SOME 5.8 million new voters have been added to the country’s electoral roll after the implementation of automatic voter registration and crucially, the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years old.
In Sarawak, it has been reported that there are some 675,077 new voters as of Dec 31 last year and 66 per cent of them are from 18 to 29 years.
The large number of young voters or the Undi18 group as they have been referred to, has sent political parties scrambling for their support especially now with the 15th general election looming.
But how much of an impact will this group of voters have on the outcome of the polls? Can they be the kingmaker?
Right off the bat, there have been doubts over whether voters as young as 18 years old have the maturity to understand what’s happening in the country and if they have the wisdom to determine its leaders.
Sarawak’s Education, Innovation and Talent Development Minister I, Dr Annuar Rapaee, for one, disagrees with the perception that youths are incapable of making good voting decisions.
The Nangka assemblyman said recently youths have their own set of criteria to evaluate their prospective leaders, adding that they placed strong emphasis on the ability and educational background of prospective candidates.
“Some people are quite skeptical about youths having voting rights at the age of between 18 and 28 years old. But I think that is not the issue anymore,” he said.
Sibu incumbent, Oscar Ling, reckoned this newest group of voters could well be the kingmaker in the coming parliamentary polls, as they formed some 40 per cent of the total voters in the country.
“The Undi18 or youth voters is kingmaker in GE15, about 6 million of them (in the country), (accounting to) 40 per cent of total voters in coming GE.
“(And in) Sibu (Parliamentary constituency), I have 30,000 new voters including Undi18,” said the DAP man.
Ling, however, admitted the voting pattern among this group of new voters remains to be seen.
“But Undi18 is the factor that never appeared in the last state election, which might swing the whole thing. Their voting trend is still uncertain,” he pointed out.
However, youth activist, Abdul Taib Rosli, believes that the Undi18 group can influence the results of GE15, but not to the extent of becoming kingmaker.
He noted that the implementation of voters aged between 18 and 20 years old eligible to vote in the polls, contributed to a 30 per cent increase in the average number of eligible voters.
“But it doesn’t make them kingmakers because on average, the percentage of voters aged 21 and 45 years old is still high among the number of eligible voters this time around.”
Similarly, Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) Youth chief, Michael Tiang, said voters in the age bracket of between 30 and 50 years would continue to be the game changer in the coming GE15.
His personal opinion was also that the Undi18 is unlikely to be the ‘kingmaker’ for the parliamentary polls.
Tiang’s argument is that most young people have no idea what politics is, and which political party to choose, because the implementation of automatic voter registration and lowering the voting age to 18 was only implemented recently.
On that note, he believed that many young people still could not make their decision or even identify issues, prompting them to follow how their seniors vote.
“But as far as GE15 is concerned, we just have to see what happens. I don’t think their votes will be the kingmaker or will tip the scale. I don’t think so because many of them still follow how their seniors vote.
“The so-called ‘kingmaker’, I would say, are those (voters aged) 30 to 50 years old – still that group.
“On the other hand, those aged 30 years old and below are still very new and fresh but it is a good beginning. The deciding group is still those aged 30 to 50 years old. That is my personal opinion,” said Tiang, who is also Deputy Minister of Public Health, Housing and Local Government.
Daniel Sng, who has been proposed by SUPP Nangka as a candidate for the Sibu parliamentary seat in GE15, also felt that the Undi18 would not be the kingmaker in the polls.
“If you observe from the last state election, some of the candidates won by 22 votes while some lost by 100 votes. So actually, every vote is a kingmaker,” he said.
SUPP Dudong branch chairman Wong Ching Yong said it is still uncertain how the youth voters will vote in the coming GE15 following the implementation of Undi18.
“Really, it is an area that all of us have a lot of worries about. It is a grey area.”
“Everything is so new but people have been telling me that parents will play a big role for the first timers. They say parents will have a big say because they (youth voters) may ask for the opinions of the parents and parents may advise them who to vote for,” he said when asked if the youth voters will be the kingmakers in the coming parliamentary election.
Taking cue from the previously held Johor state election, he said nobody can say that the youth voters will vote for the opposition.
“If you look at the results of (last) Johor (state election), those aged 18 and 21 who were eligible to vote for the first time, BN (Barisan Nasional) won in Johor. So, I don’t know…let’s wait and see,” he said.
But for the Undi18 group to have a real impact on the polls, there must first be a good turnout and this is also where the jury is still out.
Wong Ching Yong, who is also a potential candidate in the polls, also said it is uncertain whether the youth voters will return to vote in the polls since many of them are doing their pre-university studies such as foundation, A-Level and matriculation.
A 2020 New York Times analysis of 24 countries which recently held elections, showed youth turnout was lower than the general turnout in all those elections.
Lee Min Hui, an analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, had also said it was not quite clear if automatic voter registration of those 18 years and above would translate into a high youth voter turnout.
A non-governmental organisation (NGO) activist in Sibu, Abang Fairul Syarmil Abang, believed that among the new voters, some may not even be aware that they have been automatically registered as voters.
“So, as to whether, they will be the kingmaker come GE15, it all depends because some of them are not aware that they have been automatically registered (as voters). This all boils down to the awareness of the (youth) voters,” he said.
It was reported that based on an analysis by University of Nottingham-Malaysia research scholar and political analyst Bridget Welsh, 54 per cent of the 18 to 21 age group voted in the Johor election, the turnout rate being the same as the 21 to 25 and 41 to 45 age groups, and surpassed only by the older groups.
A poll by Merdeka Centre in May last year found that barely a third of Malaysian youths were interested in politics.
However, one thing which Wong might have rightly pointed out is the role played by parents for these first time voters.
Indeed, how they vote or who they vote for, may be pretty much influenced by the parents or seniors when they exercise their democratic rights for the first time.
Perhaps, it is still too early to draw firm conclusions on the impact by youth voters in GE15.
But for now, suffice to say there is a wild card in the mix for the parliamentary polls as nobody can be absolutely certain how youth voters will vote.