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Malaysian youth politics: Is there even such a thing?

With some 40 per cent of Malaysian voters said to be below 40, leaders from both sides of the political divide have been pulling out all the stops to appeal to young voters. Yet, the very act of reducing a range of people and their personalities into a singular category defined by nothing but age misrepresents the complexities of “youth” politics.

Malaysian youth politics: Is there even such a thing?

BN supporters at a rally speech by Prime Minister Najib Razak on May 1. The author says that the very act of reducing a range of people and their personalities into a singular category defined by nothing but age misrepresents the complexities of “youth” politics.

With some 40 per cent of Malaysian voters said to be below 40, leaders from both sides of the political divide have been pulling out all the stops to appeal to young voters.

In January, opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) released its youth manifesto with the headline promise of televising English Premier League football matches for free.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) responded with a youth manifesto of its own just after parliament was dissolved in April.

This came with a video package of BN Youth Chief and Minister for Youth and Sports, Khairy Jamaluddin showing off his acting chops to demonstrate his party’s commitment to the social, political, and economic needs of young Malaysians.

Both coalitions have also proposed fielding untested candidates below 30 in order to signal their willingness to engage in reformist politics.

Recently, Democratic Action Party (DAP) veteran Lim Kit Siang went a step ahead and called for a “youth” tsunami to sweep PH into parliament.

These measures are perhaps well intentioned.

Yet, the very act of reducing a range of people and their personalities into a singular category defined by nothing but age misrepresents the complexities of “youth” politics.

In the lead up to the 14th Malaysian General Election (GE14), articles published in the Malaysian media have carried reports which shroud doubt over various taken-for-granted assumptions deemed foundational to how young Malaysian voters define and orient their political positions.

One example stood out.

A 36-year-old urban upper-middle class woman of a mixed ethnic background said that, ultimately, she will vote for the party which she feels best protects the interests of Malay-Muslims and safeguards the primacy of Islam in Malaysian society.

These are hardly values one intuitively associates with a category of enigmatic voters who have grown fatigued by divisions created through decades of abusive racial and religious politics.

Indeed, one would instead park these beliefs as representative of older rural voters – as well as some racially and religiously conscious older urban voters – who form the support bases for the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), the United Malays National Organisation, and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu).

To them, Malay and Muslim rights simply matter more. But, these patterns hardly fit well with archetypical profiles of “youth” voters.

Observers generally believe that young voters will cast their ballots in overwhelming support of the opposition. This is again an over-simplification.

While a number of them are vocally critical of Prime Minister Najib Razak, it is crucial to note that many still remain politically uninformed.

A Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) member mentioned that many tend not to have an opinion apart from being anti-Najib.

To be sure, their uninformed anti-Najib position may indeed play well for opposition candidates, but this should not be misread as support for PH.

The fact that there will be a surge in multi-cornered contests this election renders it difficult to clearly deduce whom these voters will ultimately side with. An anti-Najib position is not in and of itself a pro-PH one.

One member of a PH campaign team worries this could complicate its attempts to engage and convince younger voters of the merits of voting for PH rather than a ‘spoiler’ candidate.

What is more, some younger members of PKR believe that Mr Khairy possesses sufficient charisma to broaden BN’s appeal and co-opt some fence sitters.

One PKR member stated that if Mr Khairy was steering BN, the opposition would struggle to remain popular with the “youth”.

It is also intriguing to note that Mr Khairy’s social media accounts contain comments from young voters who, while lamenting the fact that he is in BN, still shower him with praise.

In other words, Mr Khairy’s popularity has the potential to transcend the political divide.

Insofar as PH has a number of well-known young candidates – Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Nurul Izzah Anwar, Hannah Yeoh, and Fahmi Fadzil are a few prominent names – it remains unclear how they would fare against Mr Khairy.

In addition, there is yet another segment of “youths” who remain both anti-PH and anti-BN.

They perceive both coalitions as two sides of the same coin: similarly ineffective and thus insufficiently different from each other.

Should they choose to vote, they will likely make their peace on polling day itself.

There are also a number of young PKR and DAP supporters who are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that their parties are now affiliated with Dr Mahathir Mohamed – a man whom for most their lives symbolised the anti-thesis to their political values.

Yet, other “youths” recognise the political expediency of entering into an alliance with Dr Mahathir.

They are willing to support him as their Prime Minister-designate, even if it rubs them the wrong way.  

Notably, none of these diverse patterns capture complexities of rural and semi-rural Peninsular Malaysia and, crucially, Sabah.

BN’s youth manifesto suggests an intent to elevate young Malays in the Malay heartlands into entrepreneurs to help them cope with underemployment and unemployment.

There is little to suggest that PH is motivated enough to outdo BN and promise them comparable economic opportunities.

Indeed, PKR Vice-President Rafizi Ramli had previously stated that PH need not invest too much campaigning effort on rural Malaysia because it would be next-to-impossible for the coalition to win over those Umno strongholds.

In Sabah, many younger voters have become relatively jaded by the inefficacy of the political process in addressing the disproportionately unfair terms that are perceived to dictate the relationship between the Sabah State Government and the Federal Government.

What is more, one member of DAP Sabah was worried that some young urban Sabahans – those who would be first-time voters this election – have lived abroad long enough to become detached from problems plaguing the state.

These trends may explain why the proportion of registered “youth” voters in Sabah remains lower than in West Malaysia.

The sheer range of these trends problematise the taken-for-granted homogeneity of “youth” voters.

Indeed, the diversity of their political and apolitical positions transcend the boundaries of singularising labels such as “youth” – rendering it unable to succinctly capture the nuances that define younger Malaysian voters.

These often paradoxical patterns makes it is difficult to picture how a coherent “youth tsunami” will unfold. Perhaps a series of contradictory waves would be more apt.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Prashant Waikar is a research analyst at the Malaysia Programme in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This article is part of a series of commentaries by RSIS on the 14th Malaysian General Election.

 

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