Francis Loh explores the role of Malaysian youth in politics and the coming general election and finds that they are not the problem, but a major part of the solution.
It is misleading and fake news to suggest that the Youth in Malaysia will not be travelling home to cast their votes; that the Youth are involved in spearheading an #UndiRosak campaign that will sabotage efforts to ubah the Umno-BN government; and that the Youth are politically apathetic because, apparently, many have not registered themselves as voters.
The fact is, only pockets of the Youth stand accused of the above charges. Based on the electoral roll adopted for the coming general election, about five million Malaysians aged 21-39 are eligible to vote. They account for 41% of the total number of voters: 17% are in the 21-29 years old bracket while 23.9% are in the 30-39 bracket.
While first-time voters have dropped slightly compared to the 2013 general election, an estimated two million will still be voting for the first time. Surveys indicate that a majority are for change. Indeed, the Youth are an important component of the political ferment that is occurring. Malaysian Youth are not the problem. They are part of the solution!
Without providing any solid data, a silly professor attached to Majlis Professor Negara (National Professors Council) asserted that Malay youth in the urban and semi-urban areas in particular are politically apathetic (FMT, 28 October 2016).
Yet another columnist, based on his “straw poll among the young people” (he talked to about 20 young people), claimed that the youth had very negative views about politicians and were unenthusiastic about voting (The Star, 6 April 2018).
In yet another report carried in an online daily (‘Going to the Polls won’t change anything, say young voters’, FMT, 19 April 2018), several cases of young people who were not going home to vote were highlighted. One of those interviewed stated that “it made no difference to the results” whether he voted or not, while another claimed that there would be “more scandals and more politicians fighting against one another” even after the elections, so “what’s the fuss” about this election!
But listen to these rejoinders posted by readers, most of whom were also young: “irresponsible”, “selfish-lah”, “pathetic”, “childish and immature”; and “they need to grow up fast. You cannot avoid politics. Politics will come looking for you”.
University students in the Klang Valley have launched an initiative to provide bus rides to fellow students so that they can return home to vote (See #PulangMengundi). They have successfully persuaded the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall and other Chinese associations from throughout the country, as well as the people at large, through crowd funding #SponsorAStudent, to sponsor free bus rides. Some RM200,000 has been raised thus far.
Meanwhile, a group of artists have organised a fundraising gig to support the same effort. But these examples of rallying behind GE14 are missing from those reports mentioned above.
Youth and ‘small P’ participatory politics
In fact, if one looks beyond the current focus on the general election, one discovers that the Youth have played an important and critical role in fostering the political ferment that is occurring in our country.
Recall Reformasi 1997-98, and the knock-on effect that it had on our local universities and colleges. We witnessed the rise of so-called ‘underground’ student organisations on campuses like Dema, Seikat Mahasiswa dan Geram which then formed multi-ethnic Barisan Alternatif-like coalitions in campus elections over the past two decades (much like the formation of the Pakatan coalition in real-life electoral politics over the same period).
The Youth also showed up in strength for Bersih 1, Bersih 2, then Bersih 3, 4 and 5, and campaigned for the Himpunan Hijau movement. Malaysia’s Youth have been very active in politics! Why, they have awakened their elders from their slumber!
New Economy and New Society…
This (re)emergence and re(engagement) of Youth in politics is related to the bigger picture of how the structure of Malaysia’s economy, society and ultimately politics have been transformed over the past decades.
First, Malaysia’s economy is no longer anchored in commodity production especially tin, rubber, palm oil and timber. Apart from oil and gas production, nowadays the economy is driven by export-oriented industrialisation, especially of electronics and electrical goods, and services of all kinds.
Participation in the neoliberal global economy has led to the growth of the finance and banking sectors, information technology and knowledge-based services, hotel and tourism, travel and transportation, private and public health and education services, restaurants and entertainment, and so on. The growth of these export manufacturing and service sectors over some 30-plus years have fuelled the growth of the Malaysian economy.
This economic transformation, in turn, contributed towards the restructuring of Malaysia’s society. In particular, it saw the consolidation of an educated and rather urbanised middle class, estimated at perhaps 40% of the population today.
And because of the implementation of the New Economic Policy, the second prong of which sought to restructure society such that race would no longer be associated with occupation, this middle class is represented by all ethnic groups. This transformation also saw the recruitment of some 1.5m registered foreign workers, and perhaps double that number of unregistered foreign workers to serve the Malaysian economy.
…therefore New Politics
No doubt, this middle class has had an impact on our hitherto ethnic-based politics in new ways.
They have formed new cause-oriented civil society organisations (CSOs or NGOs) like the women’s groups, environmental groups and human rights groups. They have promoted concern for our heritage, re-ignited community-based arts, and radicalised our music and performing arts. They have also campaigned for the rights of the indigenous peoples, migrant workers, and working people more generally. And as we said earlier, they came out to participate in Himpunan Hijau and Bersih rallies. Ultimately, some participated in the formation of the new multi-ethnic parties and the multi-party Opposition coalition.
