ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Did TikTok Bring Young Malaysian Voters to the Polls?

Perikatan Nasional’s campaign on the popular social media platform appears to have paid off.

Did TikTok Bring Young Malaysian Voters to the Polls?
Credit: Depositphotos

On November 5, Muhyiddin Yassin released a TikTok video that racked up four million views in a single day. The leader of Malaysia’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition is an old-school politician whose followers call him “abah,” meaning father. But Muhyiddin has a Bernie Sanders-like appeal among young conservatives. In the video, the 75-year-old breaks out a few dad dance moves to the hit rap single “Swipe” while swiping left on the symbols of competitors in the race. “Wow Abah power…” read one of the 17,000 comments below the video.

Malaysia’s recent general election was one for the record books. Voter turnout hit an all-time high. Nearly 15 million citizens cast their ballots, a 20 percent jump over the previous general election. Voters under the age of 21, newly enfranchised by a constitutional amendment, flocked to the polls. The youth surge likely propelled Malaysia’s raucous democracy into uncharted waters, giving the country its first hung parliament.

Did TikTok play a role?

PN stunned political analysts by winning 73 seats. Muhyiddin was a leading contender for prime minister in the days after the election. But the coalition, which ran on a nationalist and Islamist platform, could not cobble together the 112 seats required to form a government. PN was the principal beneficiary of what some media outlets called the “green tsunami,” or Islamic vote. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a partner in the coalition, more than doubled its seat tally to 49, becoming the single largest party in Malaysia’s parliament.

Francis Hutchinson, senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told The Straits Times, that “what took us by surprise . . . was the extent of that wave. It really was a lot bigger than we thought.” The constitutional change that lowered the voting age to 18 and brought 6 million new voters to the polls transformed the demographics of the voting population and pushed the electorate to the right of center. “These new voters in Malaysia are not necessarily more liberal, less driven by identity politics or willing to demand change. The young skew more towards Malay and indigenous groups than the rest of the population, thanks to differing birthrates, and are frequently conservative,” explained Bloomberg columnist Clara Ferreira Marques.

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In a post-election press conference, Muhyiddin said his coalition’s strong showing was mainly due to the participation of first-time voters.  PAS is popular with Malay youth despite its party platform, which favors strict Islamic laws and codes of conduct. . One of its youth leaders warned that Western-style concerts invited “the wrath of Allah.” However, PAS needed to team up with a more moderate political figure like Muhyiddin to win seats in parliament. The PN leader dancing to a rap single may not have pleased the fundamentalists but he appears to have scored points with young conservatives.

PN’s TikTok outreach to new voters paid off on election day. “It activated them and pushed them out to vote in droves, resulting in substantial victory margins for the National Alliance,” James Chai, a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told Nikkei Asia.  Sofia Hayati Yusoff, a lecturer at the Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia’s Department of Communication, surveyed first-time voters and found that “candidates and parties that succeeded in influencing the young voters were those that campaigned via TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube…they used various approaches including entertainment by incorporating the latest songs into their campaigns.”

The short-form video hosting app from Beijing-based ByteDance has experienced meteoric growth in Malaysia over the last two years. “TikTok is a new ‘constituency’ chased by many politicians; it is akin to a parliamentary seat with no physical boundaries,” wrote Mohd Faizal Musa, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Musa conducted fieldwork in Malay heartland constituencies and found that new voters look to TikTok as their first, and sometimes the only source of news on politics. At 4 million, the total number of users is small compared to other markets. But Malaysia is the top video-consuming country in Southeast Asia and one of TikTok’s fastest-growing markets.

Unlike Facebook, TikTok does not allow political advertising. That hasn’t prevented the app from becoming a platform for antisemitism and conspiracy theories. In mid-November, Muhyiddin made unsubstantiated accusations that the rival multiethnic Pakatan Harapan alliance was colluding with “groups of Jews and Christians” whose goal was to convert Malay Muslims. The video of the speech was posted on PN’s Facebook page. But shorter clips using loaded terms like “Christianization agenda” began circulating on TikTok.  The Council of Churches of Malaysia called Muhyiddin’s remarks “irresponsible.” The PN leader later claimed the TikTok videos took his words out of context.

Another example of how not to use TikTok came from 97-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister. In his video, Mahathir launched a diatribe against Muhyiddin that began with the words: “Who is the traitor?” “Get Rest Sir. Please,” wrote one TikTok user, expressing a popular sentiment. Mahathir lost his long-held constituency, forfeiting his deposit. The Langkawi seat went to a PN candidate who hammered home a simple message: go out and vote.