Malaysia’s youth, our hope for New Politics

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With Pakatan coming to power in a few states, many youths have become interested in politics. This gives Francis Loh hope that the youth will be able to usher in a New Politics.

youth in bersih-and-green-movement

On 24 August 2013, a group of young Chinese Malaysians, attached to the DAP internship programme, under the charge of the new MP for Serdang, Ong Kian Ming, visited the Aliran office.

All had impressive academic backgrounds; one was a lawyer, another a chartered accountant, yet another a mechanical engineer. One had graduated in sociology from a top women’s college in the US. There were two still schooling in the London School of Economics while the others were attached to local universities or colleges, studying various disciplines.

Whatever, all had decided to take time off from their studies or careers to engage with politics more directly by attaching themselves with various parliamentarians or state assembly people, and via them, to state government departments in Penang and Selangor.

They were a most inquisitive lot, and I had to field some hard questions. More significantly, I was struck by how keen they were about Malaysian politics and about related Malaysian affairs. No doubt they had a great sense of identification with and affection for their motherland.

And this is the nub of the matter

For me, one of the most important consequences of the Pakatan Rakyat coming to power especially in the states of Penang and Selangor, is that the youth, especially non-bumiputera youths, have become interested in politics.

More than that they have become interested to engage not only with politics, but with the institutions of government in Malaysia, albeit at the state – not yet at the federal – level. Why, some of these young people have also worked in the offices of the Penang Chief Minister and of the Menteri Besar Selangor, for other state executive council members in the two states. One of them who worked with a Selangor assemblyman and died while doing so, was Teoh Beng Hock.

Reversing the brain drain

We are all aware that Malaysia has been afflicted with a serious problem of brain drain for several decades now. It has been reported that some 5 per cent of skilled Malaysians, mostly non-bumiputera, leave the country each year, and that some 20 per cent of Malaysia’s young graduates, trained at home and abroad, opt to leave the country (mostly to Singapore), ultimately. What a loss this has been for our country!

In 2011, the World Bank’s Malaysian Economic Monitor reported the results of a survey of Malaysians living overseas who were asked whether they intended to return to Malaysia at some point in their lives.

Of those surveyed, 87 per cent of respondents said they would do so if there was a shift away from race-based to needs-based affirmative action in government policies.

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A similarly high 82 per cent of respondents said they would also return if there was evidence of fundamental and positive change in the government or public sector. Also, some 46 per cent desired to see greater investment in public education.

Significantly, only 17 per cent cited ‘favourable tax structure’ as an incentive for returning to Malaysia.

Put another way, the reasons for leaving were real or perceived ethnic discrimination in Malaysia, apart from lack of educational opportunities for their children. It was not about money.

The flipside to this coin is that the numbers of unskilled workers migrating to Malaysia has climbed most dramatically. EPU (Economic Planning Unit) data shows the number of documented foreign workers rose from 410,000 in 1999 to 2.1m in 2008, half of them from Indonesia. Nowadays, they make up one-third of employees in the manufacturing sector, the construction sector, and more than one-third in the agricultural.

In late Aug 2013, the government announced that they had reached a G-to-G agreement with Dhaka to import some 1.5m Bangladeshis into Malaysia over the next year. And yes, there is also a proposal to make them wear TAGs (Remote Sensing Tags)!

With this problem of brain drain as a backdrop, the recent interest of these young Malaysians, including non-bumiputera, in politics and government is most encouraging.

Spurred on by new politics

Indeed, it is not only this particular group of Chinese Malaysians youths who have found meaning in the New Politics, and in the Pakatan-led governments. Many others – Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazan-dusuns, Dayaks, and others – have found renewed meaning in politics and government since GE12 and GE13.

In Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, we have seen the election of young wakil rakyat like Nurul Izzah Anwar, Nik Nazmi, Hannah Yeoh, N Surendran, Rafizi Ramli, Tony Pua and Ong Kian Ming; in Penang Dr Afif Bahardin, Yap Soo Huey, Steven Sim, Zairil Khir Johari, Kasthuri Patto, Lee Siew Khim, and Soon Lip Chee; in Perak, Chang Lih Kang; in Sarawak, Alice Lau; in Johore, Teo Nie Ching and Liew Chin Tong. There were not a few young wakil rakyat, generally reformist minded, who were elected on the BN ticket too. And there were also those who engaged in the electoral process with gusto but did not get elected, for one reason or another.

Many other young people have also been appointed to become councillors in the local authorities. No longer are these positions the purview of old self-serving politicians like Datuk Zakaria (the late Umno kingpin of Klang, who also put on his big dark glasses, remember?), a practice which had further alienated young people from politics and from government.

