As the deadline for the 14th general election in Malaysia looms, the largest cohort of eligible voters who can vote, but did not register, has caused concern among politicians. These are the twenty-somethings, the millenials, born between the 1980s and the 2000s.
According to the Election Commission, the largest group of eligible voters who have not registered are youths—they form two-thirds of the 3.8 million who have yet to register. In a developing country with over 17 million voters, these youth votes form a substantial piece of the electoral pie.
According to national opinion research by independent research firm Merdeka Centre and WATAN, a non-partisan NGO which campaigns for youths to register and vote, the reasons given for this inertia included: “I have no time” and “voting won’t make a difference”.
The survey of 604 youths between 21 to 30 years old across the nation last August showed that their main concerns were economic in nature—inflation, job opportunities and unfavourable economic conditions. Correspondingly, 70% said they are not interested in politics, and 75% found politics to be confusing.
To say that this is to be expected of young people and “narcissistic millenials” is untrue. This political indifference is a recent trend, and a far cry from the last election in 2013 where young voters were a force to be reckoned with.
For the first time since independence, the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (National Front) lost the popular vote in the 2013 general election. That 47% share of the vote was their worst ever performance, but—amid accusations of heavy gerrymandering and electoral impropriety—they still managed to gain 60% of the 222 parliamentary seats.
“Young people want to see real change”
“There was more optimism in the last election. Now there is cynicism and a sense of helplessness,” says Azmi Sharom, University of Malaya associate professor of law and political columnist. “Young people want to see real change. In the last election, the Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote, yet they still retained power. So they saw how messed up the electoral system was.”
The National Front has governed the country since 1955, two years before the Federation of Malaya gained independence from British. The Federation subsequently merged with North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore, to form Malaysia in 1963. Like neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia’s political system combines elements of democracy, such as regularly-held elections, with restrictions on the press and civil liberties more reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. Accordingly, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2018 report described the country as only “partly free”, with an aggregate score of 45 out of 100. Discontentment with the status quo has seen five giant rallies since 2010, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in yellow T-shirts took to the streets with the rallying cry, “Bersih (Clean)!” calling for free and fair elections.
“We lost hope,” says 26-year old Maryam Lee. “From 2010 to 2013 before the 13th general election, there was a lot of mobilisation, for example the Occupy [Dataran], and then there was the backlash where student activists were arrested and intense stifling of activism by the government. Public institutions have failed young people. All these (political activism) have slowed down after the 2013 elections when Pakatan (the opposition alliance) lost.”
Since the loss of the largest opposition contender in 2013, young people have lost faith in the political system. Coupled with a few embarrassing political manoeuvrings, namely the Kajang move, ineffective leadership and infighting within the opposition pact, young people have turned to a leaderless social media campaign called #UndiRosak (spoil votes), much to the chagrin of older voters.
Maryam Lee has been the centre of controversy over her support for #UndiRosak. A YouTube video of her speaking at a forum went viral, making her a target of cyberattacks in which sexist remarks and death threats were all fair game. “Spoilt brat”, “makan dedak (accepting corruption)”, “traitor”, “stupid fat bitch”, “deserved to be raped” were some of the comments made against her on social media. The barrage of cyberbullying, although primarily from opposition supporters, has even alarmed opposition leaders who stand to lose when votes are spoilt.
“[W]hat is shallow is the democracy that doesn’t go beyond the ballot box”
“It is understandable why young people have turned to #UndiRosak. Pakatan has not really done anything to capture the imagination of the young people. This is something very disappointing,” says Azmi. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the recent appointment of nonagenarian, the longest serving former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad as the leader of the opposition alliance.
“Mahathir was the one who stifled democracy, who put draconian laws in public universities to suppress political activism, he never apologised. It is not like we young people don’t know or don’t care. We know what we want, and the two main political parties are not giving us any alternatives,” says Lee, adding that Pakatan is no longer a progressive alternative to the ruling party.
“Spoiling one’s vote is a legitimate form of electoral participation. It opens the space for democratic discussion. We are called shallow and naïve. But what is shallow is the democracy that doesn’t go beyond the ballot box,” she adds.
“Democracy can’t be just every five years”
It remains to be seen if #UndiRosak has a large enough impact to swing the votes. Spoilt votes in Malaysian elections are usually less than 2% of the overall vote share.
