“When Malaysian Youth Take a Stand… a Wave of Change Follows”, by Serina Rahman

2018/60, 14 May 2018

Malaysia’s 14th General Elections resulted in a windfall for the then-opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR); the end of 61 years of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule and unexpectedly large margins and wins in previously BN strongholds. Many were hoping for a Malay tsunami but what happened in the end was a Malaysian citizens’ tsunami (tsunami rakyat) that went far beyond expectations.

One force behind the wave of support for the opposition was the youth vote. Making up the largest percentage of the electorate (about 40 percent), their awakening and political consciousness helped to overcome historical loyalties and generational support for Barisan Nasional. Whether rural or urban, youths across Malaysia were fidgeting for change.

In Kedah, those I spoke to were upfront in their determination to make a difference. It was well known that the youth in Langkawi, Mahathir Mohamed’s constituency, were vocal in their support of the former and now recently re-anointed Prime Minister. So much so that the popular then-Minister of Youth and Sport, Khairy Jamaludin was sent to the island twice in the build up to the elections. On the eve of the elections when Mahathir was meant to address the nation through social media at a town hall in Langkawi, the Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) and the Ministry of Finance held a pop concert, purportedly to provide alternative entertainment for local youth.

In Johor, rural youth whispered their dissatisfaction with the then-ruling BN government, complaining about GST, the cost of living and their struggles to make ends meet. This disgruntlement was met with admonishment by their elders as these constituents had always voted for BN. In urban Johor, youth unhappiness with the leaders of the then-federal government was reverberating through hip cafes and trendy hangouts. Young people who were otherwise satisfied with the efforts of the state government, many of whom had deep ties with BN and the ruling establishment, were clamouring to remove the person they felt was the cause of the nation’s woes.

Youthful idealism has always been the spring of revolution, but this time not only did the youth want change, but citizens across the board also wanted more youthful representation. Those I spoke to across all races and ages mentioned that they wanted new faces and new ideas for a tired, staggering country and what they saw as a stumbling domestic economy.

Both parties tried to respond to these requests, fielding an unprecedented 14 candidates below the age of 35. Of these candidates, the most astounding achievements were that of 22-year old law student Prabakaran a/l Parameswaran, an independent candidate who garnered the support of PKR veteran Tian Chua (and former incumbent of the seat) who was rejected on nomination day; and 26-year old Syed Saddiq, co-founder of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). Despite being branded political newbies, both won hands-down as voters young and old threw in their lot with the young candidates.

On polling day, the young overcame the old as Malay-majority areas long in support of Barisan National changed hands in spite of family pressures to remain with tradition. While more analysis of their exact impact will be done in coming months, it is clear that the youth of Malaysia were a force to be reckoned with behind this sudden surge for change.

Dr Serina Rahman is Visiting Fellow under the Malaysia Program at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.