Politics is in the Blood of the Young


January 26, 2017

Politics is in the Blood of the Young

“Give me 1,000 men and I will move a mountain. Give me 10 young men and I will shake the world.” (Sukarno)

Where political involvement is concerned, young people are generally perceived to be outliers – either too radical in their views or completely indifferent. Yet they make up a potent political force especially in developing nations where they dominate in demography. Once tapped, they are capable of delivering change.

With the median age in Malaysia being 27.1 years and with 72% of the population being under 40 years of age, the relevance of young people in our country is far from insignificant. Faced with the need to engage this important demographic group yet not quite knowing what their needs and desires really are, political parties and governments often end up baiting them with concerts, football tournaments and “tweet famous” celebrities.

While the general view that young people are politically apathetic is not entirely without basis, it is a patronising generalisation that belies the fact that young people, both historically and in the present day, play a very important role in political processes, both formal and informal.

History of Youth in Politics

It is interesting to note that many Southeast Asian nationalist movements at the height of the colonial resistance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were spearheaded by young people.

In the Philippines, for example, José Rizal wrote his influential anti-imperialist novel Noli Me Tangere in 1887 when he was only 25 years old, while pioneering revolutionaries Andrés Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto were in their 20s when they founded the Katipunan movement to oppose Spanish rule. A female colleague of theirs, Gregoria de Jesus, was only 21 when she joined them in 1896. In 1898, when the flag of the Republic of the Philippines was hoisted for the first time, the man chosen to be the newly independent nation’s first president, Emilio Aguinaldo, was only 29 years old.

In Burma, nationalist fervour began when a youth organisation called the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) organised protests against the British colonial regime’s introduction of laws that suppressed student freedoms. Following on from their success, various splinter groups from the YMBA went on to form political parties that would eventually lead the charge for independence.

One important personality from that era was Aung San, the Burmese nationalist icon who, having been a student leader, left university in 1938 to enter formal politics at the age of 23. Eight years and a world war later, he became president of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League in 1946 and deputy chairman of the executive council, which effectively made him the titular head of the Burmese civil government. In this role, he led independence negotiations with Britain, culminating in an agreement jointly signed with British prime minister Clement Attlee in January 1947. Unfortunately, he was not to see the fruits of his efforts as he was assassinated later in the year at the age of 32.

Pioneering revolutionary Andrés Bonifacio, who was in his 20s when he co-founded the Katipunan movement to oppose Spanish rule.

Over in Indonesia, it is impossible to discuss the nationalist revolution without touching on the decisive influence of the Second Youth Congress in 1928. Not only was the national anthem Indonesia Raya played for the very first time, the conference also saw the recital of the “Youth Pledge” – a declaration that forms the basis for the Indonesian national ideal until this very day, namely the idea of “one motherland, one nation and one language”. So influential was the role of young people in the independence movement that Benedict Anderson even termed it a “youth revolution”.

Young people played no less significant a role in the lead-up to Malaysian independence. For example, one of the earliest nationalist movements in the country was formed in Kedah during the Second World War. Known by its acronym Saberkas, it was officially set up as a welfare cooperative called Syarikat Bekerjasama Am Saiburi. Yet its founders meant for the society to be a cover for their true intent – an underground nationalist movement. Accordingly, the acronym Saberkas also had a hidden meaning, which was “Sayang akan bangsa, ertinya redha korban apa segala” (to sacrifice everything for the love of one’s nation).

It is unfortunate that while young people in Europe are increasingly recognised for their abilities and entrusted with responsibilities as political leaders, our youth are suppressed and prevented from playing too active a role in politics, at the threat of university expulsion and jail.

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Senu Abdul Rahman and Syed Kechik Al-Bukhary

Sabekas was founded by a group of young men in their early 20s, including Khir Johari, Senu Abdul Rahman, Abdul Aziz Zain and a few others, under the patronage of a Kedah Prince, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra. Besides providing shelter for refugees fleeing the Burmese death railway, the group also organised bangsawan stage plays that carried nationalist undertones. These plays were written and performed by members of the group and became quite popular, drawing large crowds in Kedah and Perlis.

