Engaging disengagement – the Malaysian youth vote in GE-14


May 2, 2018

Opinion

Engaging disengagement – the Malaysian youth vote in GE-14

by Dr. Bridget Welsh  @www.malaysiakini.com

 

COMMENT | Comprising nearly 40 percent of the 14.9 million electorate, Malaysia’s youth (those under the age of 35) will be decisive in shaping the outcome of GE-14. It is fitting that in this crossroads election about Malaysia’s democracy, the young will choose the path ahead.

The problem is that for many of Malaysia’s millennials (born in the 1980s) and Generation Z (born after the mid-1990s), none of the political parties are adequately capturing their aspirations for the future. Disillusion, disengagement and growing indifference have been winning as the youthful enthusiasm present in GE13 is noticeably absent in this election.

Those that do come out (or come home) will be crucial in determining the outcome of close races. The youth vote will be especially important in Johor, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, and given their numbers they hold the results of the national election in their hands.

Today’s youth understandably engage politics differently than their seniors. Most have come of voting age after the 2008 election, so having a prominent opposition is “normal”. Their views of the opposition, however, are less sanguine compared to earlier generations.

The discord within the opposition and failures of the Kajang move which led to the breakup of Pakatan Rakyat, for example, have undercut their confidence in the opposition leadership. Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership has brought more stability and focus to Pakatan, but this is only a relatively recent phenomenon that has yet to fully connect with many younger voters.

Image result for Mahathir Mohamad and Generation Z

Seasoned Politicians in League for a Better Malaysia

Mahathir himself – at 92 – is not someone they know, as they did not live through his leadership. What they know has been shaped by the socialisation of their families and education. One of the many ironies of this election is that it is the BN government which taught many of the young people positive views of Mahathir’s leadership.

His memoirs A Doctor in the House was part of the curriculum. It is equally ironic that it is the BN government that is working hard to destroy this image. Those youth who are engaged are keenly watching Mahathir, as they are getting a chance to assess for themselves who he is. Yet, among many, there is a disconnect with a man who is seen to be about the past and whose role in the future is unclear.

For most politically active youth, it is the recent past that is more impactful. GE-13 was deeply traumatic, leaving a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Many invested in change and it did not materialise. This was a formative event, leading many to disengage from politics altogether.

Recent surveys by the Merdeka Center and Watan show that a whopping 75 percent of youth are ‘not interested in politics’. The clamping down of political discussion and space at universities has been a contributing factor as well. Pakatan Harapan is grappling with how to bring them back, to reinvest in politics, and having mixed results.

The disengagement of Malaysia’s youth is most obvious in the voter registration numbers. Of the 3.8 million voters who have not registered, the overwhelming majority of these are younger voters. They see little purpose to be part of partisan politics. They would rather follow their sports teams, ride their motorcycles, spend time with family or go about their jobs than participate in an alienating and distant political contest.

Today’s young engage in politics very differently from their seniors as well. As digital natives, their main source of information is through social media and the Internet. Here the BN’s dominance of cyberspace, buttressed by its resource-funded bots, chatter-bots and trolls, work to its advantage. Yet, for many youths (and frankly, many more seniors), the challenge is to distil the information, as they are bombarded by conflicting messages.

Surveys report that as many as 70 percent of youth are “confused”. They know about the 1MDB corruption scandal, but at the same time are hearing a cacophony of negative views about the opposition. Trust in political leaders and institutions across the political divide is especially lacking among youth.

 

Their main concerns are with the present and economic in nature. High prices, cost of living, jobs and employment opportunities, paying for education, weddings and a night out with friends are the immediate focus. At the same time, Malaysia’s youth are more traveled, more global in outlook and many have adopted the post-modern values of concerns with the environment and sustainability.

Don’t be fooled by their age, as the youth of today show a maturity of outlook that is deeper than many of their seniors, combining idealism, energy, pragmatism and cynicism.

Different political appeals

The political parties have adopted three different approaches to engage youth. TBN with its National Transformation 50 (TN50) has done the most work investing in the youth vote. Led by Khairy Jamaluddin, the initiative carried out extensive engagement with young Malaysia’s about the future, reaching out reportedly to over a million stakeholders, with at least 60,000 different suggestions.

The 492-page document lays out a broad (and substantive) plan for Malaysia from 2021 through 2050, and many of these suggestions were incorporated in the BN’s youth manifesto, one of the many sets of election promises launched last month. Youth programmes have also been incorporated into the BN state manifestos as well.

The dominant paradigm of the BN towards youth is focused on opportunities, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, training and jobs. This is buttressed by promises of improved facilities for sports and education. What is noticeably de-emphasised is political representation, although there is mention of creating a Youth Council at the national level. This speaks, however, to the lack of youth representation in current political institutions.

