Who are our youth politicians?

  • Nation
  • Monday, 24 Aug 2015

In most mature democracies, political careers begin at university. Denying this is a handicap to Malaysia’s own political development.

HOW young can one be to represent the people in the government?

Mhairi Black, 20, of the Scottish National Party, became Britain’s youngest Member of Parliament since the 17th century. She is a fourth year law school student.

Saira Blair, who became the United States’ youngest elected politician, was 18 when she was elected into the West Virginia House of Delegates. In Australia, Wyatt Roy became the youngest person ever to be elected into the Australian Federal Parliament at the age of 20 in 2010.

Nearer to home, Nicole Seah became the youngest Singaporean female candidate at 24 during the 2011 general election, contesting with another young Singaporean, Tin Pei Ling, who was 27. Tin is now the youngest Singaporean MP.

What are the prospects for Malay­sian youth politics?

Is it unclear who the youngest elected Malaysian politician is although in 1976, 23-year-old Najib Razak was elected into the Malaysian Parliament, replacing his father who passed away that year. Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad came close when, at 26, he won the Seri Setia state seat during the 2008 election.

Gen Ys, born between 1980 and 2000, and the upcoming Gen Zs currently make up the biggest portion of the Malaysian population, comprising 11.9 million residents. Yet only 9% of Malaysia’s 222 MPs fall within the Malaysian definition of youth, which is below 40 years of age.

In recent years, the youngest Umno MP is Khairy Jamaluddin, elected into Parliament during the 2008 general election at the age of 32. There are currently six BN MPs to 16 opposition MPs in their youth.

Altogether, there are 22 MPs in their 30s (9%). At least 71.2% of Malaysian parliamentarians are aged 50 and above.

The median age of our current MPs is 56. The youngest MPs are 33 while the eldest, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, is 78. The striking fact remains – there are barely any young politicians in Parliament.

One must wonder if a suitable ecosystem exists to encourage political participation by our young people. In other countries, youths tend to be involved in politics in university, campaigning aggressively in ways no different to how our politicians vie for seats in government.

In Malaysia, political parties are not allowed in universities. It is ironic that we can find more active youth political involvement in universities abroad such as Kelab Umno in Britain.

In most mature democracies, political careers begin at university. Denying this is a handicap to Malay­sia’s own political development.

Yet there are several avenues for youths to build their political careers. For instance, some politicians have taken the non-governmental organisation route by participating in community-based NGOs to build up much-needed experience and be of service to the community, and practising their leadership skills before migrating into full-fledged politics.

There is also a route to politics from the private sector, where such candidates are without extensive or prior political experience. Their success in developing a political career shift very much depends on charisma and sheer bravery should they not intend to rely on crucial networks of contacts typically required for political success.

But this requires them to be popular youth figures with outstanding credentials, which is difficult (though not impossible) to achieve without being part of the upper middle class.

Most politicians enter politics through membership in grassroots party divisions. Youths, naturally, will participate through the youth wings of such parties.

However, it typically takes a long journey for aspiring youths to be politicians in their own right. This is mainly due to the cultural setting of political parties and society in general. The Asian mentality of filial piety constructs a form of oligarchy amongst the old, who are given res­pect and preference to hold office.

Such rigid cultures are found in many established political parties, with the leadership positions already taken by older party members.

It is also a matter of protocol. After all, older politicians who rose from their local divisions have carefully planned their way to their positions of prominence, making it a touchy affair to replace them with younger and inexperienced candidates.

In such established parties with rigid structures, the only way youth members can be elevated is if they already have relatives in higher office. This encourages nepotism.

But one must also realise that it is perhaps avid participation and exposure by older politicians to their offspring that encourages the latter to participate in politics, giving them the early experience and boldness to enter politics when they come of age.

Such politicians may also have caught the vision and cause from their parents. However, this does not negate the fact that more opportunities are needed for youths to be more involved in politics.

To improve youth political participation, parties need to take more deliberate action to encourage their youth members to take centre stage. A new culture must be adopted to create an environment that ex­tends inclusiveness to the young instead of exclusiveness among the old.

Older party members must be reminded of the reasons for the party’s founding and existence – to serve Malaysia and not their personal interest. If a better candidate exists who can represent and serve the needs of society, it is best to make way regardless of their age.

The lack of such a culture and mindset is perhaps why many evidently incompetent politicians end up in high office since they have been given the preference of age and loyalty over brains and competency.

Seasoned political parties are now at the crossroads. They must consider this strategically if they intend to stay relevant to the majority youth populace, or simply be wiped out in future general elections. Fielding more youth candidates will be in the interest of their political survival.

Voon Zhen Yi is research analyst at the Centre for Public Policy Studies. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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Opinion , Voon Zhen Yi


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