudes that many older politicians harbor toward the youth. The government also quietly backtracked on the process of repealing the controversial Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA), which has been used to suppress the political freedoms of university students for decades.

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Amid the increasing economic vulnerability and frustration over the continued dominance of aging political elites, Malaysia’s youth are convinced that their futures are tied to greater political representation for their generation. This explains in part the growing participation in youth-led civil society organizations (CSOs) focused on a wide range of topics, ranging from education reforms to climate justice.

Unlike the youth protest movements of Thailand and Hong Kong, however, youth-led CSOs in Malaysia focus on participating in formal political and policy-making processes. Much of this willingness to pursue reforms through engagement with formal institutions can be attributed to the progress made in political empowerment during the brief stint of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, which scored a landmark election victory in May 2018.

As Prashant Waikar notes, the multiethnic PH coalition raised the profile of its younger politicians as part of its successful election campaign strategy. This move was contrasted with the rigid party hierarchies of the then-incumbent Barisan Nasional coalition, which prioritized senior party stalwarts over promising youth wing leaders. Once in government, the PH coalition worked with the youth-led movement Undi18 to lower the voting age and began the process of repealing the UUCA.

Although the PH government collapsed unceremoniously after only 22 months in power, youth movements have kept up the momentum for reforms through their presence on social media platforms. These platforms have been especially critical during the pandemic, when opportunities for in-person networking are limited. For example, the virtual mock parliament event, Parlimen Digital, was successful in capitalizing on social networks to attract more than 5,000 applicants.

A related development to keep an eye on is the emergence MUDA, a youth-centric political party helmed by former Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq. Although the multicultural MUDA promises to disrupt the old style of politics, the fledgling party’s platform has yet to be made public because it has been tied up in a legal challenge over its formal recognition as a political party. Syed Saddiq has since leveraged this setback to portray the current political establishment as out of touch and threatened by Malaysia’s youth.

Despite the growing potency of youth movements in Malaysia, optimistic expectations that the country’s youth will bring about a sea change in the sociopolitical scene should be tempered somewhat. Youth are far from monolithic, and they have inherited from previous generations the legacies of Malaysia’s complex racial relations, and also reflect the country’s widening rural-urban divide.

A prominent issue which reflects the lasting impact of these legacies is the debate over the use of ethnic-based affirmative action in public universities. The policy continues to gain many young supporters as a new generation begins to benefit from this long-standing policy. This shows that while the youth may broadly agree on reforming the economic and political systems in their favor, ethnic and socioeconomic considerations still color their personal views on the directions that these reforms should take.

Local youth movements have thus far chosen not to directly confront such thorny issues of race and religion. Instead, they have stressed the principle of inclusiveness while prioritizing initiatives which reach out to youth from lesser-developed areas. There is merit to this approach of bridging the socioeconomic divide as it builds greater legitimacy for these movements to be seen as truly representative of the youth at large.

For now, the likely delay in implementing the new voting age appears to be a temporary setback which is unlikely to impede the push for further reforms. Politicians should leverage the willingness of youth to work within formal political and policy-making processes, and seek to co-opt youth movements rather than treat them with skepticism.

In addition, any post-COVID-19 economic recovery plan for Malaysia needs to address the underlying structural problems of overreliance on cheap, unskilled foreign labor, and the poor development and retention of skilled labor necessary for stimulating domestic innovation. This would contribute towards rebuilding a more sustainable economy which is not only equitable for the current generation of youth, but also for future generations.