Will Malaysia’s First-Time Voters Become a Driving Force of GE15?

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Will Malaysia’s First-Time Voters Become a Driving Force of GE15?

When Malaysians head to the polls on November 19, a record 5 million young people are expected to take part for the first time.

Will Malaysia’s First-Time Voters Become a Driving Force of GE15?

Various party flags are seen in downtown Melaka, Malaysia, ahead of state elections on November 20, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian

On October 20, the Election Commission of Malaysia announced that the country will hold its 15th general election (GE15) on Saturday, November 19. This came 10 days after Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved Parliament and called for snap elections. The announcement marked the beginning of a new chapter in the tumultuous political saga sparked by the so-called Sheraton Move, which saw the resignation of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition in March 2020.

Since then, two prime ministers have taken over without a general election, and growing dissatisfaction with former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s management of the COVID-19 crisis peaked with the #Lawan protests in August 2021, prompting him to resign later that month. Ismail Sabri’s decision to hold the election in November sparked criticism given the impending start of the annual northeast monsoon season, which is likely to aggravate the flood crisis that has affected most of peninsular Malaysia as well as the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak since December.

Amid this complex background, more than 21 million Malaysians are expected to vote in next month’s general election, 5 million of whom are first-time voters. Many of those first-time voters became eligible as a result of Undi18 (“Vote at 18”), a bill passed in June 2019 that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 as of December 2021, after years of youth activism and advocacy. While the bill significantly expands the possibilities for young Malaysians to engage in the political process of the country, it remains to be seen whether this expanded electorate will impact the outcome of the upcoming election.

Jonathan Lee, a 20-year-old overseas Malaysian student, points to a lack of transparency around Undi18 that might impact turnout among first-time voters. “Many [of them] don’t know that they’re automatically registered, and that postal voting is an option,” he told The Diplomat. Based in England, Lee is head of the Malaysian Students Global Alliance (MSGA), which is working as part of the VoteMalaysia coalition, a youth group coordinating postal voting. This initiative aims to bring over 50,000 postal ballots back home.

Through his associational engagement, Lee has worked on several workshops and events educating overseas Malaysian students on their right to vote and how to exercise it. “I welcomed Undi18 because I believe the youths should have a say in the politics of their country,” he said. “Sometimes, young people don’t see themselves being part of the change, our goal is to provide them with the platform to do so and increase their engagement in politics.” Lee pointed to the role played by social media platforms in helping organizations like MSGA and VoteMalaysia in reaching the youth and providing them with unbiased information on the election.

These online initiatives aren’t exclusive to overseas Malaysians; many similar projects have proliferated within the homeland as well. Preevena Jayabalan, a 21-year-old student at Monash University, has been involved with YPolitics (Youth in Politics), a multi-partisan and independent youth-led Instagram project seeking to educate Malaysian youth on the country’s political landscape and their offering in the upcoming election, to produce more politically aware youth.

Jayabalan highlighted the importance of such projects. “Today’s youth are more tech-savvy and engaged on social media. Whenever there’s an issue they feel passionate about, they take to social media to express their discontent.” YPolitics’ target audience is young first-time voters, with infographics outlining Malaysia’s political parties, the electoral process, as well as quick facts posts on topics such as the country’s economy and foreign policy, among other things. “Our focus is on political awareness,” she said. “We want youths to assess parties based on proposed platforms and understand the election process by providing young voters with unbiased information.”

Voter engagement is a crucial issue of this year’s election, and many youth activists have expressed concerns about a lack of interest in the voting process. Lee contrasts this year’s feeling to the 2018 general election when he said voters “felt more optimistic that real change was possible.” According to him, successive political scandals over the past four years, from the consistent prime ministerial turnover to the conclusion of the 1MDB corruption scandal, have significantly eroded trust in the political process and the ability of elected officials to efficiently lead the country.

Jayabalan echoed these concerns, citing a strong cleavage in political engagement between highly-educated youths from Malaysian’s urban areas – mainly Kuala Lumpur, Pulau Pinang, and Selangor – compared to youths from lower socio-economic backgrounds in the more rural parts of the country. “Youths from rural areas don’t feel that the parties are appealing to them, and they’re less likely to vote if they don’t think that the election will impact their day-to-day lives,” she said. She also pointed to a technological divide between urban and rural areas, worsened by the pandemic and the shift to online learning, which further exacerbates gaps in youth political engagement based on socio-economic backgrounds.

Aisyah Adly, a 21-year-old linguistics student, echoed these concerns, highlighting systemic faults in the education system that worsen this gap. “Rural areas lag in education because youths from lower socio-economic backgrounds either cannot afford it or choose to not pursue further education because they have to provide for their family,” she explained. As she pointed out, a lack of access to affordable education in Malaysia’s rural areas prevents youths from developing an interest in engaging with their country’s politics.

The young woman, who has been a member of Parliwomen, a youth-led advocacy group seeking to encourage women’s participation in Malaysian politics, also outlines barriers to discussing politics in the current education system: “even in universities, political discourse gets shunned by school administrations,” she said, adding later that this “discourages students from engaging in politics.” She stated that schools’ efforts to shun political discourse feed complacency in the context of political instability and high-profile corruption scandals that have plagued Malaysia’s democracy. “Events of the past few years have significantly eroded trust in the government and our elected officials,” she said. “Many youths don’t believe parties are tackling important issues.”

The fracture between young voters and political elites is also worsened by a lack of transparency surrounding Undi18. Damon Goh, a 23-year-old medical student from Kedah state, points to a lack of government effort to educate the youths on the impact of Undi18 on their right to vote. Through his participation in the Dewan Muda Malaysia, a leadership development program bringing 222 youths representing all the constituencies in Malaysia’s Parliament, Goh has come to interact with issues surrounding Undi18.

“Many youths are still in the blue about the postal ballot system,” he said. “They weren’t told how to register for ballot voting, or that it could take up to two weeks to vote by postal ballot.” Considering postal ballots will only be sent once the nomination is confirmed on November 5, overseas voters would only have exactly 14 days to vote in time for the election on the 19th.

“Moving forward, the government should do away with postal ballots and set up an online voting system for voters outside their constituency,” Goh said. He pointed out that the issue doesn’t just concern overseas voters, but also domestic voters who have relocated between east and west Malaysia. “Soaring airline tickets make it difficult for them to fly back to their home constituency for the election,” he said. “[Online voting] would make voting much easier for this electorate and would lessen the financial burden of postal ballot on the government.”

Despite the flaws in the current postal voting system, Lee hints at a notable impact on the election’s voter turnout: “So far, we’ve had over 80,000 registered postal voters, compared to just 8,000 in the 2018 general election.” This represents a tenfold increase in four years, inviting feelings of hope and optimism in the young activist. The hope is that a similar dynamic can follow for first-time voters in the homeland.

While Undi18 and the various online activism campaigns and information projects have contributed to increasing the platform provided to Malaysia’s youth to engage in politics, GE15 will be the ultimate test of whether all these efforts can effectively drive first-time voters to the polls. As Aisyah puts it: “Undi18 gave [young Malaysians] access to the polls, it’s our role as young voters to exercise our democratic right to vote and voice our concerns.”