The youth promises this election are less populist in nature compared to GE-13 which relied heavily on financial handouts for handphones and through the Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia (BR1M). This time there are more measured and targeted financial inducements, with promises of funding to support weddings and transportation in the TN150 transport pass, for example.

Kedah is one of the few places that actually lists the financial amount, promising RM238 million for a new football stadium, coaches and local grassroots sports activities. The dominant view is that youth are concerned with what they can get from the government, with the message sent that the BN is the “safe” and secure vote for their future.

For Harapan, the primary mode is to harness anger towards the government. A good example is their call for loan relief for students blacklisted by the National Higher Education Fund Cooperation (Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional or PTPTN).

While Harapan does offer its own set of promises – namely free university education (in public universities) and more affordable housing – the main assumption is that youth resentments – about the economy, corruption, unfairness, inequality, contracting democracy and lack of opportunities – should be mobilised.

This comes from the long-standing assumption that the youth traditionally are against the government. Voting patterns in GE-13 did show this pattern as well, noted in the table below, but also point to variations among youth. It is not clear how much anger is motivating the youth this time around. GE-13 differed in that its campaign also contained hope for change.

Harapan has its work cut out to bring back a positive message among youth, although the momentum in the campaign so far shows some promise in this regard, as their campaign has increasingly focused on a potential national victory, a change of government. Harapan fortunes are banking on the hope that youth will take a risk and vote for them.

For PAS, they have an altogether different approach. Their focus is on religion, and they take their optimism about youth support for their party from surveys showing growing conservatism among young Malay/ Muslims. A higher number of Malay youth do support syariah law, for example, compared to more senior generations. This has reinforced PAS’ rationale to call for stricter and more conservative syariah law.

For the PAS core, this is a call for Muslim empowerment, in which the young play an important role in achieving a religious agenda. PAS, however, does not only focus on conceived Muslim empowerment, it also taps into resentment in a different way – perceived attacks on Islam and Muslims. They are tapping into this anger, which is real among many Muslims who see the faith as being maligned and disrespected.

This explains PAS’ increasingly racist and exclusive (anti-non-Muslim) tone to their campaign. Many of its leaders have openly joined in on the demonisation of non-Muslims, especially of DAP. Their messaging is being quietly but purposefully delivered in mosques, religious schools and communities across the Malay heartland. PAS is relying on youth support to keep the party in the national political game.

Difference and division

These different modes – opportunities/security, anger/hope and religious empowerment/resentment – speak to the variation in how different political parties perceive youth. They also speak to different visions of the future, contrasting the “secure” status quo with promised goodies and opportunities with that of promises of new social contracts with either greater democracy/fairness/better governance or a more religiously conservative polity.

 

Estimates of generation voting patterns from the previous elections (drawn from a study of the streams in different polling stations) show considerable difference across age and race. For Harapan, the important issue is whether it will maintain the support of Chinese youth and cut into BN’s dominance of Malay youth support (particularly having lost PAS support).

For BN it will be whether their hard work in engagement can maintain its support levels or whether resentments over the economy will erode its support further. For PAS, their assumptions about youth speak to the viability of their message both for short and long-term for Malaysia and will determine whether they will continue to openly adopt a conservative and exclusivist approach.

The youth vote is likely to remain as divided as other generations in this election and given the signs so far, not likely to experience the same swing as it did in GE-13.

 

All the campaigns have fielded more younger candidates to woo support and continue to speak on youth issues. Young Malaysians are filtering through these different appeals. Youth turnout will be the factor to watch. Key will be how many youths actually turn out to vote and choose to take control of their future. Embedded here, of course, is which of the futures they will choose.

None of the appeals showcase the breadth of vision and aspirations young Malaysians deserve but all offer a different approach to empowerment and risk. No question, the youth will be the ones that will have to live with the effects of the 2018 electoral outcome the longest. It is not just about the winners, their messages and political engagement in the campaign but the direction the country will follow well beyond GE14.

Related articles:

Heavy, hidden hands in GE14: BN’s electoral advantage

Power and place in Penang

All quiet on the Sarawak front

Is Sabah ready for political change?

GE14 unknowns: Malaysia’s highly competitive polls


BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is entitled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She is following the Malaysian GE14 2018 campaign on the ground and providing her analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini readers. She can be reached at bridgetwelsh1@gmail.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

 

GE-14: The Battle to Lead Malaysia Gets Personal


April 28, 2018

GE-14: The Battle to Lead Malaysia Gets Personal

By Rosalind Mathieson and Shamim Adam

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak may be best known internationally for a multibillion-dollar scandal at state investment fund 1MDB, a money trail that led to the Hollywood blockbuster, The Wolf of Wall Street, a $250 million yacht and a $3.8 million diamond given to actress Miranda Kerr.

