As part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, all UN member states, including Malaysia, adopted 17 sustainable development goals in 2015 – a universal call to action to protect the planet, improve lives for everyone and end poverty.
Although we may not usually associate Undi 18 with these goals, the youth population (for this article, we focus on electors) size does matter in relation to these goals, as the youth play a key role in the growth of the labour force and in the implementation of these goals.
With the implementation of Undi 18, around 7% of electors in Malaysia fall in the 18-20 age group and 29% in the 18-30 group. Not only can the youth in Malaysia contribute to sustainable development goals economically and socially, they are now also fully enfranchised and empowered to decide the country’s trajectory in the implementation of these goals.
This article focuses on the key challenges of the sustainable development goals that youth could face in the 222 parliamentary constituencies.
Before we focus on the key challenges of the sustainable development goals, we need to understand what Undi 18 and these goals are.
Undi 18 is a general term that refers to a 2019 constitutional amendment that lowered the minimum age for voters/electors from 21 to 18 and introduced automatic voter registration. This resulted in five million new voters to the electoral roll.
Prior to Undi 18, nearly half of Malaysians between 21 and 30 did not register themselves as voters.
As for the 17 sustainable development goals, they call upon all countries to end poverty and hunger (people), protect the planet from degradation (planet), bring prosperity for all (prosperity), promote peace and inclusive societies (peace) and work in global solidarity to implement the 2030 agenda (partnership).
For this article, we will focus on a few challenges of the sustainable development goals – the indicators for unemployment, inequality and poverty.
Under Goal 8 – Decent work and economic growth, one target (8.5) is for countries to achieve full employment for all people and equality of pay for work of equal value.
One way to measure the success of this target is indicator 8.5.2 – the unemployment rate by sex, age and persons with disabilities.
If we were to use the United Nations Economic and Social Commission of Asia Pacific (Unescap) desired national unemployment rate threshold of 2.6%, only 17 parliamentary constituencies in Malaysia have unemployment rates lower or equal to 2.6%.
Ten constituencies have 25-30% of the electorate who are youth.
While other factors underpin the variation of unemployment, constituencies with over 35% of youth electors – 14 such constituencies – have an unemployment rate of 6.3% on average, compared to the national unemployment rate of is 3.3% (2019).
The majority of these 14 constituencies are found in Sabah, followed by Selangor. These constituencies are a mixture of urban and rural seats. Noticeably, the Sabah constituencies have an average unemployment rate of 8.3%.
For Goal 10 – Reduced inequalities, the Sustainable Development Report (which measures the progress of countries in achieving these goals) outlines an indicator to measure inequality, the Gini coefficient. This index is used to estimate how far a country’s income distribution deviates from perfectly equal distribution.
Unescap has set a target for countries to achieve a Gini coefficient of 0.295.
While Malaysia has significantly reduced inequality since independence, 2019 was the first year when inequality widened (Gini coefficient of 0.407) since 2004.
Only 15 constituencies (found in the peninsula) had a Gini value lower than 0.295.
While there is no consistent pattern of Gini coefficient value when compared to the youth voting population, constituencies with over 35% of youth electors face serious inequality issues.
Sabah had the highest Gini coefficient (0.397) in 2019, ie the highest inequality among the states. As a majority of Sabah’s parliamentary constituencies have a youth voting population greater than 25% of the electorate, these constituencies face greater inequality issues compared to ‘older’ constituencies.
Under Goal 1 – No poverty, one target (1.2) is for countries to reduce poverty by at least 50%. To measure the success of the target, indicator 1.2.1 measures the country’s proportion of the population living below the national poverty line.
While Malaysia has reduced national poverty (particularly absolute poverty) over the decades, a deeper study of the prevalence of poverty among parliamentary constituencies reveals that the journey to end poverty remains unfinished business.
In 2019 the prevalence of absolute poverty in Malaysia was around 5.6% of households.
Out of 222 parliamentary constituencies, 109 had a poverty rate equal or lower than this rate.
Many of the constituencies with higher poverty rates (compared to the national average level) are in Kedah, Kelantan, Perak, Sabah and Sarawak – and, on average, 30% of their electorate are young.
Constituencies with the highest poverty incidences (especially in Sabah) such as Kudat (47%), Kota Marudu (44.2%) and Beluran (43.3%) are areas where young electors make up 30-35% of the electorate.
Within the peninsula, five of the top 10 parliamentary constituencies with the highest poverty rates are in Kelantan.
Nine parliamentary constituencies where less than 20% of the electorate are young have some of the lowest poverty incidences in the country. These constituencies cover the older areas of George Town, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.
Effective policy formulation
The implementation of Undi 18 has exposed the great need for Malaysia to shift from a race-based discourse to effective policy formulation to tackle the gaps in the sustainable development goals.
The success of these goals for Malaysia hinges on the efforts of every Malaysian – from the young voter to the federal government.
While the federal and state governments are responsible for policy implementation, voters – especially the young – now shoulder a greater responsibility to compel a shift in the discourse among political parties and the sitting government.
It is up to younger voters to decide whether they want the key institutions to achieve the targets of the sustainable development goals and to hold these institutions accountable.
Danesh Prakash Chacko is a research analyst at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development