GE13 SPECIAL In these final days before polling in the May 5 general election, more and more attention is focused on a third decisive group (besides civil servants and women) - young Malaysians, especially voters under the age of 30. This cohort comprises 2.6 million or 19.5 percent of the electorate, and are distributed over the entire country.

hishammuddin hussein gombak bn youth 240313They are particularly featured in BN rallies, often bused to locations, sometimes paid to wear blue T-shirts. They are the energy in the electoral campaign for both sides, riding motorbikes adorned with flags and cheering with great enthusiasm. They will ultimately be decisive in the election results.

While most of the attention on Malaysia's voting behaviour is on ethnicity, as this is the strongest indicator of voting behaviour, there are also important generational divides in the electorate.

Generally, polling shows those aged 55 and above favour BN. Between the ages of 40 and 55 is a hotly contested age cohort, as the battle for the middle-aged voters intensified. Traditionally, this age group has also leaned toward BN, but has since been more divided. However, those between 30 and 40 favours the opposition, due in part to the reformasi and tsunami periods of political awakening.

For the youngest under-30 group, the 505 generation, the situation is more unknown. Most of these are first-time voters, over the age of 21, which is one of the highest voting ages in Southeast Asia (Indonesia by comparison is 17). Polling shows the 505 generation has the most fence-sitters of any age group, and are being wooed intensely. In these last few days of the campaign, how they will swing will prove decisive.

Studies of voting behaviour of different generations identify two dynamics. The first is the life-cycle effect, where as a person grows older, they are seen to become more conservative with the weight of responsibilities, financial pressures and family obligations contributing to higher risks of changing their vote.

NONEThe older the voter, according to this approach, the more they will stay with the status quo. In this paradigm, Malaysia's younger voters thus embrace change more than older ones.

The other dominant explanation is the cohort effect, where a generation cohort is shaped by the events of a particular period of time when they were socialised and became politically aware.

In Malaysia, the cohort effect can be seen in the different political attitudes historically. The Merdeka generation, the post-1969 race riots with its New Economic Policy (NEP), the Mahathir years of growth, 1998-99 reformasi, 2008 tsunami and now the 505 GE 2013 are all pivotal moments in time where Malaysians have formed their views of politics and where there are clearly different perspectives of issues.

In this campaign, these generational outlooks have been engaged strategically. The fear tactics now used openly by BN are, for example, generally more successful with older voters, as they are relics of old politics. BN, on its part, also taps into the appreciation of the provisions of infrastructure and basic services, especially in rural areas, as a means to woo voters over 40.

For these voters, they have seen changes in their communities over their lifetime, and BN has successfully linked this development with their governance. In this election, the question is whether the young voters have similar buttons for political parties to push.

New voters, new politics

The pattern of political socialisation of younger voters is quite distinct than earlier generations. Increasingly, they do not get their news from the mainstream media, especially newspapers, and they are shaped by their social media relationships, notably Facebook and Twitter.

Rather than read, they watch YouTube and use Instagram. Over 80 percent of youths in Malaysia are online in some form, and they overwhelmingly get their news from the Internet, largely through smart phones.

They are a politically aware generation. Malaysia's under-30 cohort is as engaged in politics as older Malaysians, and have largely similar views towards key governance issues. In particular, they see corruption in the system.

There are largely three groups of young people - those disengaged (an estimate of one in three have not registered to vote), those engaged and those on the fence, who often tune out the political noise and during there campaign period, they are being wooed to tune on. It is this last group, the fence-sitters that will have to stand on one side or the other, and who are being targeted in the last round of hustings.

NONEThere are two important distinctive elements of this 505 Generation beyond their source of information. This group is on the frontline of economic challenges, often at the lowest end of the pay scale.

The ‘zaman duit' era of money is most felt by young people who have just entered the job market, with entry salaries, or are looking for work. Disproportionately, the highest level of unemployment is among the 505 generation, 11 percent reported last year.

Second, the 505 generation has been socialised with Pakatan as part of the political landscape, they know that there is choice and they have more choices at the polls nationally than earlier generations.

The two political camps have strategically reached out to the 505 Generation. Of the two sides, the most programmes have been developed by BN. Led by Khairy Jamaluddin, Umno did an extensive assessment on how to engage the youth. The focus of their assessment was on economic needs, especially jobs. Thus the creation of the Jobs Fair.

