Can Malaysia’s Youths Be the Future of Change?

MUST YOUTHS CONTINUE to be constrained by the status quo of Malaysian politics, or can they break through to the forefront of change?

“As a youth activist, I am cynical of the intentions of political parties. I also believe that by and large, this sentiment is shared by Malaysian youths,” says Qyira Yusri, the co-founder of Undi18. This was during the webinar Political Update: Can youth change Malaysian politics? organised by the Australia National University’s Malaysia Institute last October.

Qyira’s observation is fully understandable. The country started 2020 with the world’s oldest head of government at the helm of a relatively young Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Then came the “Sheraton Move” in February and in one fell swoop, the government was toppled.

“There is a growing electorate who are proud of their varied identities, while simultaneously recognising that race and religion are not the ‘be-all and end-all’ when it comes to electing representatives."

The Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition now forms the Malaysian government, with Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as Prime Minister. This change of government took place without a general election. “Malaysia’s politics is so entrenched in warlord-ism that civil society leaders are facing insurmountable hurdles in advancing political reforms,” says Qyira. “Take Maria Chin Abdullah for instance. She is now the Member of Parliament (MP) for Petaling Jaya. But as a backbencher, she’s finding it difficult to push for the reforms and ideals she originally championed in the Bersih 2.0 rally.”

Lawyer Lim Wei Jiet, co-founder of the recently formed Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), agrees: “The cancer of old politics has turned Malaysia into a sorry state. Student-led movements were rife in the 1970s; in fact, the Baling demonstration of 1974 was led by Anwar Ibrahim himself.”

But draconian laws like the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU) have forcibly repressed and stymied freedom of speech and expression for young Malaysians. Additional amendments to the AUKU made certain that student involvement in politics was permanently curtailed.

Political patronage plagues Malaysia. Programme coordinator for Undi Sabah Mahirah Marzuki saw this most evidently during the recent state election, and how politicians in Sabah’s rural constituencies openly bought votes. “I know of frustrated peers whose families felt obliged to vote for specific candidates out of gratitude for their charitable gifts.

“On one hand, we have the Warisan Plus coalition that embraces multiculturalism and diversity. But on the other, there is PN pandering to tribalistic and anti-immigration sentiments – these became the decisive factor in PN wresting control of the state legislature from Warisan Plus by a simple majority.”

Will MUDA be the Solution?

Race and religion are the food that feeds the increasing polarisation of the country’s politics, and undermines public will to stand up to corruption. “I was hopeful that corruption would be eradicated after PH was voted into power in 2018,” says Lim. “It saddens me now to see how some political parties are openly calling for charges against corrupted leaders to be dropped.”

It is this divisive political climate and disenchantment with the “old guard” that motivated Lim and many young patriots to establish MUDA, headed by Muar MP Syed Saddiq. But while MUDA has certainly grabbed headlines from the get-go, Lim sounds a cautious note on the party’s road ahead; throughout the country’s history, independent parties have made little headway in national politics.

Lawyer and co-founder of the recently formed Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, Lim Wei Jiet.

Qyira Yusri, the co-founder of Undi18.

Mahirah Marzuki, the programme coordinator for Undi Sabah.

“Even if the next General Election does not take place for another two years, MUDA still does not have the luxury of time. It is an uphill task to make inroads in rural UMNO and PAS strongholds. We need to concentrate our resources and energy in constituencies where we have a fighting chance.”

Adding to the list of challenges, Lim and his party colleagues are striving to dispel notions that in policy-making, MUDA is urban-centric, idealistic and inexperienced. “We are looking to welcome more technocrats and professionals into our fold. For his part, Syed Saddiq has made concerted efforts to reach out to a broad spectrum of youths, including those from the Orang Asli communities and from East Malaysia. Whether or not our efforts prove fruitful, only time will tell.”

There is a general scepticism about the limited capability of Malaysian youths, laments Qyira: “It is really a universal challenge for youths wishing to prove themselves must inevitably face. We are constantly being second-guessed and judged just because we are ‘inexperienced’,” she explains, adding that MUDA should also take heed against the pitfalls of ageism. “Even though MUDA’s main selling point is that it is youth-oriented, the question remains – will the age factor alone suffice to win elections?”

Building Political Awareness? Easier Said Than Done

Drawing from her personal experience as an activist, Qyira thinks that young Malaysians are still fearful of speaking up. “They are unsure of the intricacies of the political system and their rights as citizens. This unfortunately hinders them from political participation.” This is disconcerting, especially now when the voting age has been lowered to 18. Millions will now be eligible to cast their votes for the first time in the next General Election.

As a Sabahan, Mahirah is concerned that building political awareness among rural youths, who are already hampered by inadequate infrastructure and limited access to education, will prove extremely daunting. “Sabah and Sarawak are geographically vast, where the scattered rural communities are isolated by poor infrastructure, not to mention bad or absent internet coverage. Marginalised communities tend to be deprived of basic amenities, and this impedes efforts to improve civic education.”

Lim acknowledges the obstacles involved, but he remains optimistic that Malaysian youths are less swayed by identity politics today, compared to earlier generations. “There is a growing electorate who are proud of their varied identities, while simultaneously recognising that race and religion are not the ‘be-all and end-all’ when it comes to electing representatives. There are issues directly impacting youths that should take priority; economic development, job opportunities and education, for example.”

Ooi Tze Xiong, a former Xaverian, currently works at a multinational firm at Bayan Lepas. After years of sojourning in cities across Malaysia and Singapore, he eventually decided to call Penang home.

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