It’s 1989. The Cold War is ending. Democracy has been restored in the Philippines. Vietnamese forces have pulled out of Cambodia and peace talks are underway in Paris to solve the Indochina conflicts for good. The communist parties of Vietnam and Laos are three years into their pro-market reforms. There are stirrings of democracy in Myanmar after the previous year’s nationwide student protests. Since 1980, Singapore’s GDP has grown by 155 percent; Malaysia’s from $24.4 billion to $38.8 billion. The first stages of rampant capitalism are beginning in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. History has ended, we’re informed from America. Things seem new, modern; the region is on the cusp of leaving behind the tragedies of the Cold War and entering a phase of prosperity and peace.
But do you look around and think, my leaders are way too old to see in this new modernity? Lee Kuan Yew, a year short of his retirement, is 66. Mahathir Mohamad is 64. Thailand’s Chatichai Choonhavan is 69. Indonesia’s dictator Suharto, with still nearly a decade left in office, is a year younger. In Vietnam, a geriatric elite still holds the reins. The prime minister, Do Muoi, is 72. (He was born during the First World War.) In Laos, the head of government, Kaysone Phomvihane, is 69. Myanmar’s Saw Maung is 61. Corazon Aquino is more sprightly but she is still 56. Hun Sen, who came to power in Cambodia four years earlier, is the exception at just 37. Most are not just old, they have been in power for a considerable time: Lee since 1959; Suharto since 1968; and Mahathir since 1981. Kaysone has headed Laos’ communist party since 1955.
Youth is the talking point of Southeast Asia politics today. The median age of the population is 30.2 years. Over half of the electorate who will vote in next month’s presidential election in the Philippines is aged between 18 and 40. Malaysians between 18 and 20 will be allowed to vote for the first time in a general election that will likely be called next year. An estimated 58 percent of the electorate will be between 18 and 40 by then. In Myanmar, however, the youth have seen their future snatched away from them by the military, which launched a coup last year. Cambodians, whose median age is just 25, won’t have much of a fair shot at June’s local elections.
But should one, again, look around and consider the age of the region’s leaders? Lee Hsien Loong is 70, as is the Lao prime minister, Phankham Viphavanh. Joko Widodo is 60, Hun Sen is 69 and Prayut Chan-o-cha is 68. Pham Minh Chinh, of Vietnam, and Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the Malaysian prime minister, are both 63. The East Timorese leader, Taur Matan Ruak, is 65. So, too, is the Myanmar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing. The country’s deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, beats the rest at 76 years of age. The frontrunner for the Philippine presidency, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, is 64. Put simply, every leader is at least twice the regional median age.
What I’m asking is, does age matter? That’s a question being pondered across the world. At his inauguration, the U.S. president, Joe Biden, was 78, eight years older than the next oldest incoming U.S. president, his predecessor Donald Trump. Biden was a decade older than third-place Ronald Reagan was when he took office. As one historian put it: “If the United States’ enemies wanted to paint it as a decadent, decaying, senescent society, unable to move on from its Cold War heyday, then no casting agency could have supplied better rivals than Biden and Trump, two aging prize-fighters who made their names when Bill Gates was still at college.”
According to some, old men (and the occasional old woman) are standing in the way of change. But Southeast Asian history somewhat disproves that idea. In 1998, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur opened as the tallest building in the world, and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was 73. When the Vietnamese Communist Party made the bold step of initiating economic reform in 1986, the prime minister was almost 80. The general secretary of the Communist Party, Le Duan, died in mid-1986 aged 79; he was swiftly placed by another 79-year-old.
The great hope of revitalization for Myanmar, after decades of being a hermetic pariah state, came in 2015 when the country elected the 70-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi. Deng Xiaoping, the great modernizer of China, finally won his Communist Party power struggle in late 1978; he was 74 years old. In 1989, the average age of Southeast Asia’s heads of government was around 62. By the turn of the century, in 2000, the average age increased to 63. And who can say the 1990s were not the region’s most revolutionary, transformative decade in recent history?
Neither can democrats really argue that age defines attitudes. Suu Kyi is 11 years older than the leader of the junta that ousted her last year. Cambodia’s opposition icon, Sam Rainsy, is four years older than Hun Sen. Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader, is 74. Even Leni Robredo, the liberal hopeful for the Philippines’ upcoming presidential election, is only six years younger than Marcos Jr. The reverse also has some merit. Najib Razak holds the record for the youngest candidate to run in a Malaysian election, at the age of 22, and was 56 when elected prime minister, the second youngest in the country’s history, yet he arguably goes down as the country’s worst premier.
A retort could be that democratic parties are worse at generational change, which I tend to agree with. Yet for most Southeast Asians the progressive option tends to be older than the candidate of the status quo. More importantly, doesn’t it feel somehow reductive to think that the young should only vote for the young or, as a corollary, that an elderly politician cannot represent the young? Isn’t it as parochial as a Malay-centric party claiming to only defend the rights of Malays?
In 2018, Malaysians voted out the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) for the first time in the country’s history. Who they voted in was Mahathir Mohamad, not only a former UMNO prime minister but 93 years old at the time. One of the first things he did was to propose lowering the voting age to 18 from 21. Malaysia’s parliament passed it the following year, after which Mahathir stated: “Malaysian youths are now more politically aware than in previous years. This step is needed to give them the opportunity, space, and voice to design the country’s democracy through elections.”
Coming into effect on January 1 this year, it added more than 5 million people to the election roll. In anticipation, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, or MUDA, the Malay word for “young,” was formed as a youth-focused party. However, Syed Saddiq, 29, its president and the country’s youngest-ever cabinet minister, isn’t a squeaky clean millennial, having been charged with corruption last year, which he’s contesting.
The first election these new youth voters could cast their ballots in was last month’s Johor state contest. A third who voted were first-timers. What happened? UMNO’s coalition won by a landslide. MUDA managed to win one local seat but took just 3.4 percent of the overall vote. Put simply, much of the new youth vote went to the party of tradition and the status-quo – one that is in fact even reactionary at its edges.
The median age of Indonesians is around 30. Around a third of the country’s voters are aged 17-25. So perhaps it made sense that before the 2019 elections for the new Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), a “millennial party,” to bar people older than 45 from joining. Yet it came in twelfth place at the legislative election with just 1.8 percent of the vote, not enough to enter parliament.
An exception may be Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of the short-lived Future Forward party, which came third at Thailand’s 2019 general election in part by presenting himself as the youthful candidate against the country’s geriatric autocrats. Thanathorn was 41 during the election, just one year older than the average Thai.
But it’s a mistake to think that millennials only vote for millennial leaders. At the 2016 Philippine presidential election, the autocratic, law-and-order candidate Rodrigo Duterte, then 71, reportedly won the youth vote, carrying a 33-point lead over his establishment rival for voters aged 18-24, and a 26-point lead for those aged 25-34. According to the latest opinion polls, 71 percent of Philippine voters aged 18-24 prefer the law-and-order Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son of the late dictator, and just 14 percent for the liberal Leni Robredo.
Maybe I’m being cynical, but as political parties rush through younger candidates to cater to the youth vote many of their nominees come with little experience and few selling points other than their age. Many are the prodigies of the current elite, which hardly gives them a common-touch with the average Southeast Asian youngster. And is there anything that says the young won’t be as corrupt or autocratic, or that they’re determined to be on the side of reform and meritocracy? Southeast Asia belongs to the young, for sure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean voting for someone with as few wrinkles as yourself.