The BN also targeted this group financially through spending. The most known is the smart phones initiative. Youth-friendly initiatives in Najib's 2013 Budget, for example, included the following:
  • RM738 million provided for youth and sports development.
  • BR1M payouts for unmarried individuals.
  • A one-off rebate of RM200 provided for the purchase of a 3G smartphone from authorised dealers. This initiative is for youths aged between 21 and 30, earning RM3,000 and below monthly. A sum of RM300 million is allocated to benefit 1.5 million youth.
  • Discount of 20 percent for National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) borrowers, who fully pay off their loans within one year from Oct 1, 2012 to Sept 30, 2013.
  • To assist young ICT entrepreneurs, a New Entrepreneur Foundation (NEF) to be set up with initial allocation of RM50 million.
  • RM3.7 billion for technical and vocational training of students.
  • Securities Commission to introduce the Graduate Representative Initiative with the private sector to train graduates in fulfilling industry needs.
This comes on top of earlier targeted allocations in 2012, also extending into the billions. Many of these initiatives are needed, especially training, but the challenge is their implementation, as much of the money has not reached the youth and many of those most in need have not benefitted.

Powerful persuaders 

Pakatan has similarly developed its own youth initiative. The cornerstone has been free education and enhanced training for economic opportunities. Job creation, training for semi-rural and remote areas and higher incomes are emphasised as well, as the aim is to reach out to youth across the country.

What distinguishes Pakatan's efforts is more attention to political reform for the young, with greater calls to liberalise the political environment in universities, remove the controls on scholarship students and a broadening of the scholarship programme. The focus moves beyond seeing the young as economic actors, but as engaged political citizens whose voices matter.

On the other hand, BN did lift the ban on students joining political parties but stopped short of fundamental political reform for students.

student protest on malaysia day 160912 03The engagement of the two camps with the youth will ultimately come down to how the 505 generation will imagine the alternatives. And they are divided, especially between urban and rural areas.

Pakatan has overwhelmingly captured the imagination of the young in the urban areas, but less so in the rural areas, where the BN outreach has been more effective. Interviews in the rural areas of young people in East Malaysia and the rural Malay heartland, however, suggest that the 505 generation is increasingly moving towards Pakatan, although BN does have its base of support as well. Those moving are excited about the possibility of change and hopeful for the future.

The test on Sunday will be the voters turnout. As they know they matter, I expect high turnout. They are already heading home in many cases to vote and to discuss politics in the household.

In 1999 and 2008, the young were powerful persuaders of voting behaviour within the household and will be the same this time as well. The excitement is palpable among young people - from Selangor to Terengganu.

Like the rest of Malaysians, they are worried about their rights at the polls being compromised by disturbing reports of election irregularities. The 505 generation is likely to be among the first to come out and protest if their first election is debased by phantom voters and possible rigging. They do not want their rights denied and are intensely invested in the future.

Under-30 candidates

Already there are more young people participating in politics. This election we see the importance of the young in political parties. A record number of young people are being fielded as candidates.

We see more people on the opposition than BN overall, as shown in the available information of the age of the candidates fielded for parliament in the table below, but the changes are taking place on both sides.

The below-30 mark is being broken. In Perak, there are five candidates under-30 - two for BN and three for Pakatan. Almost every state has an under-30 candidate, largely Pakatan although there is the occasionally BN candidate fielded as well, notably MCA.
Many of these young candidates are well-qualified professionals, lawyers, accountants and engineers, and some of these have been political assistants to those in office, such as Kasthuri Patto fielded in Batu Kawan.

The numbers of those in the 30s are also increasing, up from previous elections. The youthfulness of the candidates' list speaks to the reality that Malaysia is a younger population, with 56 percent of the citizens under 30. It also speaks to the youth's engagement in politics and are deeply vested in the future.
On Sunday, Malaysia's youth will tip the balance of power and the force of the youth will not just be at the ballot box, as they will likely not stand idly by and see their future taken from them through the potential manipulation of the results.

Let's hope that the rights of this generation are respected and this cohort will be allowed to fairly and safely shape their own future.

DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. She is travelling around Malaysia to provide her GE13 analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini. Bridget can be reached at bwelsh@smu.edu.sg

~ Malaysiakini