Hence the struggle in this general election is not simply between Umno-BN and Pakatan Harapan. It is also between this New Politics and an Old Politics.
The New Politics calls for more CAT-like govt, for crossing ethno-religious boundaries, for equitable and sustainable development.
The horrible Old Politics is characterised by ethnic-based parties, distributing economic benefits ostensibly along ethnic lines, but essentially benefiting the business class of all ethnic groups, first and foremost. Alas, little attention has been given to the plight of the 10m-strong working class and of the four million-plus foreign workers in our midst.
Youth, new global IT, new participatory politics
This New Politics is connected to the arrival of the new IT. In an early study of ‘virtual politics’, a young scholar Tan Lee Ooi (‘The Emergence of a Virtual Civil Society’, 2010) counted some 191 pro-Reformasi websites set up after 1998.
With Abdullah Badawi ‘s victory in the 2004 general election, most of these sites closed down. Tan argued the virtual world is ephemeral. But “at a critical juncture the virtual space is a dynamic platform to influence the real world”.
He further noted that the internet facilitated “transcending not only the political controls…but also the inter-ethnic divide and prejudices…. [Those] who read and participate in the debates… develop deeper understanding of the so-called sensitive issues” and some even forged new “solidarities that transcended ethnic politics”. Naturally, “there occurred some overflow from the virtual…into the real world civil society”.
Recalling her role in covering the 2008 general election, Jacqueline Surin stated “what was most significant for me as a journalist was just how easy it had become for me to publish with so little institutional support; and even though we had [no] big branding behind us, we were read and…respected”. We “used our own cell phones, digital cameras, laptops, free WiFi, some knowledge of WordPress.com” to create the site MalaysiaVotes.
For Surin, apparently, “the power to define and control content” had “shifted from the traditional to the new, from big capital to angel investors, from institutions to individuals, from governments to the people”.
It is Malaysia’s youth who are responsible for the rise of the alternative media. Now they are facilitating live-streaming of political events like Dr Mahathir’s speeches at the ceramahs during this general election campaign period, and creating and sharing Instagrams photos and attractive videos. They use Facebook and WhatsApp so effortlessly. How dare we say that the Youth are apolitical?!
Formal ‘Big P’ Power Politics vs the non-formal ‘small p’ participatory politics
Perhaps a distinction between two kinds of politics needs to be made. We are all familiar with the ‘Big P’ Power Politics characterised by the ethnic-based political parties, the involvement of these parties in business, and the cronyism and patronage that accompanies it, and the formal elections wherein the rakyat are mobilised every five years to cast their votes. Not just the Youth, a large group of the older folk were getting disinterested in that Big P politics.
Time and time again, BN, with its control of the 3 Ms – Money, Media and government Machinery – would gain its two-thirds majority, hands down.
The ‘small p’ participatory politics is the other side of the coin. It is new and associated with the formation of CSOs or NGOs, with networks or gabungans of these CSOs, They struggle for particular issues like free and fair elections led by Bersih, for women’s rights or sustainable development.
The consolidation of this new ‘small p’ everyday politics is facilitated by the growth of our multi-ethnic middle class, the arrival of the alternative media powered by social media, and by the Youth. This is politics, too. But it is outside the formal Big P frame.
This kind of politics was very important and widespread in Indonesia and Thailand when they were under military rule. In the Philippines, it was People Power ‘small p’ participatory politics that got rid of Marcos and his regime. ‘Small p’ participatory politics is also common in any democracy in the West. Malaysia, too, has witnessed this kind of politics since at least Reformasi.
Convergence of ‘Big P’ Power and ‘small p’ participatory politics
It is the convergence of this ‘small p’ politics with the old formal ‘Big P’ Power Politics that has ushered in the expectation for change in this general election.
Thanks to earlier versions of this convergence, there had been much excitement in the 2008 and 2013 general elections. Although Umno-BN emerged victorious in both, they were denied their usual two-thirds majority. Suddenly, they could not amend the Constitution at will. Why, they lost five state governments in 2008 and continued to lose three state governments in 2013.
The fact that gerrymandering, a term rarely heard or understood previously, is now understood by a majority of Malaysians is testimony to this convergence or coming together of ‘small p’ and ‘Big P’ Politics. It was Bersih that popularised the term among ordinary Malaysians.
Likewise, the adoption of CAT [Competency, Accountability and Transparency] and Selcat [Selangor Select Committee on CAT] began in the realm of ‘small p’ politics but was then adopted by the Pakatan-led Penang and Selangor governments when they came to power after the 2008 general election. Suddenly, we are all interested in the notion of ‘good governance’ too.
From Reformasi times, a group of Youth had already crossed over from the non-formal ‘small p’ to the formal ‘Big P’ electoral politics. This included people like PKR leaders Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, Rafizi Ramli, Nurul Izzah Anwar, Sim Tze Szin, Lee Khai Loon and Afif Bahardin and DAP’s Yap Soo Huey, Hannah Yeoh, Ong Kian Ming, Zairil Khir Johari, Steven Sim, Liew Chin Tong, Ramkarpal Singh, Kasthuri Patto, Yeo Bee Yin, Teo Nie Ching and Syerleena Abdul Rashid.
