PETALING JAYA: They were dubbed the kingmakers in the lead-up to the 15th General Election (GE15) last month, but when the dust had settled and the ballots counted, the six million new voters had made a different type of impact.
They have instead raised the issue of political literacy and the danger of making premature decisions.
Ilham Center executive director Hisomuddin Bakar said in-depth interviews with Undi18 voters – referring to 18 to 20-year-olds now eligible to vote – found that almost 90% were unaware of current political developments.
Some were unable to differentiate between MPs and assemblymen, or even recognise existing political parties and figures, he added.
He said most of them cleaved to the political influence of family members while others relied on social media as their main source of political information.
Non-Malay urban and semi-urban youth were more inclined towards Pakatan Harapan as they were influenced by the party’s mega ceramah (campaign rallies).
“Most of them said social media, especially TikTok, was their main reference – TikTok was comparable to television for them as a source of information,” said Hisomuddin.
Perikatan Nasional, which used social media in its campaigning, including narrative content on TikTok, turned out to be more successful, with Malay youth almost totally voting for the coalition.
He believes that over 80% of young Malays (18- to 25-year-olds) exercised their right to vote, adding that this is an encouraging figure.
Despite their high turnout, data on their political literacy indicated they were prone to making premature voting decisions.
Hisomuddin called on the Education Ministry to manage unhealthy political elements such as racial and extremist religious approaches.
“Democratic education needs to be coordinated with noble values so that it will be embedded into their (the youth’s) final consideration when choosing a leader on the ballot,” he added.
Undi18 co-founder Tharma Pillai said Malaysia’s low political literacy rate could be attributed to the education system, which doesn’t emphasise political knowledge enough in its curriculum.
He said that even though political education is embedded in the school syllabus, it’s not taught to students in a proper, pragmatic manner.
“We can’t keep relying on political parties, NGOs such as Undi18 or individuals like Fahmi Reza,” he said, referring to the activist, street artist and documentary filmmaker.
“It’s not the right way – urban voters will be able to receive the information, but how do we reach rural voters? It’s only through the education system,” added Tharma.
However, he said young voters are slightly more politically literate than older generations as they could access information online.
“I think it (political education) needs to be done. My only hope is that they will engage academics, and civil society to vet the syllabus.
“I think it’s not only important to understand the basics, but also your rights, the Constitution – to understand the key elements that make you an educated voter.
“When it comes to citizenship education, there’s a lot that’s missing in our current syllabus,” said Tharma.
Youth in Politics co-founder Loh Kar Mun said a big shift is needed in Malaysia’s educational institutions to build a politically aware and inclined generation of young people.
She said one way is to reform the curriculum to include more political education, especially for secondary school students.
“The curriculum doesn’t have to cover policy or party affiliations or anything of that sort that young people shouldn’t be indoctrinated with, but it could cover the different forms of governance, why representation is important, why voting is important, and others.
“If we think that 18 to 21-year-olds are not prepared to vote, then we have to make the effort to do effective outreach and education,” said Loh.
Educationist Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam believes that Malaysia’s education system focuses more on preparing students for the workforce rather than educating them on nation-building.
Commending the Johor state government’s move to introduce a module for political education at secondary schools, Siva said he hopes other states would follow in its footsteps.
“In the past, students were taught many things about their role, how to develop the nation and citizenship, but today?
“Our education system – I am not sure if it talks about (national) development, it is more about what job they can find after they have completed their studies.
“With the new Prime Minister, we are confident that if he (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) takes up this issue, we will put Malaysia on the right path.
“We need to emphasise that apart from education, the students should also be taught civics, their responsibilities and proper discipline.
“There is no use in having high knowledge but failing to understand your duty as a citizen,” said Siva.