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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Young Malaysians Hold Keys to Election Success

Old guard's grip on power faces an emerging challenge

For followers of Southeast Asian politics, Malaysia's upcoming general election on May 9 looms as the country's biggest test since its independence from Britain in 1957. For the first time, young people are emerging as an important political constituency, breaking the links that tied them into separate ethnic groups and broadly dividing them between a Malay majority and a Chinese minority. To most young Malaysians, being able to live in a united and successful country is more important than their racial differences.

Malaysian politics has been split along racial lines since the formation of the independent Federation of Malaya in 1957, with a Malay-based party monopolizing power. That was perhaps inevitable given the dominance of the Malay majority over minority ethnicity, such as the Chinese and Indians, and of Muslims over religious minorities of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and other groups.

But racial politics has been tense under Prime Minister Najib Razak, leader of a Malay-based party, the United Malays National Organisation and of the governing Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition. In 2017 there were many race-related incidents that the sultans of the states of Johore, Selangor and Perak -- hereditary figureheads widely regarded as unifying figures -- issued statements urging Malaysians to back away from racial confrontation.

At the same time, there have been signs over the past few years that racial issues are no longer a defining element in politics. A watershed moment came in the last general election in 2013, when the governing coalition lost the popular vote for the first time since independence. The National Front remained in office because of an unequal allocation of parliamentary seats, but moral victory went to the opposition.

The youth vote was a crucial factor. According to Politweet, a Malaysian-based pollster, support for the National Front among young people aged between 18 and 35 dropped from 57% in the 2008 general election to 54% 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.

As the 29-year-old political activist Adam Adli put it, young people are playing a more important role in electoral politics because they have become more aware than other voter groups of the political environment. Adli, who was acquitted in February on charges of sedition relating to a 2013 speech, sees growing determination among younger voters to win "more space in determining the future of their country."

Adli is right. But the National Front has not recognized this growing reality because it has been locked for 60 years in a semi-feudal form of politics dominated by aged politicians who have swamped the top tier of the political hierarchy.

Instead of welcoming and accommodating the rise of youth political consciousness, Najib, 64, has imposed tough curbs on young political activists such as the graphic designer Fahmi Reza, whose work often satirizes the government. The coalition's failure to understand young people has clearly weakened its ability to embrace what is now the country's biggest demographic group. People aged between 15 and 30 accounted for 29% of the population in 2017, against 26% in 1970, according to government data.

The opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), is also led by a figure from an older generation -- 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But the Alliance has adopted a very different approach, making young voters a strategic priority by choosing more young candidates and running programs to increase their influence. These include educational initiatives such as its Sekolah Politik (School of Politics) and Sekolah Demokrasi (School of Democracy).

Some young people are so angry with the system that they are seeking to hit back by withdrawing from politics altogether -- a position reflected in the popularity of the #UndiRosak (spoilt vote) movement. Many more, however, have come to see the National Front's race-based politics as a distraction from their real concerns, which revolve around globalization and the need for a level playing field in Malaysia.

For these young people, many of whom are migrating from rural areas to big cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bharu, daily issues such as job opportunities and the cost of living are political priorities, not the government's obsession with the entrenched rights of Malays, who enjoy preferential treatment in fields such as education and business. In its latest report on youth unemployment, Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, said in 2016 that youth unemployment was three times higher than the national average, with 10 unemployed youths in every 100, compared with three in 100 for workers over 30.

Not all disaffected young people are siding with the opposition. Some are as jaded by the Alliance as by the National Front, perhaps because the main opposition parties have been in power for years in states such as Selangor and Penang, giving young people enough time to evaluate -- and become disillusioned -- with the lackluster performance of the opposition pact.

The Alliance has also suffered from a decision by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a conservative Islamic party, to fight the election independently of other opposition parties because of their refusal to back the introduction of Islamic criminal law in PAS-run Kelantan State.

PAS was a key part of opposition attempts to woo the young, mainly because of its role as a major organizer of Islamic student movements. The Islamic Students Association, the biggest and most organized of all other movements, has followed its lead, significantly weakening Alliance support at campus level.

However, pockets of more politically and religiously liberal youths are leaning toward a more progressive interpretation of Islam, especially in large cities like Kuala Lumpur. The Alliance can benefit from this rise in the popularity of a more temperate political Islam if it can show voters it has fully integrated this more liberal approach into its program. But the principal battle for both coalitions is to communicate a vision for the country's future that can energize and satisfy the country's young people.

To an extent, the National Front has set the agenda with the introduction of its youth-oriented National Transformation 2050 initiative, announced by Najib with the 2017 budget, which aims to change Malaysia's "mindset" over the next three decades. The government is collecting views from youth groups about this transformation, but no decisions have been taken, and a detailed program is unlikely to emerge until late this year or early 2019.

That provides an opportunity for the Alliance to recast the agenda in its own image with strong youth-oriented policies dealing with the bread-and-butter issues and institutional reforms that really matter to young people, including the thorny issue of the preferential rights of ethnic Malays, job security, better educational opportunities, and lower costs of living and housing.

After four decades in power, the National Front retains huge advantages, including control of the civil service, a largely compliant media, and an electoral system that is skewed toward rural voters, who tend to support the government. Alliance leader Mahathir has accepted that the opposition can win a parliamentary majority only if there is a high turnout and a repetition of the swing away from the government in 2013.

In a sense, though, the young people of Malaysia have already won the election. For the first time, both coalitions are fighting for their votes and claiming to be their champion. Whatever the result, Malaysian politics has already been transformed.

*This article was first published in Nikkei Asia, May 2018.


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