Youth Vote Key for Malaysian Election Win – But Will They Show Up?

Hadi Azmi, Lex Radz and Zam Yusa
Kuala Lumpur
2018-05-07
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180507-MY-youth-620.jpg Malaysian Royal Army officers queue during early voting ahead of the 14th general election in Kuala Lumpur, May 5, 2018.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

In an election in which a nonagenarian is leading the charge to topple a government 61 years in power, young candidates and young voters are hard to come by.

With more than 1,000 candidates competing for national parliament and state assembly seats in Malaysia’s 14th general election on Wednesday, only about 19 are under the age of 31, according to an informal count by BenarNews.

The youngest, law undergraduate P. Prabakaran, 22, told a campaign rally on Sunday that his main agenda was to “raise a voice for youth” and show that young people can participate in governing.

“In parliament, most are 50 years old and above. We, the youth, must conquer parliament,” he said in a short speech, according to The Star. “Democracy is not just about voting … I will use this platform for the development of youth, not just Batu but the whole nation.”

Prabakaran is running as an independent candidate for the Batu parliamentary seat, one of 11 in Kuala Lumpur. He has been endorsed by the Pakatan Harapan bloc after its own candidate for the seat, Chua Tian Chang, was disqualified over a conviction for insulting a police officer.

Among 30-and-younger candidates, 15 represent the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition headed by 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and four are from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional bloc, which has held power since 1957.

Those who are 21 and voting for the first time would have been 6 years old when Mahathir resigned from his prime ministerial post in 2003 after 22 years in office.

Mohd Izzuddin Ramli of the Penang Institute think tank said fielding young candidates is not easy for political parties because voters tend to favor older candidates, especially in rural areas.

“But they have to answer the call for political rejuvenation by attracting youths to join politics to gain young voters’ votes,” Izzuddin told BenarNews.

Cost of Living Concerns

In their campaign manifestos, both Pakatan and Barisan tried to entice young voters with pledges of job and educational opportunities, and housing specifically for young families.

The concerns of young people are similar to those of older voters, said Oh Ei Sun, senior adviser for International Affairs at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.

“But I believe they are also more keen on fundamental issues such as social justice,” Oh said.

The latest survey of Malaysian voters by the independent Merdeka Center for Opinion Research found the top issues for voters were economic concerns – inflation, job opportunities and income – followed by corruption and housing.

First-time voter Regunaa Narayanan Sharma, 27, said she plans to go home to the northern state of Kedah to vote Wednesday and expects to cast a ballot to change the government which she said had held power too long and become “complacent” in managing the country.

“The government failed to protect the people. The cost of living is high even for the middle income families,” Sharma said.

Adryan, 30, from Sabah in eastern Malaysia who would give only his first name, expressed concern about a 6 percent sales tax recently levied by the government (GST) and the national debt, which officially stands at 684 billion ringgit (U.S. $174 billion), according to Malaysian business portal theedgemarkets.com.

“The present government has placed a lot of burden on the people and caused the cost of living to rise by imposing the GST,” he said.

Apathy?

Raja Azraff Raja Azmil, 29, a first-time voter in Selangor, stressed the importance of casting a ballot without tipping his hand. “I always believe that voting is a responsibility, privilege and right for a citizen,” he said.

There are 5.8 million Malaysians between the ages of 21 and 30, according to the Malaysian Department of Statistics.

If all of them registered to vote, they would make up slightly more than 28 percent of the electorate, according to Watan, a non-partisan campaign that aims to promote youth voting.

But because of low registration rates among this bracket, young people comprise just 18.55 percent of Malaysia’s 14.96 million registered voters, said Watan, which called young people the largest bank of non-voters in Malaysia.

A survey Merdeka and Watan carried out in August 2017 of 604 Malaysians in this age group found that 71 percent felt they had no influence over what the government does, and one in four believed voting makes no difference.

“The survey results corroborate findings from a focus group discussion carried out by Watan early this year which shows a worrying level of apathy towards registration among Malaysian youth,” Watan executive director Masjaliza Hamzah said at the time.

The winning element?

But Izzuddin, the Penang Institute analyst, claimed younger voters caused Barisan Nasional to lose the popular vote in 2013.

“Support for the BN among young people between 18 and 35 dropped from 57 percent in the 2008 general election to 54 percent in 2013. It has almost certainly fallen further in the last five years and is likely to be lower still among ethnic Chinese and Indian youths,” said Izzuddin, citing data from Politweet, a Malaysian-based pollster.

Some observers allege the decision to hold Malaysia’s vote on a Wednesday was aimed at suppressing voter turnout. Many young people who work or study away from home need to return home to vote.

The announcement triggered a Go Home and Vote (#PulangMengundi) movement on social media to collect donations and arrange carpools to help people get home midweek to vote.

Former finance minister Daim Zainuddin, who is famed for having made accurate predictions about the outcome of the 2008 and 2013 elections, told BenarNews the winning element this time around would be the rural and young voters.

“Whoever wins the election has not only to tackle the youth voters but also the rural voters including those in Felda, a settlement set up by the government to help poor Malays to own lands and get themselves involve in an oil palm plantation,” he said.

Daim was one of two former ministers dismissed by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) over the weekend for appearing at an opposition rally.

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