A HISTORIC day indeed: Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Members of Parliament (MPs), all 211 present, voted unanimously to pass the Constitutional amendment that will witness three key things happening:
Firstly, the lowering of the voting age to 18; secondly, automatic voter registration; and thirdly, 18 being the minimum age for a Malaysian citizen to run for public office.
Kudos are in store for Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and his team for pushing this agenda, as well as youth activists Nur Qyira Yusri and Tharmeliggem Pillay for founding what is popularly known as the Undi 18 (Vote 18) movement.
They engaged with MPs from both sides of the aisle, rose above the storm when some people called them childish and said it was unachievable.
They did it, and in the process, our nation’s democratic landscape is forever changed.
The big arising question: Now what?
Making Undi 18 a reality is just the beginning. A lot of hard work, happiness, and pain are in store.
Some thoughts below.
Open season for political parties
Let’s be clear: Support from Opposition MPs wasn’t born in a warm and fuzzy place. There’s something in it for them too – for everyone, in fact.
Malaysia’s voter base is expected to increase from approximately 15 million in GE14 (the 14th General Election) to 21 million by GE15. Of this, about 3.8 million will consist of youth aged between 18 and 21.
Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong described Undi 18 as a “game-changer”. I agree.
We can be certain that more effort will be taken by political parties to win the hearts and minds of these new voters, especially as they gear up for GE15 (by 2023 at latest).
We’ll be seeing political machineries organise more events, leverage on social media and technology, and build narratives to court this new electorate – the youngest currently aged 14.
And herein lie both opportunity and danger.
Politicisation of children and youth
In 2007, a policeman was killed in a college in Kerala, India, after being hit by a wooden plank during a clash between rival student unions aligned to political parties. The news report stated, “unless political parties stop using campuses as their battlefields, more innocent lives will be lost”.
Closer to home, the landmark UKM4 case (of which I had the privilege of working on as a then lawyer-in-training) comes to mind.
The case concerned the constitutionality of banning student participation in politics under the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA).
The Federal Counsel argued such a ban was justified because student involvement in politics would lead to violence and cited case law of such incidences from around the world.
Fortunately, the Court of Appeal was not persuaded and in 2012 declared the UUCA provision unconstitutional. This led to the UUCA being amended to enable students to participate in politics – outside of campus.
More recently in 2018, the UUCA was amended again to enable on-campus politics.
The examples above suggest that political exposure can go very wrong if exploited.
Young impressionable minds, coupled with youthful exuberance, strength and passion, mixed with the anxieties of growing up (academia, employment, student debt, household affordability etc.) can be a recipe for disaster.
When push comes to shove, can our “political masters” show restraint?
A new narrative
The popularity and rapid growth of the “Malu Apa, Bossku?” movement among Malaysian youth should be a reminder. It not only effectively capitalises on youth anxieties but also dissatisfaction towards the current government, whether real or perceived.
Politics is, after all, perception.
Globally, the rise of populism and the political right, as illustrated in the United States by the recent “send them back” racist attacks on four junior Congresswomen, does raise scary prospects of the spectre of misguided race- and religious-based narratives dominating Malaysia’s future political landscape.
While Malaysians appeared to have bucked the populist trend in GE14, was that in reality a red herring? What if such narratives were pushed, say, by a foreign government, trying to influence our democracy? Will our government be ready to thwart it? Will our young (and even experienced) voters be able to rise above the tide of technologically-driven misinformation?
Evolving electorate demography
Interestingly, according to a New York Times article titled “How the Trump Era is Molding the Next Generation of Voters”, data suggests that the right-wing populist rhetoric of the US President is pushing voters left – meaning more moderate to liberal.
In Malaysia, the Pakatan Harapan government would likely be the left-equivalent while Barisan Nasional (seemingly defined by the Umno-PAS collaboration) is the right-equivalent.
Granted, Malaysian politics is more nuanced due to coalition composition.
The popular sentiment however is that new young voters would favour Pakatan as opposed to Barisan.
This said, the maverick in the mix is PAS. I was told by a seasoned political observer that the party is attracting future candidates who tick the right boxes – legitimate academic, professional and spiritual credentials – and that this could be impactful on the growing Malay-Muslim electorate.
Voter base demography is shifting. In a 2016 news piece citing a Statistics Department report, the bumiputra population is anticipated to increase from 19.2 million in 2015 to 26 million by 2040 (61.8% to 67.5%), with small increases among the Indians but a decline in the Chinese population.
According to a Pew Research report titled “The Future of World Religions”, Muslims (though I think they meant bumiputras) are expected to make up 72.4% of Malaysia’s population by 2050. Significant nonetheless.
In youth we trust
I spoke to a few youth who will be turning 18 to 21 by 2023. The general sentiment toward Undi 18 was one of excitement. Some believe that having the right to vote will itself invoke a sense of responsibility.
One added that “youth are sometimes more mature than adults”, and not “the ones using bad names or shouting at each other in Parliament”.
They also cited young global activists such as Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and Emma Gonzales as inspirations.
On exposure, most felt social media will be a key source of information, which meant even rural and suburban youth could be engaged with the narratives via technology.
Education and unity
Final prompt: How do we empower our future electorate to ensure the development of a healthy and functional, not dysfunctional, democracy?
For me, it boils down to education – both generally and voter education specifically.
The former looks at the broader cultivation of critical thinking, evaluating and making informed choices, while the latter is about understanding concepts like constitutional monarchy, separation of powers, and even the differences between MPs and Aduns (assemblymen). There’s a lot more, of course.
While this applies to even older voters, Undi 18 creates the imperative to start younger. And society owes a duty to empower them.
Ultimately, we want a democracy that leads to unity and togetherness. This will be our source of strength.
Our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj summed it up meaningfully when he said, “In our multiracial society, our Malaysian democracy, nothing is more fundamental than harmony between the many races which form the Malaysian nation”.
Looking forward to Malaysian democracy’s next chapter.