EDUCATION institutions should play a more active role in helping youths be more politically literate.
Political literacy, when honed in the groves of academe especially, would enable youths to make more informed voting decisions at the polls.
As it stands, a recent study by Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Social and Policy Studies (TCLC) found that Malaysian youths mainly acquired their political knowledge from family and friends.
These two groups, the study found, significantly influenced the youths' voting decisions.
TCLC chairman Dr Chin Yee Mun said poor political literacy is partly to be blamed for this lack of independent thought among young voters.
Higher education institutions (HEIs), he said, should take on the mantle of getting youths to be more politically literate.
“HEIs are supposed to be the centre to build critical thinking individuals who will eventually be wise and responsible citizens.
“Such aspiration is enshrined in most HEIs' vision. Imparting knowledge and creating experience that is related to politics are part of the pathways to build such citizens,” he told StarEdu.
HEIs, he suggested, should start creating subjects that specifically educate youths about politics and the election process.“Such a subject should be made compulsory.
At the same time, activities that encourage students to be responsible voters should be carried out by various clubs and societies in HEIs,” he said, while calling on HEIs to organise more forums and conferences to discuss national and international political issues.
Most local universities, according to the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu), include political literacy discussions in the various General Studies modules which all students are required to take.
Mapcu president Datuk Dr Parmjit Singh, however, noted that the discussions are carried out sensitively so as “not to encourage the sort of polemics that could lead to disharmony”.
“The focus is on strengthening students’ sense of citizenship and ensuring that students can make sense of fundamental principles such as parliamentary democracy, rule of law, separation of powers, elections, and the first-past-the-post system,” he said.
Parmjit echoed Chin’s view that HEIs should educate youths so that they can be more independent in their voting decisions.
“Universities and colleges can play a role in developing political literacy among students by ensuring that they are well-equipped with the ability to critically evaluate the options available to them and to make informed, mature decisions amid all the information and misinformation that they are constantly exposed to, particularly in social circles and on social media.
“This thought process is a natural outcome of university education,” he said.Improving political literacy among youths is evenmore pertinent now with Undi18.
The constitutional amendment, which came into force last year, lowers the minimum voting age and age of candidacy from 21 to 18. The law also introduces automatic voter registration.
Following the implementation of Undi18, over 450,000 students in HEIs will be eligible to vote in the upcoming elections.
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This is about 38% of the 1.2 million students in the country’s HEIs, according to the Higher Education Ministry.Its minister Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad, on Jan 27, said the ministry has a role to play in preparing students from a political point of view.
“Based on a study the ministry conducted last year, varsity students’ political literacy can be improved by consolidating and strengthening their appreciation of existing policies and Acts.
“The ministry is collaborating with other government departments and agencies to raise students’ awareness (of political matters) as they prepare to become voters,” she said.
Malaysia is expected to see almost 23 million eligible voters in the 15th General Election (GE15), an increase from the 15 million for GE14.
Early exposure necessary
Given that the minimum voting age has been lowered, it’s also worth considering an earlier exposure to political systems and election processes for students.
Parmjit said this could begin when youths are in their formative teenage years.
“It is important that students receive this sort of exposure even before they enter university or college.
"In this regard, schools, particularly at the secondary level, need to play a role in sowing the seeds of political literacy,” he said.
If it’s up to Chin, though, the learning process should begin at an even earlier stage.
“There should be a dedicated subject to educate Malaysians on politics at the primary school level.
"Currently, such knowledge is built into the syllabus through the teaching of Bahasa Melayu, English, Moral Education and History subjects,” he said.
The current syllabus taught at the primary school level, according to Chin, concentrates mostly on the Malaysian political system but it’s “simply not enough”.
“While this information is important, other aspects of political education should be inserted too. They should be taught what politics is and how it functions.
“Similarly, they should be exposed to the various political systems that are practised around the world,” he said.
Political education, Chin said, should be taught as a standalone subject.
He added that as students advance to secondary school, more complex topics – such as political sociology and political science – can be taught.
“The inclusion of critical thinking skills via these disciplines will make the study of the Malaysian political system interesting and useful,” he said.
Undi18 programme associate Nisa Muzamir Shah also believes that political literacy should be instilled at the primary level.
“We need to amend the syllabus to equip students as young as 13 years old with essential modules related to democracy to better prepare them for Undi18.
“We definitely need to revamp our education syllabus to introduce fundamental topics on politics and democracy. There needs to be a committee that oversees the process to ensure that these syllabi are not biased.
“On this point, teachers should also be equipped with sufficient training to allow critical thinking and encourage healthy political discourse in classes,” she said.
Learn as they go
While formal education is certainly important, it’s not the be-all and end-all of political literacy.
Educationist and Universiti Malaya former professor of education Tan Sri Dr T. Marimuthu said developing political maturity happens over a long period.
It isn’t something that one merely learns within the confines of a lecture hall – or a classroom, for that matter.
“What you get in the classroom is just information. What is more important is that youths are able to differentiate between what is good what is not,” he said.
Und18’s Nisa said youths need to be more proactive in seeking out political knowledge on their own.
Information is easily accessible and research is made easy with so many resources available, she said.
“They need to train themselves to view a particular issue from different perspectives in order to come up with a well-thought-out solution and to be able to have empathy on how certain policies or regulations could be disadvantageous or oppressive to some groups of people,” she said.
What’s important is that youths should feel that they have a say in political decisions.
“Every vote counts in our democratic system. We get to choose the people who represent us in Parliament and who advocate for and address the issues we care about,” she said.
Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) senior manager of research Aira Azhari agrees that youths must exercise their voting rights.
Youths, she said, must realise that being allowed to vote in an election is a basic human right in global democracies.
That said, Marimuthu believes that youths can always learn about politics as they go.
When youths first cast their ballots at age 18, they are still new to the game.
“At this point, they are novices just starting to get a feel of politics. They are bound to be influenced by those around them. But that is not a bad thing.“They are coming into the political arena, and they will make a difference if they exercise their rights to vote.
“As they grow up, they will be more politically mature,” he concluded.