Malaysia GE2022: A David vs Goliath battle in Muar to win hearts and minds of youth voters
- Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Mohd Helmy Latif, 41, is challenging the incumbent Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, 29, from Muda
- The candidates are facing off amid a recent constitutional move to lower the voting age here from 21 to 18
- Mr Helmy said that he had been the chief of a BN component party's youth wing, and is "always with young people"
- Mr Syed Saddiq said that over the past week of campaigning, his social media outreach has ballooned almost tenfold
MUAR — In a Malaysian General Election (GE) where the youth vote could matter more than ever, two young candidates who have been fielded in Muar, a constituency in the state of Johor two hours' drive from Singapore, are making a bid to woo young voters.
Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Mohd Helmy Latif, 41, is taking on the incumbent Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, 29, who will be contesting under the Muda banner, a political party which he had founded in 2020.
Muda has an electoral pact with the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH), which means the parties will not contest in the same constituencies.
The two candidates are facing off amid a recent constitutional move to lower the voting age here from 21 to 18.
But according to Mr Helmy, the battle for Muar could very much be a David versus Goliath affair.
He pointed out that Mr Syed Saddiq, the youngest ever Cabinet Minister when he was appointed at the age of 25, was extremely popular on social media platforms frequently used by youths.
For instance, while Mr Helmy has over 3,000 followers on Instagram and about 11,000 followers on Facebook, this is a fraction of Mr Syed Saddiq's followers.
The former Minister of Youth and Sports has 1.8 million followers on Instagram and about 800,000 followers on Facebook.
"Of course I am nervous when it comes to Syed Saddiq, because we all know he is popular on social media," said Mr Helmy. "But this game is open; anybody can win."
Indeed, Mr Syed Saddiq is no newcomer to the political scene, having entered parliament during the last GE in 2018, after grabbing the Muar seat by a 7,000-vote margin over the then-incumbent BN candidate, Mr Razali Ibrahim, who is now aged 52 and vying for the neighbouring constituency of Pagoh.
Now, it appears that BN is taking a different tack, by fielding a relatively younger candidate to target the youth vote.
A GROUND-UP CAMPAIGN TO WIN THE HEARTS OF VOTERS YOUNG AND OLD
While Mr Syed Saddiq has a wider reach on social media, Mr Helmy is no stranger to interacting with youths.
He is the former youth wing chief of BN's component party the United Malays National Organisation (Umno). He has been involved with the party since he was 18 — a total of 24 years.
"I’m always with young people, I get along with young people," Mr Helmy said in Malay during an interview with TODAY while on a walkabout at a Chinese temple.
"For me, to mix around with those who are younger is not a problem and I don’t find it awkward."
He plays football and computer games in his leisure time, activities that he said "attract the younger people".
But more than that, Mr Helmy also believes that youths cannot be dealt with in isolation, and that they can also serve as a bridge to the older generation.
"We know that we need to respect our elders, and as the younger ones we need to care for them and touch their hearts," he said.
He has also been quietly mounting a social media campaign, curating footage of his walkabouts and campaigning in and around Muar.
"I get very positive feedback and compliments," said Mr Helmy referring to his social media efforts. He has also used TikTok to engage the younger crowd.
He was also confident that the ground has shifted in favour of his party, BN. During the Johor state elections in March, BN had taken 36 per cent of the vote, which was a majority in a three-cornered fight.
Perikatan Nasional had obtained 34 per cent of the vote, while PH, the coalition Mr Syed Saddiq is closely associated with, had only managed to snag 25 per cent.
"I’m sure Malaysians are smart now to judge and I’m confident that only Barisan Nasional can stabilise the country and make it better," he said.
HELMY IS A SERIOUS CONTENDER: SYED SADDIQ
Speaking to TODAY at a walkabout in Parit Jawa, a fishing village in Muar, Mr Syed Saddiq said that the use of social media is crucial to his campaign.
"Social media is very important to equalise the playing field, especially when you are up against a well-oiled Barisan Nasional machinery, which also has control over many of the mainstream media," he said.
He added that his social media reach has grown exponentially over the past week of campaigning. While his TikTok and Instagram pages had an average view count of about 800,000, it has grown to 5 million in the past week amid the hustings.
He said that despite the wide reach, he is not taking anything for granted.
"I welcome (Helmy) to Muar and at the same time, I take him as a serious contender," said Mr Syed Saddiq.
"The fact of the matter is he is young, and I think it's great that BN decided to field someone young in Muar. But above and beyond that, I look forward to engaging him in debates on policies (and) on principles on how do you take Muar forward, to make Muar a great place," he added.
He also added that he had met with Mr Helmy on the campaign trail, and that they had agreed to have a "healthy competition" where the focus will be on positive politics.
"Let Muar be the standard of what Malaysian democracy should be like, where while we may disagree with one another on issues of policy and principles, but we are united in wanting to make one Malaysia better place."
Asked about whether he was concerned with PH's poor showing at the state elections, he said that he can "feel the ground moving and shaking" in the opposition coalition's favour.
For one thing, he noted that the voter turnout had been low, at about 55 per cent, as hundreds of thousands of Malaysians were stuck in Singapore due to Covid-19 travel curbs.
"At the same time, the opposition was still very much fractured... Today, you're looking at a united opposition, we've all come together, and there are more young leaders coming in," he said.
FIGHT FOR MUAR MAY BE CLOSE IRRESPECTIVE OF SOCIAL MEDIA POPULARITY: EXPERTS
Political analysts say that BN fielding a young candidate at Muar is a departure from its usual strategy of fielding more senior figures.
Dr Francis Hutchinson, senior fellow and coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said that the constituency of Muar is slowly becoming more urbanised.
Thus, with this continual urbanisation comes the pressure to field candidates that are young with professional qualifications, such as Mr Helmy.
"(BN) is very clear that they need to field younger, professional, polished candidates, and need to move away from the older, more staid and traditional 'Umno type' of politician," Dr Hutchinson said.
He added that just because Mr Syed Saddiq appears to be dominating the social media space, it does not necessarily mean he will attract more votes.
Instead, a lot of younger Malay votes could go to the third contender under PN, Mr Abdullah Husin.
Mr Abdullah, 60, is one of the founding members of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a component party under PN, which has its own devout following among the electorate.
PN has portrayed itself as sharing the same pro-Islamic values as BN, but free of the corruption scandals which have often plagued the incumbent, and this proposition could be attractive to the younger Malay voters, noted Dr Hutchinson.
"(PAS) is also trying to build up their presence in Muar, and they could actually play an interesting role in absorbing some of the votes there," he said.
Agreeing, Mr Kevin Zhang, a senior research officer at the same programme as Dr Hutchinson, said that while Muar is becoming increasingly urbanised, much of it still comprises rural settlements, which could lean towards BN's favour.
"The BN machinery is stronger in the rural areas than the urban areas, and as for social media, I'm not sure how much reach it has in the rural areas."