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Can youth dominate Malaysian politics in 2021? 

The youth could bring fresh ideas to enhance the democratic process - ERIC THOO

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Youth movements may be just the elixir to treat the political fatigue that has enveloped the country, Khoo Ying Hooi writes. 

We will enter 2021 in less than a month. This year has been a turbulent period for Malaysia in several respects. 

We witnessed an unexpected and controversial change of government from Pakatan Harapan to Perikatan Nasional in February 2020. Many Malaysians felt cheated as they had voted for PH in the last general election and had not chosen PN to serve as the ruling government. 

The coronavirus pandemic also broke out unexpectedly and disrupted almost every single area of our lives – politically, economically and socially. 

The way the PN government has been managing parliamentary sittings leaves much to be desired. As the legislative arm of a functioning democracy, Parliament is the platform for the people’s elected representatives to speak up and fight for their constituents.

Instead, we have seen decisions taken that work to limit the intended role and efficacy of Parliament. The limited one-day sitting on 18 May, purportedly due to the Covid-19 risk, is a case in point. 

For the ongoing sitting, only 80 MPs are allowed to be physically present in Parliament at any one time, and sessions are ended by 2pm. This is embarrassing, as many countries around the world have been trying to ensure that parliamentary sessions go on without interruption, while taking measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections.  

Despite the bleak political scenario and the many political hiccups the country has faced, some positive signs have emerged. As highlighted in Aliran’s media statement after our annual general meeting, the country can look forward to the youth playing a greater and more meaningful role in society.

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In this region as well, we see youths rising on different occasions and in various capacities. The Indonesian Solidarity Party by Indonesian youths and the banned Future Forward Party in Thailand are just two examples. The establishment of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda) by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman also provides a sense of hope to the youth in this country – though it may be too early to tell how effective it will be. Still, youth movements may be just the elixir to treat the political fatigue that has enveloped the country. 

The formation of youth political parties is long overdue. One reason for the youth being sidelined for so long is the dominant political structure we have: ‘old’ personalities are often accorded more attention and seen as more ‘credible’. The politics of personality, however, is not new in Malaysia or even in South East Asia. 

Apart from Muda, we should not dismiss the positive potential of youth groupings, such as Undi18, that aim to bridge the gap between politicians, policymakers and youths. 

On 4-5 July, several Malaysian youth groups successfully held a virtual mock parliament, known as Parlimen Digital. The event witnessed 222 young Malaysians, representing actual constituencies, debating issues ranging from economic challenges to the state of the nation’s education system. This initiative won plaudits from various parties: many were impressed with the maturity and the quality of the debates. 

Mid-2018 data from the Statistics Department show about 14 million out of Malaysia’s 32.4 million population are aged between 15 and 40. With the Dewan Rakyat passing an amendment in July 2019 to lower the age cap for youth from 40 years to 30, Malaysia’s youth population could shrink to nine million, once the amendment to the Youth Societies and Youth Development Act comes into force.

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But is youth involvement in politics as seen in Muda,  Parliamen Digital and other initiatives representative of the youth in different locations in the country? 

Behind the positive developments, the sense of political fatigue out there among the youth is also real. A question repeatedly surfaces: why aren’t more young people involved in politics? Many have questioned the relevancy of political issues to them – especially if politicians continue to indulge in political games, such as switching political parties as they wish and foregoing any affiliation to ideology or the principles they are supposed to have as representatives of the people who voted them into the administration. 

Public faith in our political system is low. We have all heard this assertion: politicians are all the same. Many including the youth have lost faith in the government’s ability to make their lives better. In Malaysia, the average age of ministers in the current cabinet is above 50.

The change of government from Barisan Nasional to PH led in some ways to the emergence of youthful faces, but the ‘old-men politics’ continues. 

Can the youth dominate Malaysian politics in 2021? I believe they can, but structural changes and a change in perception must happen. For political systems to be representative, they must include all parts of society. We have suffered from the consequence of a non-inclusive political system: the youth have become less engaged with the political process, and this has led to their having less influence in the decisions that affect their lives. 

Over the decades, what has happened is that the youth believe their voices won’t be heard or they will not be taken seriously even if they are heard. This has long-term consequences, as the youth are assets, and without empowering them, we risk landing up with uncompetitive leaders running this country. 

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To move forward, I believe a two-pronged strategy is required. What we need are not only opportunities and trust in the youth coming from the public and the administration, but the youth also need to empower themselves through the expansion of their networking among diverse youth groups. 

Khoo Ying Hooi
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
1 December 2020
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