WITH Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor and Negri Sembilan set to hold their state polls by August, politics is back in the spotlight and calls are growing louder for lessons on the democratic process to start in school.
Young voters need to be educated on the need to carry out their civic duty when they turn 18 and this, say activists and educators, must start in school.
Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (PAGE) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said it is time to incorporate and expand the topics of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy in History lessons to include discussions on the pros and cons of democracy and other systems of government.
Although younger students may support parties along the same lines as their parents, upper secondary students are more capable of deciding for themselves who to support, she said.While Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Universiti Teknologi Mara and Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin academics have come up with the Undi18@School interactive module, which was piloted on Upper Six students in Terengganu in 2021, the Johor state government, beyond distributing materials to expose students to democracy and the election process to secondary schools, is now aiming to produce a special module on politics and nationhood for secondary school students following the lowering of the minimum voting age to 18.
The constitutional amendment, Undi18, which came into force in 2021, lowered the minimum voting age and the age of candidacy from 21 to 18. The law also introduced automatic voter registration.
In December last year, Johor education, information and communication committee chairman Norliza Noh said the proposed special module was being drafted by the state information department in collaboration with the state education department.
While the module has so far only been mooted for Johor schools, Noor Azimah suggested it to be taught nationwide so that all young voters are aware of the bigger picture and the consequences of their vote, including its effect on the economy, employment, quality of life and elimination of poverty.
“Young voters should be able to decide on their own whether or not, for example, money politics is to be condoned or condemned.
“If the module results in young voters condemning such corrupt practices, then it justifies introducing it in all schools,” she said, adding that teaching topics like politics and nationality would also spark important discussions among youths.
To ensure such a module actually benefit the students, however, teachers must remain neutral and not influence students through their preferred brand of politics, said Noor Azimah.
“Teacher training is therefore vital in ensuring it is in line with the national education philosophy and policy,” she said.
Undi18 advocacy director Tharma Pillai also wants to see the topics proposed in the module being incorporated and given a bigger emphasis in school subjects, including History, English and Bahasa Melayu.
“We don’t need a new syllabus or subject – topics related to politics and the democratic process can already be tackled now,” he said.
Tharma said another effective way to reach the youths is through social media, based on the trend in previous elections.
According to election analysts, many young people were very active on social media, and these platforms played a big part in their decisions on who to vote for, he added.
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“I hope the move by the Johor state government serves to encourage the Education Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry to provide greater exposure to our youths and to prepare them as future voters,” he added.
While a module aimed at educating secondary students about their voting responsibility and its significance is necessary, National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Fouzi Singon, however, said it should not be taught as a separate subject.
Instead, the module could be incorporated into co-curricular activities or taught as part of other subjects, he suggested.
Former NUTP secretary-general and former Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam said students need to know why they are voting and the proper way to do it.
Some, he claimed, do not even know how to cross the ballot paper properly.
A module as proposed by the Johor state government, he said, is a move in the right direction as it will allow youths to exercise their right to vote intelligently.
“No doubt they are given a bit of guidance during Moral lessons but this is not enough to teach them the proper way to vote,” he said.
UCSI University academician Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi stressed the need to find other more attractive and engaging ways to educate youths about nationhood and their voting rights.
Talks or even video screenings, for example, can be held outside schools.
Alternatively, he said, a summer camp could also be conducted after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations where the participants are taught how to respect each other’s culture and faith.
“Citizenship is a voluntary process. You want to be a concerned citizen and not forced to be one.
“Similarly, you want to vote because you feel responsible,” he added.
Like Noor Azimah, Melaka Action Group for Parents in Education (Magpie) chairman Mak Chee Kin is also worried that teachers and other authorities would attempt to influence students’ political leanings.
“So long as students know their responsibilities as citizens, I don’t think we need a specific module to be taught in schools.
“As it is, the Malaysiaku Clubs in some schools are already introducing elements being proposed in the module,” he added.
Mak’s views are in line with the Undi18@School finding that students responded best and absorbed content better when the module was conducted in an informal setting. The pilot project thus found that there is no necessity to have formal national and political science lessons in the classroom.
After the 15th General Election (GE15) last year, Ilham Centre in its report, found that while rural youths tended to vote following their parents’ choices, urban youths were the opposite.
Despite the high enthusiasm and excitement of this group of voters, the average respondent stated that voting is a great burden and responsibility.
This is due to insufficient exposure to politics and democracy, low civic awareness and patriotic spirit, and an unbalanced foundation of nationhood, the report published in November 2022 read.
In August last year, a study by the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Social and Policy Studies at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) found that only 40% of the respondents indicated that they had sufficient political knowledge of the voting system, and the lack of independent thought when it comes to issues of politics and national affairs could lead students – particularly those who would be voting for the first time – to turn to their families and friends when casting their ballots.
'It would be very beneficial for the government to offer secondary students a module on politics and nationalism as it would help prepare them for the upcoming elections. Students might want to familiarise themselves with current developments and all there is to know about politics in our country, especially now that the minimum voting age has been lowered to 18. If it were up to me, I would include the responsibilities of each member of the parliament, the traits we should seek in our future leaders and current affairs as topics to discuss in classrooms. This would provide students with a clearer idea of what a good leader should be so that they are not easily taken with catchy slogans and propaganda. It’s time to give youths the proper tools to be savvy voters. A module taught in schools would be very helpful to increase students’ understanding of politics and help them make the right choices.' – Shasmeen Amirah, 17
'Having a dedicated module in schools is crucial as it gives students important background information so that when they go to the polling centre to vote, it does not seem so alien to them. With the lowering of the minimum voting age from 21 to 18, students have to shoulder the heavy responsibility of being voters to determine the direction of the country. So, it is best for them to learn the importance of the decision they have to make, the task at hand, and why they should vote. Having the right knowledge prevents them from acting irresponsibly. It is worrying that my peers don’t seem to know much about politics or even what’s happening around them. I suggest teaching topics such as ‘what elections are like’, ‘how political parties work’, ‘how politicians win state and parliament seats’, and ‘who gets to be a minister’. With such basic knowledge, young voters will hopefully think logically and choose their leaders rationally, rather than get swayed by what they read or by their families’ opinions.' – Wong Eu Kenn, 16