Seminar on “Understanding The Impact Of The Youth Vote”

In this seminar, Mr James Chai looked into Malaysia’s most recent bill, Undi 18, that lowered the voting and candidacy age from 21 to 18 and allowed for automatic voter registration.


11 August 2022, Thursday – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a hybrid seminar titled “Understanding the Impact of Undi 18” with guest speaker Mr James Chai. Mr Chai is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist on Malaysian politics. He graduated with a Bachelor of Laws from Queen Mary (University of London) and a Masters from Oxford University.

Speaker Mr James Chai (right) with Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and moderator of the hybrid seminar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Chai began his presentation with a background of the Undi18 bill which was passed by the Malaysian parliament on 16th July 2019. The Undi 18 bill comprised of three parts comprising of the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years old, automatic voters’ registration for all eligible electorate and reducing the minimum age to stand for elections from 21 to 18. He shared that the bill incorporated the demands from both the ruling government and opposition, and was passed with unanimous consent in Parliament.

Even though the Undi18 bill has the stated objective to encourage democratic participation among Malaysian youths, Mr Chai commented that the bill unintentionally worsened the existing malapportionment. Under the Malaysian electoral system, rural constituencies are accorded greater weightage with fewer electorate for each Member-of-Parliament (MP). Since the bulk of new voters under Undi18 reside in urban areas, Undi18 further worsened the existing malapportionment between rural and urban seats. Mr Chai cited the example of Lenggong and Bangi, with the latter having eight times more electorate than the former.

Mr Chai explained that the malapportionment is detrimental for Malaysia since it reduces the incentives for political parties to expand their outreach among the electorate in larger (urban) constituencies. Malapportionment instead encourages parties to channel their resources towards smaller (rural) constituencies since it generates higher electoral payoff relative to resources. Instead of each citizen having an equal say in the democratic process, malapportionment results in a dual-tier electorate. In addition, MP in constituencies with a large population would face difficulties in addressing their residents’ concerns resulting in welfare losses and declining democratic participation.

In the concluding section, Mr Chai proposed several solutions to resolve the existing malapportionment which was exacerbated by Undi18. One option would be to increase the number of parliamentary seats where existing oversized constituencies would be split up into seats with fewer number of voters. Nonetheless, Mr Chai commented that this suggestion is politically controversial since oversized constituencies are typically located in urban areas with ethnic Chinese comprising a large share of the electorate. A re-delineation which increases the number of Chinese dominant constituencies is likely to benefit the opposition Pakatan Harapan.

During the question-and-answer session, participants raised the relationship between Barisan Nasional’s declining electoral performance and worsening malapportionment since 2003, the bargaining power of Borneo states vis-à-vis the federal government should East Malaysia have more parliamentary seats, long-term electoral impact of higher demographic growth among ethnic Malays, among others.

The hybrid seminar drew a total of 60 participants both online and offline.

Seminar on “Understanding The Impact Of The Youth Vote”
(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)