At home, it’s his intensely personal election battle with a 92-year-old patron-turned-enemy that’s gripping the nation.

 Najib weathered the initial storm over 1MDB, and was cleared of wrongdoing. Now he has to defeat the man who helped bring him to power in 2009, Mahathir Mohamad, who came out of semi-retirement after they fell out over issues including 1MDB.

At stake for Najib is his coalition’s six-decade grip on power. He lost the popular vote in 2013 but won a narrow majority of seats in parliament. In his first international interview in more than three years, Najib said he’s “reasonably confident” he’ll do better on May 9.

Listen to Najib Razak’s Interview

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-26/the-battle-to-lead-malaysia-gets-personal

 

 

Perpetual policy and its limited future as reforms stall


April 18, 2018

Perpetual policy and its limited future as reforms stall

Reforming Bumiputera policy is a colossal project both rival coalitions are reluctant to tackle. Yet the tentative consensus misconstrues an embedded but failing preferential regime.

Reforming Bumiputera policy is a colossal project both rival coalitions are reluctant to tackle. Yet the tentative consensus misconstrues an embedded but failing preferential regime.

Malaysia’s 14th general elections (GE14) will see an intense and dynamic battle for the Malay electorate, but also continuity of the extensive, embedded, and often misconstrued, pro-Malay ethnic preferential regime.

Tapping into widespread economic discontent and anxiety, particularly in the Malay population, incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) and opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalitions both offer populist-flavoured menus, with varying signature dishes. BN will try to differentiate itself by drawing attention and emotion to the pro-Malay, and more broadly pro-Bumiputera, policies that it founded and continually implements.

The political rhetoric around Bumiputera policies will escalate in the coming weeks – and recycle simplistic and convenient stances. With polling day set for 9 May, the BN under the hegemony of UMNO and dependent on Malay vote bases, increasingly kindles notions of Malay unity and Malay interests, and stokes anxieties of purported erosion of ethnic primacy and privilege. Expect caretaker prime minister Najib Razak to sell the Bumiputera Economic Transformation Programme (BETR) as a big deal, and seek a mandate to stay the course.

But the policy may not make that much of a difference; PH broadly agrees with keeping this ethnic preferential system. The newly reconstituted coalition, with a Malay-based party led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, decidedly affirms the goal of Bumiputera empowerment. It minimally specifies how its approach differs from BN’s. Assuredly, as happened prior to the 2013 elections, Pakatan will decry the patronage and cronyism recurrent in various Bumiputera-favouring programmes, while taking care to avoid alienating the multitudes that benefit from the policy, as we can discern from its alternative budget.

Thus, Malaysia’s Bumiputera preferential regime muddles along. Both coalitions have mellowed their stance compared to a few years ago, when there was more forthright talk of replacing Bumiputera preferential programmes, also termed race-based affirmative action, with “need-based” and “merit-based” affirmative action. Now the discourses imply all the above vaguely coexist, while occasionally accepting that perpetual ethnic preference is undesirable.

Clarity and precision are urgently needed, presenting coherent policy alternatives and workable solutions anchored to the objective of promoting Bumiputera participation in higher education, high-level occupations, enterprise and ownership. Policy objectives and instruments must be acknowledged, their breadth and depth grasped.

A systematic and viable roadmap for phasing out the existing Bumiputera preferential regime must lay the groundwork by broadly cultivating capability, competitiveness, and confidence. The different policy spheres also present different conditions. Higher education holds out a broad scope for “need-based” assistance for the poor and disadvantaged, through admissions policies, scholarships and financial assistance. For Bumiputera empowerment in employment and enterprise, “merit” considerations are paramount. The principal objective in these spheres is the cultivation of capable and competitive professionals, managers and enterprises – who are poised to graduate out of preferential assistance.

So-called needs-based and merit-based selections serve to complement and reinforce the Bumiputera preferential regime. Pronouncements to replace or systematically reform race-based affirmative action with such alternatives are premature and misplaced, lacking in systematic analysis. Emphatically, Bumiputera empowerment must be effective and broad-based before systemic reforms can take shape credibly and feasibly.

The regime has registered substantial achievements in promoting Bumiputera upward mobility, but shortcomings remain in terms of the ultimate goals of capability and competitiveness. By 2013, 28.4% of the Bumiputera labour force had acquired tertiary educational qualifications, compared to 26.6% of Chinese and 25.8% of Indians. However, graduate unemployment is a more acute problem among Bumiputeras.