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Tan Sri Mohamed Khir Johari

Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, there was a two-week void before the British could re-establish order in Malaya. During this time, the young men of Sabekas played an important role in keeping the peace, physically helping to defend villages and police stations from communist guerrillas who attempted to seize control. Following the creation of the short-lived Malayan Union in 1946, Sabekas was one of the many organisations that gathered at the Third Malay Congress to form UMNO. Eventually, many of Saberkas’s founders became leading figures in the government, the civil service and the judiciary.

Young people were pivotal to the Malay nationalist movement on the national stage as well. For example, the very first national political movement in the country, the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM), was founded in 1938 by Ibrahim Yaacob and Ishak Haji Muhammad, then aged 27 and 29 respectively. The movement’s membership was made up predominantly of young journalists and students from the Sultan Idris Teaching College, College of Agriculture Malaya and the Technical School of Kuala Lumpur. Although eventually suppressed by the British due to its leftist tendencies, KMM’s contribution to the overall nationalist consciousness should not be downplayed.

The Depoliticisation of Youth

Although young people were at the forefront of the political struggle against imperialism, it was inevitable that postcolonial national development would necessitate the production of workers for the industrial economy rather than political activists. Thus in Malaysia, young people began to be discouraged from active political involvement and laws such as the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) were introduced to curtail their activities.

As the economy grew, so too did the spoils, and political party hierarchies became a much steeper climb for younger cadres who found it difficult to unseat entrenched elites. This caused the mainstream relevance of young people to decline, as even the various party youth wings were beginning to be led by people who could no longer be reasonably described as youth, despite how young they may consider themselves to be. Even the average age of the federal cabinet, which was around 43 years of age at the point of independence, gradually increased to nearly 60, as is the case today.

This is of course an unfortunate trend that runs counter to developments around the world, particularly in Europe where youth involvement in mainstream politics is in vogue. In the UK, the 2010 general election saw the election of three men in their early 40s to the positions of Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. In Malaysia, their counterparts would merely be youth wing chiefs and junior ministers at best.

If there is a perception that young people in Malaysia are not interested in politics, it is because they have been shaped over decades by a system that muzzles and subdues them in the name of protecting the status quo.

In recent times, Sweden appointed ministers in their 20s[1] to important portfolios while the current Austrian foreign minister is only 30, having been appointed at age 27 in 2013. I have personally met the former Serbian minister of finance who was below the age of 30 when appointed, while a parliamentary colleague of mine in the UK who is younger than me is now a second term MP and a junior minister in the department of international development.

It is unfortunate that while young people in Europe are increasingly recognised for their abilities and entrusted with responsibilities as political leaders, our youth are suppressed and prevented from playing too active a role in politics, at the threat of university expulsion and jail.

Therefore, if there is a perception that young people in Malaysia are not interested in politics, it is because they have been shaped over decades by a system that muzzles and subdues them in the name of protecting the status quo.

A Youth Revival

That said, changes have begun to take place, especially since the 2008 “political tsunami” which served as a baptism of fire for a whole new generation of young leaders, mostly from the opposition. With greater youth representation at the political front lines, the reform agenda gained greater momentum and even the UUCA was amended to allow students to join political parties.

In this youth revival, it is clear that opposition parties have been the main beneficiary due to their flatter hierarchy and willingness to empower younger leaders. As a result, the federal opposition can now boast of having the youngest representatives in the country at every level of legislature – the senate, parliament, state assembly and local government. On the other hand, the ruling regime would be hard-pressed to name anywhere near as many young politicians holding similar responsibilities.

As mentioned earlier, there is no disputing the fact that young people form an increasingly dominant demography in our country, thus making them more and more relevant from an economic, social and political standpoint. Correspondingly, just as the youth of earlier generations played a crucial role in the formation of Malaysia; so too will the youth of today in charting the future of our nation.

Aung San, the Burmese nationalist icon who, having been a student leader, left university in 1938 to enter formal politics at the age of 23.
[1]In 2014 Gabriel Wikström was appointed as Health Minister at age 29, while Aida Hadzialic was appointed as Minister of Higher Education at age 27. In August 2016 Hadzialic resigned.

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