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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Millennials Moving into Politics – in Malaysia and in Indonesia

Both these countries appear today to be moving towards maturing their democracy, and post-GE14 Malaysia has been branded by commentators as a victory for Asian democracy.

(Left to right) Deputy International Trade and Industry Minister Dr Ong Kian Ming with Raja Juli Antoni.
(Left to right) Deputy International Trade and Industry Minister Dr Ong Kian Ming with Raja Juli Antoni. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

In six months’ time, Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, will be holding its presidential election, known as pilpres, simultaneously with the People’s Consultative Assembly election for the first time in history.

With 20 political parties contesting in the upcoming general election and presidential race, and with familiar faces involved such as Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who is seeking his second five-year term as president; Prabowo Subianto, leader of the Gerindra Party; and Anies Baswedan, governor of Jakarta; the contests will be tough ones.

The triumph of Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan coalition in the recent general election, which saw the defeat of the long-standing Umno-led BN, sent ripples across the region, and marked the beginning of what is dubbed by many as “Malaysia Baharu”, or New Malaysia. This episode also symbolises the turn away from racial and religious-fuelled politics, towards higher respect for human rights and more active participation by the people in the decision-making process.

At 93, Tun Mahathir Mohamad is the oldest prime minister in the world. At the same time, at least 26 candidates under 30 contested during the election; there were more candidates under 40.1 Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman is 25; Ketari assemblywoman Young Syefura is 28; Subang Jaya assemblywoman Michelle Ng is 28; and at 22, Batu member of parliament P. Prabakaran made history as Malaysia’s youngest parliamentarian. These are but a few of the names.

With as many as 40.9% of Malaysian voters aged between 21 and 39,2 the appeal of younger candidates is obvious. Youths have a big role to play, especially when it comes to political rejuvenation. Everywhere, youths are now claiming their part in politics, translating public issues into various forms of political activism.

Across the straits, the presence of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (Partai Solidaritas Indonesia, or PSI), a new youth-based political party led by a former TV journalist, Grace Natalie, is the answer to the urgent call for wider public representation in Indonesian politics and administration. Their youngest member is 17.

The election law of Indonesia requires political parties to establish their offices and committees in all 34 provinces, or a minimum of 75% out of 514 districts and a minimum of 50% out of 700 sub-districts, in order to qualify to contest in the elections. For a relatively young player in a huge political arena, PSI has much ground to cover.

Despite receiving numerous criticisms for their endorsement of President Jokowi for the 2019 general election, the party, dubbed the “millennials’ party”, stood firm against primordial political practices, promoting more open and progressive politics instead. The prominent Indonesian sociologist Ariel Heryanto, commenting on PSI, said, “If there is still hope for a brighter future for Indonesia, it is in its youths. It is the youth who can bring about change.”

Power to the People

Both these countries appear today to be moving towards maturing their democracy, and post-GE14 Malaysia has been branded by commentators as a victory for Asian democracy.

In Indonesia, changes came two decades ago. The overthrowing of disgraced military leader, Soeharto in 1998 by the massive and violent Reformasi movement led to the rapid political democratisation of the country. Malaysia’s own Reformasi movement saw its leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, being jailed. After 2008, however, Malaysia was infused with political optimism, thanks to the rise of the internet which encouraged wider, more vibrant and active political discourses.

“Political empowerment” became an essential jargon, lauded mainly by promoters of a freer and more liberal society. The passive, feudalistic, personality-praising politics are now in certain ways dismissed in the new atmosphere, giving way to active grassroots participation and rational administrative practices.

Globalisation has in one way or another generated greater demand for localisation –that is to say, more democratic participation is encouraged at the grassroots level. Traditional politics battle against new politics; the sense of global citizens is gaining traction; and universal values and norms such as human rights, gender equality and democracy are increasingly embraced.

“We practice Participatory politics by encouraging people to contribute not only in terms of money, but also by lending their houses and turning them into PSI offices,” says Natalie. “Right now, we are in the process of recruiting volunteers mainly through social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. We want to tell people that they can contribute anything – not only money, but also T-shirts, banners, flyers and stickers,” adds Natalie.

According to We Are Social, a global marketing and communications agency, out of a population close to 260 million, approximately 88.1 million Indonesians had access to the internet in 2016; and 90% were active social media users, particularly among those aged between 20 and 29.

PSI apparently has the strongest social media engagement in Indonesia, having discovered that it is the cheapest way to reach people – especially those who have limited resources – compared to traditional media such as TV and newspapers. “We have a lot of content which we publish on a daily basis. We have to bear in mind that Indonesia is a huge country that contains people from various social, cultural and political backgrounds – Sundanese and Javanese are culturally different even though they live on the same island; the same goes for the Madurese and people from east, central and west Java. We have to diversify our content – basically get more local content in different local languages,” says Natalie.

PSI is currently developing a digital mechanism in the form of a phone application that requires members of parliament to report their activities to their constituents on a daily basis. Constituents can then rate their parliamentarians based on their performance. On one hand, the check and balance process through the rating system encourages parliamentarians to keep improving their performance; on the other, it returns the power to the people.

Encouraging Women to Participate

One of the challenges faced by South-East Asian countries is the lack of female representation in leadership roles, particularly in politics, resulting in an absence of gender perspectives in the policy-making process. In Malaysia, women and youth-related civil society groups have long been calling for more representation in decision-making posts for marginalised groups.

For women in Indonesia, running for a political position is no walk in the park, given the country’s male-dominated political sphere where sexism and the objectification of women are still part of the norm. Women in Indonesia are only expected to play domestic duties and stay behind the scenes.

“I am contesting in my hometown in north Sumatra, where it is religiously more conservative and the majority of the people are men,” says Dara Adinda Kesuma Nasution, 23, spokesperson for PSI. “When I first returned to my hometown to set up my groundwork, I faced objections from my family. As a woman, they were worried about me being outside late at night – something that is not normally done by a young woman. It would not have been an issue if I was a man.”

Demand for affirmative action to ensure fair representation of women in politics has always been part of PSI’s political goals. Since 2007, PSI has been pushing for the constitutional court of Indonesia to review the 30% quota for women in politics to cover all political and administrative levels – such as committee, provincial and sub-district – and not only at the central level, as is currently being practiced.

Political parties are required to fulfil the 30% quota system in order to contest in elections. This does not, however, necessarily reflect its key purpose, which is to bridge the gender gap and to translate it into policy decisions that are more gender sensitive.

This has resulted in the forced recruitment of less competent female candidates to fill vacant seats. “Finding 30% female representation is not easy. What happens is that you end up recruiting your family members – your wife, your daughters, even to the extent of recruiting your housemaid,” says Raja Juli Antoni, general secretary of PSI.

For PSI, the challenge is two-fold – women in general are still shy and hesitant to be in the public eye and to challenge the status quo. This is in some ways influenced by the lack of women and family-friendly environments, such as in the workplace or politics, and by the crystallised gender stereotyping in society that sees women as the sole caretakers of children.

“Young political activists like us in PSI aim to empower women, to make them more outspoken in fighting for their rights. But to get them to wake up is a hard task – you need to find the right formula to get things started.

“I recently met Yeo Bee Yin (the 35-year-old minister of energy, technology, science, climate change and environment), who shared a very interesting point. She said, ‘Touch them (the women) where their hearts lie – that is, their children,’” says Natalie.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, October 2018.


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