The excitement and euphoria surrounding the passage of the constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 was quickly met with skepticism about the maturity of our young people and their ability to make decisions wise at the polls. These concerns are rooted in the fact that the Malaysian education system gives no practical exposure to democratic processes and the workings of our politics.
There are also concerns that young people are overly dependent on social media for information and are subject to the polarizing discourse that often dominates these platforms. Young people are seen as overly emotional, irrational, ignorant and unable to make the overriding choice of choosing their wakil rakyat.
The assumption that young people are incapable of making political decisions conveniently ignores the fact that mature adults are perfectly capable of voting for individuals like Donald Trump and choosing to leave the European Union. In Malaysia, it is enough to listen to our parliamentary work to be amazed at the quality of the deputies whom we succeeded in having elected to the August chamber.
Rather than questioning the ability of young people to make good choices, what should concern us more is the very real sense of hopelessness and apathy that many young people feel towards politics. The recently concluded Johor state elections were the first time that 18-20 year olds could vote, but interviews on the ground showed that many young Johorians did not even know they were eligible to vote. Additionally, many were unaware that an election was coming and expressed doubts about the vote, as they did not believe their votes would be taken seriously.
The lack of awareness regarding their right to vote could be due to factors such as the lack of promotional campaigns by the Electoral Commission (EC). What is more worrying is the apathy towards the election itself, the distrust towards political institutions and the feeling of “why vote? My vote will not be taken seriously anyway.
The feelings here are by no means exclusive to young people in Malaysia. A 2020 report by the University of Cambridge’s Center for the Future of Democracy found that “in almost all regions of the world, satisfaction with democracy is highest among those aged 18 to 34. steepest decline.
In developed democracies, this trend is attributed to “economic exclusion” caused by high youth unemployment and pay inequality issues that are deeply felt by too many young people in Malaysia today.
Slow wage growth is of particular concern in Malaysia. The Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) indicated that this phenomenon is directly linked to structural problems in the economy, which are beyond the control of workers. For example, the report indicates that employment growth over the past decade has tended to be concentrated in low-wage economic activities.
Knowing the commonalities between the problems facing young people around the world, we must then ask ourselves the question: how do politicians, political parties and political institutions contribute to finding solutions? When was the last time we saw politicians go head-to-head on a policy-driven platform focused on solving the biggest challenges of our time? What has become of political parties if not a reinforcement of tribalism, polarization and power struggles?
A common remark we hear from young people when asked about politics is that they fail to see how politics affects their daily lives, and the futility of supporting politicians who only seem interested in power struggles and personal enrichment.
We often use America as an example of how unproductive, divisive, and harmful partisan politics can be in society. Looking at the type of individuals who seem to (re)gain popularity during the Johor campaign, Malaysians should also be aware that we live in a time when politics is fertile ground for the manipulation of truth and the normalization of fake stories.
Rather than criticizing young people for their ignorance and apathy towards politics, the question we need to ask ourselves is: can politics really be a vehicle in which the aspirations of young people can be realized?
Instead of blaming young people for not caring, it is worth remembering that all over the world today, young people have risen to the front lines to fight for the greatest movements of our time – racism, gender equality, climate change, mental health and police brutality. .
In Malaysia, #HartalDoktorKontrak, #TangkapAzamBaki and #Lawan have all been led by a new generation of young people who believe very strongly that if their generation does not lead the fight for these causes, it may be too late and the following generations will suffer.
It must be remembered that all these causes are political. That today’s young people are channeling their energy and creativity to the forefront of these causes shows a deep sense of duty and responsibility that challenges stereotypes that they are a generation of disillusionment, cynicism and apathy. .
Just because young people don’t identify with sometimes outdated forms of political expression (through parties and politicians) doesn’t mean they are politically ignorant. In fact, it is politicians and political parties that must prove how they can continue to be a legitimate and effective platform for solving the most pressing challenges of our time. This is the battle politicians must fight to win the support of today’s youth.
Aira Azhari is a Senior Officer at the Democracy and Governance Unit, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), a Kuala Lumpur-based think tank