“You need an energised population—meaning go and register, wake up in the morning and go to the polls before you can spoil your votes. It takes a lot. #UndiRosak is just a social media viral hashtag, the message is simple and straightforward and it feeds into the discontent with the current political scenario. But it takes a lot to go from online to offline,” observes Masjaliza Hamzah, executive director of WATAN.
Masjaliza blames the rigid political structures for keeping young people out of politics, particularly the lack of local elections. “At what level can young people enter the political fray? Structures in political parties are not open or flexible to accept young people. There are no local elections where it is easier for young people to access as they don’t have much money, or political machinery backing them.”
But that doesn’t mean young people are not aware or engaged with society. “They are very active in community service like helping the poor, those that they can see direct results. They are engaged in many kinds of activism, but not in realpolitik,” adds Masjaliza.
“If you want change you have to vote”
Lau Li Yang, a third-year student in International Strategic Studies, feels that although youth political participation is low, civil society is getting stronger. “Compared to Mahathir’s time, there [was] no social media and information gets blocked. Young people are talking and organising. Now with all the chaos in the opposition pact, I think it is a good thing as this is how democracy works,” says the 23-year-old.
Lau however, says he will not spoil his vote: “Every vote counts. If you want change you have to vote.”
With the advent of social media, young people have opportunities to make their voices heard. They are able to organise and initiate projects from wherever they are. They do not see voting as the only way for change to happen. Fadiah Najwa Fikri of Malaysia Muda (Young Malaysia), a leftist movement with a Facebook following of over 2000 members, says the conversation and the process is missing. “Politicians just talk about the end results, but we don’t want to focus on just this election. What’s beyond that? How do you address current concerns like jobs and education and the concerns of the working class majority like cost of living and wages?”
Malaysia’s political landscape is changing, but not via the traditional means of elections. The ground is shifting from underneath the feet of politicians who are still banking on young people to support them with their votes. But they’re at risk of being rendered irrelevant as youths find meaning and collective support to act on what they feel are important to their causes. For some, this could be the only way forward to dismantle the rigid political structures that have failed to address the concerns of so many today.
Young Malaysians speak
Jason Wong, 24, Environmental Science graduate:
Young people are increasingly less susceptible to blindly listening to mainstream political narratives. #UndiRosak is an interesting demonstration of this that really surprised me. There is a sense out there among young people and youth in general that an alternative is needed. That means that activists have a massive crowd out there to work on. People just need to be convinced that they are the solution.
Noor Atika, 26, factory worker, Banting:
I work every day of the month to get the overtime, so there is enough to support me and my grandmother. I don’t have time to think of politics. People tell me it is pointless to vote as it won’t make a difference. The government should reduce migrant workers who are competing with Malaysians for job opportunities.
Asyikin Alias, 28, works in the private sector:
I am not optimistic for where the country is heading. I will vote, not spoil my vote. If I were the prime minister, I will fire the whole cabinet. I will bring economy to the rural areas so that young people don’t have to all leave for the cities. The city is taking away resources from the rural areas.
Shyukri Baharuddin, 25, works in the private sector:
I have just graduated and I am already blacklisted by PTPTN [government study loan for tertiary education]. I have a new family and I can’t depend on a motorcycle forever. There are few job opportunities and wages are low. It is a struggle for young people like me.
Mukmin Natang, 24, first time voter from Sabah:
There is a large income gap. There is so much oppression and poverty here. I have established community learning centres to educate my people. I will spoil my votes unless there is a good candidate. I want to fight the ruling coalition but I have to be fair. I myself do not trust the capability of the opposition, so how can I vote for them?
Nurfahani Abdul Japar, 24, Bisaya ethnic group, Sabah:
I want to see people make changes towards environmental conservation. Palm oil industries is bringing more harm than good. Animal habitats are being destroyed and the earth and people are being exploited. I will volunteer to be a polling agent this election to make sure the election is fair. However, I may spoil my vote if there are no good candidates.
Jay Rishi Selvakumar, 29, financial consultant:
Our education system is in a terrible state. It doesn’t educate us about the real world. I learned what I need to know by working and am better off. Whatever happens in this coming election is just that. Whether Mahathir is the Prime Minister or not, life goes on. But I will vote.
Jay Saw, 21, 2nd year engineering student:
Financial freedom is most important for me. Politics is messy, it is better that I don’t read papers and don’t know about politics. Ignorance can be blissful.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!