MANY members of the public, including mainstream political actors and observers, are still influenced by myths about youth voting and youth attitudes toward civic life when discussing young people’s civic and political participation.
Their thoughts and reactions are not surprising. They are, in fact, demonstrably typical, given that status quo dictates and has a relatively firm grip on the state of mind and outlook of some mainstream politicians who are either hesitant, or unable to look beyond the familiar territory.
The old textbook thinking still looms large over them for the most part, and venturing out to discover and adopt new ideas may not appear to be politically correct, especially if the latter are perceived to be a potential threat.
These new ideas may come from the new generation of 18-year-old voters. Hence, staying silent and following in the line of order is the best option for political correctness.
Where does this ‘political shyness’ leave politicians’ and parties’ interest and efforts in connecting and interacting with Sarawak’s 600,000 young and newly-registered voters?
The myths about youths above 18 may stem from a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the complex dynamics that shape young people’s democratic participation. They provide an incomplete picture of these dynamics at best, and completely misrepresent them at worst. These mistakes have the potential to stymie efforts to boost youth voter turnout and civic participation.
The Malay word ‘undi’ simply means ‘to vote’. There is power in the word.
Arising from that is an empowering word, ‘Undi18’. It is a buzzword that has gained massive popularity in the political circle, including among researchers and communication practitioners. Undi18 is the outcome of a constitutional amendment that lowers the voting age from 21 to 18, and allows for automatic voter registration.
As a result, the minimum age for Malaysian citizens to run in federal and state elections is 18. It also implies that young voters, if they have the numbers, have the potential to rise to power and form the government.
The existing democratic process and functional framework lend credence to such a theoretical claim, even if the passage is long and tedious. Sceptics may dismiss it as another blissful notion in youth politics.
Undi18 has now become one of the country’s most widely-discussed subjects against a backdrop of an increasing number of young people advocating for their voices to be heard on critical issues affecting the country and across generational divides.
More power to youths
Undi18 demonstrates Malaysia’s inescapable commitment to the cause of involving young people in collective governance. In reiterating this, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob spoke volumes of Undi18 as proof of the government’s confidence in youths and as an initiative to encourage the younger generation to participate in the country’s political and development process.
It is an important step toward broadening the democratic base and fortifying the passage of empowerment. It cuts across ethnic and territorial lines and harnesses the power of demographic forces.
Undi18 is a new force that is set to drive youth empowerment in politics.
Future leadership roles
As has often been stated, the government is eager to hear the perspectives of youths on politics and nation-building because they are the leaders of tomorrow.
Unless widely understood and effectively implemented, the statement may become yet another cliché that glosses over the democratic surface.
It begs the question: how open, receptive and perceptive are politicians to constructive criticism and engagement from a variety of backgrounds and professional disciplines?
It is the first step in bridging the generational divide by allowing youths to participate and move up the learning curve, so that ultimately, they will assume responsible roles in mainstream politics and work collaboratively with the political party (parties) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that demonstrate understanding and support for the youth on a wide range of issues.
The challenge for political parties in attempting to understand and persuade youths, particularly newly registered 18-year-old voters, to support them is far more complex and dynamic than what the party’s objectives and agenda can comprehensively explain and persuade.
Empowerment is central to the larger conversation about Undi18, in which youth civic and political participation is critical, and allowing it to grow without organised external intervention from well-meaning bodies may not bode well for the ecosystem of local politics.
The importance of preparing them for future societal leadership roles is emphasised by empowerment, which begins with their first voting duty at the polls.
Early youth empowerment involves encouraging young people to take charge of their lives by addressing relevant social issues and problems. By acting on their beliefs, values, and attitudes, they can then improve their access to resources and transform their consciousness.
Politicians may hold a different view.
Hence, Undi18 is about empowering young people to have a say in the decision-making process to elect a government. It has the potential to encourage young people to speak up for themselves.
Nonverbal communications and body language, rather than verbal speech, are now used to express opinions.
The simple act of voting has the potential to empower young people in this case.
Undi18 also encourages young people to develop their independence and responsibility.
Scholars have long recognised the importance of elections held during the early years of adulthood, and literature on the subject abounds. Studies by Butler and Stokes (1974) and Bruter and Harrison (2017, 2020) show that the electoral choice in early elections could shape their life-long partisan preferences.
Furthermore, participation in one of the first two elections in which a young voter is eligible to vote will shape his political participation for years to come. At the same time, much attention has been paid to the extent to which young people agree with or disagree with the electoral preferences of previous generations.
In Sarawak, no comprehensive study has been done to determine the political brand or party preference of Undi18 voters. Much of what goes into assessing the trend and political affiliation of young voters locally may be based on observation and random sampling, with little support from empirical data and multiple regression analysis.
When politicians don’t know enough about the 18-year-old voters, they tend to fear them or are slow to trust and accept them. But they want their votes to go their way.
The stereotyping of the young 18-year-old as a non-conformist, rabble-rouser, and idealist is no longer a valid argument in modern-day politics.
Conversely, it is a barrier to forging links to increase interactivity and commonality of social and political values. In this case, it is fear of oneself and fear of an imaginary potential force.
Based on studies, young people are among the most vocal in their expressions of democratic frustration, frequently criticising how democracy works and what it has to offer them while also being the most idealistic in terms of delivery expectations.
Because of the interactive nature of the experience, those with higher expectations will be more concerned about poor perceived delivery, which will likely exacerbate the expression of frustration.
But such is the nature of young voters, particularly those in college or university who believe they have the right to criticise and expect results.
The majority of the literature on young voters indicates that the preparation many young people receive, or do not receive, to become informed voters is insufficient, resulting in significant differences in voting rates by/ethnicity, educational attainment, and other socioeconomic and demographic factors.
It is an issue that must be wisely addressed in political communication. The old-school method of instructing and imposing political values on young minds may no longer be appropriate. It is a one-sided approach that could backfire. Long-serving politicians would need to open up to listen and engage the young in constructive dialogue.
The interactive experience allows politicians to learn, understand, and accept new ideas and expectations, which may be useful when it comes time to improve the structure and processes of their political party in order to stay relevant in changing times.
Most of the literature on young voters indicates that the preparation many young people receive, or do not receive, to become informed voters is insufficient, resulting in significant differences in voting rates by ethnicity, educational attainment and other socioeconomic and demographic factors.
Participation is a fundamental democratic right.
Eliminating existing barriers to youth political participation should be a primary goal.
In general, encouraging youth participation must aim to achieve levels comparable to the rest of the population.
While voting in elections is just one form of youth engagement, it is an effective way for young people to have their voices heard and have an impact on issues that affect them and their communities.
It can also serve as a stepping stone to more involved activities.
Fear them and keep them at bay, if you choose not to understand and walk with them. And you would lose the numbers.
But if you choose to listen to them, to their hopes and to their expectations, and forge linkages of partnership, you would be forging an expanded democratic base with the young voters in the pursuit of a shared destiny in politics and development.
None should be more than equal.
* Toman Mamora (PhD Nottingham, UK) is a communication and research consultant. He comments on contemporary social and political issues and seeks to raise public opinion on subjects of societal value.