The Bumiputera share of managers steadily rose to 45% in 2013, from 24% in 1970 to 35% in 1985. The public sector and government-linked companies considerably contribute to these figures, and among private enterprises, micro and small-scale establishments. In 2015, among Bumiputera SMEs, 88% were classified as micro, 11% small, and only 1% medium, while the corresponding figures in non-Bumiputera SMEs were 70%, 26%, and 4%. Bumiputera-controlled companies account for only 25% of the 800,000 registered companies in Malaysia.

The Bumiputera population at large must be adequately equipped before Malaysia can truly reform and roll back the system. As things stand, there is scant analysis of policy outcomes and mostly tacit acknowledgement of policy inefficacies, and no formulation of exit strategies for facilitating the graduation of Bumiputeras out of overt ethnic preferential treatment.

 

To be fair, the BETR, introduced in 2011, does modify policy objectives and methods. It is distinguishable from preceding policies, through the ways it reaches out to disadvantaged students and strives to cultivate capability and competitiveness in private enterprise. But these interventions are selective, not systemic. They leave swathes of the ethnic preferential regime untouched.

Indeed, the policy spheres with extensive outreach and potential to empower Bumiputeras – in pre-university programmes, university admissions, government contracting, microfinance and public sector employment – scarcely appear in long-term development plans. There is no commitment to apply lessons from the BETR’s focused interventions, let alone any intention to execute systemic reforms.

Image result for Wawasan 2020

And yet Malaysia arrives at an historical juncture, with GE14 determining who governs into 2020, the nation’s hallowed destination. Articulated by Dr Mahathir in 1991, Vision 2020 loftily aspired for Malaysia to be a “fully developed nation” economically, socially, politically, and culturally. More specific aims include the “creation of an economically resilient and fully competitive Bumiputera community so as to be on par with the non-Bumiputera community.”

Vision 2020, charismatic albeit flawed especially in neglecting education, enterprise development and democratisation, secured a place in the hearts and minds of Malaysians. So firm is the hold on the public imagination that even as the Vision’s progenitor Mahathir now assails Najib, the latter cannot forsake the brainchild of his new nemesis. Rather, Najib postures his administration as building on Vision 2020, merely implying there is some incompleteness in Mahathir’s treatise.

Beyond 2020, a new 30-year mission is being crafted under the TN50 (National Transformation) banner. This project adopts a more “bottom up” approach of compiling popular aspirations and engaging in public consultations. The templates and priorities already laid out are wide-ranging, sanguine and opportune – but conspicuously steer clear of the question of ethnic preferential policies.

Image result for TN50

NEP (Tun Razak) –Wawasan 2020 (Tun Dr. Mahathir) and Transformasi Nasional 50 (Najib Razak)–where are we heading with billions misspent on Bumiputera Empowerment!–“Howk Aun-Lee

It has to be acknowledged that reforming Bumiputera policies is a colossal project, and the bi-partisan reluctance to deal with it partly stems from a desire to look beyond ethnic identity and to pursue non-ethnically delineated policies. But the political consensus, while striving to transcend ethnic policies in rhetoric, misconstrues and ignores the embedded ethnic preferential regime.

Resistance to change is often blamed on the political establishment, but this is too simplistic. On the ground, societal forces are also deeply apprehensive and resistant to change. Bumiputera households are not simply being played by politicians; they materially benefit from the policies. Why and how would any people rationally, willingly surrender privilege? There are no easy answers. But Malaysia’s political dispositions and policy discourses preclude candid, honest and rigorous engagement on these crucial issues.

Election campaigns will deservedly dwell on livelihood concerns such as cost of living, social assistance, housing and jobs, and developmental concerns like infrastructure, transportation, education and health provisions, and matters of governance and morality, including social justice, inequality and corruption.

Of course, politicians will stick to simple and straightforward promises, not complex and nuanced propositions. Consistently, candid and critical discourses appear neither during elections, when new visions and mandates might be projected, nor between elections, when necessary but inconvenient reforms might be pursued. For example, in making pre-university matriculation programmes more rigorous to better prepare university entrants, or in imposing greater demands and incentives for government contractors to raise work quality and scale up operations.

 

However, any grand quest to take Malaysia to the next stage must address the current state and future prospects of the Bumiputera preferential regime. Instead of suppressing such questions, or entertaining misguided notions that full-fledged transformation is already in progress, a true mark of Malaysia’s progress on this issue will be its capacity to appraise how effective it has been in promoting Bumiputera empowerment, while rekindling the intent – and audacity – expressed in the past for pursuing capability, competitiveness and self-reliance.

(published in collaboration with RISE: T.wai)