A surprising number of these Youth, politicians as well as political observers, have written political tracts often with fresh insights: Zairil Khir Johari, Steven Sim, Tricia Yeoh, Nik Nazmi, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Liew Chin Tong, Hannah Yeoh, Mohd Hariszuan Jaharudin, Amin Rizal Hamdan, Aqil Fithri, Amin Iskandar, Jac SM Kee and Jacqueline Ann Surin.
Yet others have gone into film-making like Fahmi Reza of 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka fame, Amir Muhammad (who first produced his 6horts and then The Last Communist), Chi Too (Paradise Bus), Anna Har (Selepas Tsunami), Tricia Yeoh (Rights of the Dead – a short film on Teoh Beng Hock’s death), Hillary Chiew (What Rainforest? Wake up and smell the palm oil), Nadira Ilana (Silent Riot, a film on how the defeated Berjaya government attempted to seize power from the newly elected PBS in Sabah in 1986) and Loo Que Lin (Pilih, using a popular talk show format to explore the issue of campus elections).
There was also Fahmi Fadzil, trained as an engineer, more interested in cultural politics, who hosted PopTeeVee, and is now contesting for a seat in the general election. Yes, there was also rapper NameWee who has been hauled up by the authorities a couple of times.
And the Freedom Film Fest, under the leadership of not-so-young-anymore Jerald Joseph, has become an annual feature of Malaysia’s cultural political scene, giving space for Young people to explore the nexus of politics and culture.
A group of young would-be political scientists also participated in the book Electoral Dynamics in Malaysia: Findings from the Grassroots (2014 edited by Meredith Weiss), which focused on how the 2013 general election unravelled at the local level. For me, this was the single most valuable book discussing that election.
Since 2008 in Pakatan-led Penang and Selangor, groups of Youth have participated in Sekolah Politik or Sekolah Demokrasi events annually, partially funded by the Pakatan-led governments. On these occasions, the Youth have enthusiastically discussed issues of local government and democracy, parliamentary democracy and the electoral system in Malaysia, ethnic relations in Malaysia, and current affairs generally. Some of us oldies have had the opportunity to observe and sometimes to help facilitate a few of these events.
One recalls easily other activities like UBU (which conducted tuition classes in Bandar Utama for children from squatter areas), Food not Bombs (a group of youth who dressed in black who cooked food for free distribution to young street people in Kuala Lumpur some of whom were drug addicts). And Aliran itself has been conducting Young Writers Workshops several times each year for three years now when young people come to discuss social and political issues and to write about them for popular consumption.
Liew Chin Tong, now a two-time veteran MP and contesting in the coming general election, wrote in his first book (The Reformasi Generation, 2009), how, from the ruins of Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking and detention “a reformasi generation arose…reformasi was not only about Anwar, it was very much about us” (the Youth).
The unravelling of events led to youth like Liew being drawn into politics. During this period they read and enquired, attended political ceramah and meetings for the first time, then raised a clenched fist, shouted Reformasi! and took a long walk. “…[T]hough I was attracted to politics at a very young age, I would not have been an active participant… had it not been for Sept 1998. For some others, it was Bersih 2.0, the anti-GST rally in streets of Kuala Lumpur, or ‘Ubah Kali Ini’ in 2013.”
The Youth will set us free
Youth have played important roles throughout history. They have continuously challenged old ways and brought reforms and progress to society. Put another way, they have been very responsible, even when, or perhaps because they have limited commitments as Youth.
The creation of a ‘Brave New World’ and of a more free, just and compassionate society has always started with the Youth. They have also been the ones who die first during wars and in struggles for social and political change.
In the struggle for Independence in South East Asia, the youthful Sukarno, Mohd Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir were the vanguards for freedom. So, too, Gen Sudirman, the leader of the Indonesian revolutionary army. Gen Aung San, the ‘father of Independence in Burma’, and Jose Rizal, the ‘father of independence in the Philippines’, were in their twenties when they led their countries struggles’ for Independence. Both were also killed while they were still in their twenties.
In the late 1960s, amidst the Cold War between the US and its allies and the USSR, the Youth initiated a global protest against wars and imperialism; they promoted peace and the building of a better world. This movement started in America and Western Europe and spread to Latin America, then to East and South East Asia, and to Malaysia in the 1970s. Our campuses were alive with activism and debates on ‘the way forward’ in those days.
Following that period of ferment in the early 1970s, all kinds of restrictions were introduced to curb activism, including the Universities and University Colleges Act. Faced by these restrictions, Malaysian activists including the Youth turned to ‘small p’ politics. With Reformasi, the Youth returned to formal ‘Big P’ Power Politics.
Given all this, far from being apathetic and apolitical, it is quite likely the Youth – our youth – will help to set us free.