Political apathy among millennials

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Millennials: they are the Facebooking, Instagramming, selfie-taking snowflake generation who reek of entitlement, privilege – and political apathy? Li Yan, Yap writes about why she thinks millennials have come to be politically apathetic.

Why don’t youths vote? A small-scale survey conducted this year found that almost 40% of youths aged 21-30 were not registered to vote. On a similar note, the Electoral Commission reported the majority of our 4.1m unregistered voters were young people.

Without a doubt, the numbers say that youths do not seem interested in voting. But is this as simple as a generational trend? With a tendency as common as this, what we have isn’t millions conspiring to be indifferent to politics; what we have is a systemic problem.

Mass trends involving millions of youth are always rooted in a larger context. The punk subculture in the UK originated from the working-class youth’s dissatisfaction with industrialisation (and later, Thatcherism). While political apathy is not a movement per se, it is more than just the generational gap it is perceived to be.

I believe that a big contributor to us being politically apathetic is that we’ve been socialised and educated to be this way. From an early age, we have been raised to be invisible and unheard: don’t stand out, don’t speak up, only listen. Based on what I’ve seen, obedience to rules and authority have time and time again been valued over critical thinking, bravery, or being outspoken.

Malaysians love rules. It’s easy. It’s lazy. It’s a relic from the colonial days – the British put laws in place to regulate our behaviour. Some of them are still in place today. Our colonisers didn’t want us to revolt; so they scared us out of all our dissidence. Eventually, the threat of being thrown into jail was so great, people started regulating one another’s behaviour – a self-censorship of sorts. This fear and subservience has passed down over generations, and it still works today. I don’t mean to diminish the agency of my peers, but this learned behaviour greatly contributes to the problem.

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Rule-following aside, we didn’t choose to ignore societal issues; we’re not adequately exposed to them to begin with. Even at the secondary school level, we’re not taught real societal issues such as the cycle of poverty, climate change, and inflation. When societal problems are not on our agenda while growing up, it is difficult to suddenly make this a young voter’s concern. Adulthood is not a switch. We do not suddenly become interested in politics and know all about political parties and societal woes at the age of 21.

Worse than being educated and socialised to not be politically inclined, we most frequently have our political views dismissed. I’ve been called a “snowflake” before. My political leanings are brushed off as complaints and insignificant because I couldn’t possibly know what I’m talking about, as a 23-year-old woman. It doesn’t matter that I spent a few years in university studying politics and media – I can’t possibly know what I’m saying due to my age. When we hear enough of, “Ah, you don’t know this one lah,” over time, we lose that tiny spark of interest that we have in politics. Naturally, we stop talking about politics entirely.

It’s not that youths don’t care. I think we’ve never been taught to care. We’ve never been taught that politics affects everyone, and that we need to vote for the right people to represent us. Even so, as a registered voter, I often ask this question:

Where is my politician? Who do I vote for to represent my issues?

In 2015, Jobstreet released findings from a survey on employers where they alleged that fresh grads demanded salaries of up to RM6,500, but had poor English and soft skills. This was widely reported in the Malaysian mainstream media, and it sparked ridicule of the millennials in the comments. What they failed to criticise from the same report was how the average starting pay offered to fresh grads is between RM2,100 and RM2,500, a meagre sum for a graduate in this age.

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I have yet to hear a political representative really say, “Hey, under- and unemployment rates of fresh grads are a real issue – let’s stop blaming the graduates, and hold employers accountable to make sure graduates can be paid more fairly.”

I have yet to hear a representative recognise the difficulties that young women face in the professional world in Malaysia – the gender pay gap is still significant, less than 11% of MPs are women, and a recommended quota of 30% women directors in private companies has encountered hesitance.

Under- and unemployment, gender wage gaps, high living costs, unattainable property prices, inflation, low starting salaries – these are the issues that matter to me, and try as I might, I can’t think of a single politician who puts our issues at the top of their priority list. If politicians were truly keen to get youths to vote for them, they should start by acknowledging that the issues we face are real, and they should start engaging youths effectively, not as a careless afterthought.

In the political arena, I am still the unseen and unheard obedient child in school. Don’t be seen, don’t be heard, and most of all, only listen. If only youth issues are taken more seriously, I believe we could be the real game-changers in the coming general election.

Li Yan, Yap is a registered voter of the snowflake generation who is passionate about mental healthcare and refugee rights. A graduate in international communication studies, she is currently a project officer with the gender responsive and participatory budgeting department at Penang Women’s Development Corporation. She recently participated in Aliran’s Young Writers Workshop with the theme Youth Aspirations and GE14.

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