Why you should care
Because Malaysian youths are increasingly disillusioned by politics as usual.
Conditions appeared ripe to nudge Malaysia’s youths to polling booths for next year’s scheduled national elections when, in August, Watan, a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization that encourages voting, tried to gauge the mood of the country’s young men and women.
Since 2015, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has been at the center of one of the country’s biggest financial scandals, accused of siphoning $700 million from state-owned investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad into his personal accounts — charges he denies. Inflation is soaring. And the popularity of Bersih, a citizens movement demanding clean governance that started in 2005, has only grown in recent years.
Across the board, there is growing apathy toward anything of political interest simply because of the sheer corruption and sense of hopelessness among the citizens.
Locha Menon, civil society activist
But in Watan’s survey of Malaysians aged between 21 and 30, with pollsters Merdeka Center as partners, an overwhelming 70 percent of respondents said they were not interested in the country’s politics. And 71 percent said they believe they have no influence whatsoever on political outcomes. Malaysian Election Commission data also suggests two-thirds of the country’s unregistered voters are between 21 and 30. Instead, more and more young Malaysians are turning toward other, diverse forms of activism to showcase broader frustration with their political system, at a time an itch to unseat a government accused of corruption appeared likelier.
“Across the board, there is growing apathy toward anything of political interest simply because of the sheer corruption and sense of hopelessness among the citizens,” says Locha Menon, who was media and communications officer at Bersih 2.0 — the group’s second mega rally in 2011, when tens of thousands of activists flooded the streets of Kuala Lumpur decked out in the group’s yellow T-shirts. “Young people must look for other avenues to make their voices and demands heard.”
Much of the apathy toward the election, which must be held by August 2018, has been blamed on the choices available. The United Malays National Organisation, better known by its abbreviation UMNO, has dominated Malaysian politics since the first elections held in 1959 following independence from British rule. Every prime minister has hailed from the party, including Najib, who has announced he will stand as the UMNO candidate again next year.
But while Najib has faced corruption allegations linking a murky web of players from across the world, including Saudi princes and Leonardo DiCaprio, his likely principal opponent, a 92-year-old, carries his own taint. Center-left coalition Pakatan Harapan’s chairman Mahathir Mohamad — himself a former UMNO prime minister whose legacy has been dogged with corruption allegations by critics — is expected to challenge Najib. Infighting between the opposition coalition’s principal leaders, including jailed leader Anwar Ibrahim, who has been engaged in a lengthy feud with Mahathir for two decades now, is also holding back those looking for an alternative to Najib.
With less than a year to the elections, Malaysia’s millennials are instead flocking to a range of environmental and social causes, says Watan executive director Masjaliza Hamzah. These activities include teaching refugee and indigenous children, as well as self-publishing and student-led campaigns against a controversial loan program, apart from more traditional volunteering at nonprofits. These activities often do not require active engagement with policy, but on the few occasions where their campaigns intersect with formal politics, Malaysia’s youths remain willing to take a stand, says Hamzah. When a Najib government minister, without first holding consultations with stakeholders, in 2014 tried to stop programs where volunteers feed the homeless, young Malaysians jumped into the fray and blocked the move. “These are the small ways in which youths engage outside of the traditional voting model,” she says.
To some, like Adrian Yeo, coordinator at climate change youth action group #PowerShiftMsia, this activism beyond the polling booth is proof that Malaysia’s younger generation is engaged with its future. His organization focuses on raising awareness about the dangers of climate change, advocates for policy responses and monitors the public discourse. A preelection project includes gathering data on public sentiment and views of parliamentarians to measure the discrepancy between views of the community and its representatives over climate change. The work done by #PowerShiftMsia members is intensely political, Yeo insists. “Awareness and interest in politics is at an all-time high,” he says.
Indeed, youths constitute the majority of Bersih supporters too. Facebook data provided by the organization shows 17 percent of Bersih supporters on the platform are aged between 18 and 24, with another 48 percent between 25 and 34. And the dark arts practiced by Malaysia’s political elite could be playing a role in low voter engagement, cautions Menon. Many activists around the country have found their registration with the Election Commission put on hold after being anonymously challenged, she says.
Still, say both Hamzah and Menon, the evidence does suggest a definite disinterest in voting — and that is worrying. “It does point to the direction that this group of voters feels disenfranchised by Malaysian politics,” says Hamzah, adding that Watan hopes “to inspire them to go out and register and, when the time comes, for them to vote.”
To Menon, the frustration with Malaysian politics among the country’s youth is understandable. But she worries about the country’s future if its young men and women stay out of policy and don’t demand change.
“If young Malaysians do not stand up and ask for what they want, what legacy are we leaving behind for those who follow in our footsteps?” she asks. “Hopefully, [it’s] not a bleak future.”