Active in civil society organisations

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As well, the emergence of the two-party system also encouraged young people to be involved in civil society organisations of all hues and colours, in the new alternative media, and in social media and blogs. For instance, we have Latheefa Koya and Edmund Bon in Lawyers for Liberty/Loyar Buruk; Ahmad Fuad Rahmat in the Islamic Renaissance Front; and Wong Chin Huat in the Bersih 2.0 steering committee.

These young people also steer NGOs like Komas, made famous for its organising the annual Freedom Film Festival. Komas was also involved in the production of Gadoh, a feature film which explores our perception of identity and challenges us on how we perceive ‘the others’, issues that are most relevant for our youth. Suaram, now with offices in KL, Penang and Johor Bahru, and campaigns actively for freedom and human rights, is also very much youth driven. There are also other advocacy groups like the Universiti Bangsar Utara, which used to run discussion sessions on politics for interested youths, who also performed street theatre occasionally. And there are also a group of youths who associate themselves with the Parti Sosialis Malaysia, whose leaders, many youths find to be not just committed to justice and democracy, but decent and honest. So some youths are attracted to the concerns and activities of Jerit, Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas.

It should be mentioned that these youths have attracted the wrath of the authorities from time-to-time. But, no matter, they have struggled on. Alas, one of these young Malaysians, Sanjeevan, who led MyWatch, which investigates complaints of police corruption and abuses, was recently shot at critically by an unknown gunman.

A majority of the people who attended the Bersih rallies and the Himpunan Hijau marches were youths. A group of these young people attached to local universities, took the government to Court and won a ruling that the clause in the Universities and University-colleges Act, which had disallowed students from becoming active in politics while registered as students locally, was unconstitutional. Accordingly, the UUCA had to be amended.

In the new media

Malaysia’s youth are prepared to express themselves about politics and about government in the new media like never before! Among them are Fahmi Reza, an independent film producer of ‘Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka’ fame; activist Fahmi Fadzil, host of the PopTeeVee series of interviews; independent writer Fathi Aris Omar; Amir Muhammad who has authored several books and produced films like The Last Communist; Jacqueline Ann Surin who anchored the on-line Nutgraph; and Namewee, the video and film producer who had rapped and parodied on the national anthem.

The same Namewee and Hong Yuhang also produced Potong Saga, which made fun of the national car Proton Saga, as well as the ignorance of Malaysians about each other’s religion. This video was part of a collection of 15 short films put together by Pete Teo, a not-so-young singer-songwriter. Then there was Anna Har’s documentary film Selepas Tsunami, about issues, problems and personalities involved in reintroducing local-level democracy in the Pakatan-led states of Penang and Selangor after the 2008 elections. A group of young Sabahan videographers also joined in to collectively produce KeArah Hutan Lestari, Towards Sustainable Forests. And Hilary Chew and Chi Too produced the documentary ‘What Rainforest? Wake up and smell the palm oil’.

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Youth perspectives on politics

There have also been young authors like Tricia Yeoh, formerly an aide to the Selangor Menteri Besar, who put together her musings in a local newspaper in a collection entitled: States of Reform: Governing Selangor and Penang, a volume that documents efforts to usher in change in the two states but which were stymied by centralized federalism; Mohamad Haris Zuan and Mohd Rizal Hamdan, who edited Wacana baru Politik Malaysia; and Aqil Fithri who has written on things Islam including on the Shi’a movement in the region. Perhaps the collection of essays by Liew Chin Tong, Speaking for the Reformasi Generation, captures the spirit and enthusiasm of his generation vis-a-vis Malaysian politics and government.

Aliran, too, benefited from the presence of two bright interns who were full of initiative, who helped us to document and analyse events during the run-up to GE13. Another set of young Malaysians have also written for our Aliran Monthly and our Thinking Allowed on-line. Check out the writings of these young contributors: Mohd Faisal Hazis, Soon Chuan Yean, Ngu Ik Tien, Arnold Puyok, Christopher Chong, Azmil Tayeb, Adil Johan, Shazwan Mustafa, Cheah Wui Jia, Nicholas Chan and Douglas Teoh, in our website.

In fact, check out the writings or videos of the young Malaysians that we have mentioned above by googling their names. Be surprised, and encouraged by these young Malaysians.

A sea change

It is this sea change in Malaysian politics that makes our 56th year of Merdeka, and 50 Years since the formation of Malaysia, so very meaningful. Not the Jalur Gemilang or singing the Negara Ku per se. Certainly, not the showing of Tanda Putera! Nor because some have decided to organise a convoy of big bikes to Putrajaya and to ride around the F1 Circuit in Sepang, along the way.

No, a whole new generation of young Malaysians who identify themselves with more than Malaysia’s lovely food has arisen. They have become interested in politics and in government. They are seeking – and hopefully will usher in – an era of New Politics. Be Hopeful!

Selamat 56 Tahun Kemerdekaan! Selamat menyambut 50 Tahun Hari Malaysia!

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