Undi18: Carpe diem!

Right to vote: Youth are the biggest stakeholders in any nation – simply because they will have to live the longest with the consequences of decisions that are made today.

YOUNG people, paradoxically, could be the secret ingredient needed to make Malaysian politics more mature.

Tonight, two separate events will be held. The first is organised by supporters of PKR Deputy President Azmin Ali as thanksgiving prayers for the police finding that he cannot be positively identified in the sex video that was otherwise determined to be authentic.

The second is prayers organised by supporters of Azmin’s rival, PKR President Anwar Ibrahim, to be held at exactly the same time.

I cannot help but think of American high school movies where two popular kids organise a party on the same night as some sort of contest to see which kid is more popular and has a bigger following – a “if you are not with us, you are against us” test of loyalty, as it were.

On the eve of the Undi18 vote, Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Steven Sim wrote that it was not 18-year-olds who used the word “bocor” in Parliament, called corruption “donation”, or who caused the subprime economic crisis, the 9/11 terror attacks in the US in 2001, wars, or genocide.

I couldn’t agree more. They aren’t likely to be the ones to hold political loyalty contests either.

In many ways, youth are the biggest stakeholders in any nation – simply because they will have to live the longest with the consequences of decisions that are made today.

We have seen in Malaysia and elsewhere how incumbent politicians sometimes have no qualms about pillaging a nation’s coffers or plunging us into unimaginable depths of national debt simply because they believe it will all eventually be someone else’s mess to clean up.

With Undi18, we now have a chance to shift political paradigms significantly – an opportunity to ride momentum to redefine what headlines and political preoccupations should be focused on.

As a thought starter, perhaps we could look at five Es.

The first is Emphatic Unity. At this point in history, Malaysia seems to severely lack a national narrative that is capable of bringing Malaysians together and making us feel like we’re all passengers in the same boat, working towards a common goal.

Older Malaysians often reminisce nostalgically about earlier days, when Malaysians of all races comingled with so many fewer restrictions, and built genuine bonds that transcended any differences of skin colour, language, or faith.

One thing that seems to have changed is that now, older people seem to keep telling younger people who they can or should mix with. This racism ran top down in the race-based Barisan Nasional system.

Indeed, we are now seeing very disturbing signs that Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad wants to steer Pakatan Harapan back towards a race-based system.

Beyond his invitation for Malays to unite under his own political party, there is also now a new PH-friendly Indian party being set up. Perhaps the ongoing PKR conflict has also been engineered to sabotage multiracial approaches to politics.

In any case, Emphatic Unity is about a fresh approach towards thinking about the social fabric of Malaysia.

What is important is for us to see each other emphatically – not only as fellow Malaysians but as fellow human beings, with many of the same goals and aspirations in life.

This zero-sum old approach where political division is all about determining which race gets what cut of some imaginary pie is divisive, toxic and destructive.

If we give the youth of Malaysia the space to build their own relationships and bonds with fellow Malaysians without being poisoned by the taint of outdated racism, I have full faith that they can find fresh ways of thinking about how we can move forward as a united Malaysian people, without leaving anyone behind.

The next three Es are closely related – Education, Employment, and Earning Power.

Education: For years if not decades, we have seen a decline in our education system. Faith in national schools may be at an all-time low.

Young Malaysians probably know first hand what the biggest problems with Malaysian education today are, either from recent first-hand experience or as young parents struggling to find the right education solutions for their


Employment: A defective education system then leads us to the next major problem Malaysians are facing: unemployment and underemployment.

Are there not enough jobs to go around? Are our graduates insufficiently prepared for the workforce? Nobody seems to be doing anywhere nearly enough to answer these incredibly vital questions and address them in a systematic, vigorous fashion. Probably because they are too busy bickering about who should be the next Prime Minister.

The question of Earning Power suffers much the same fate. It feels like politicians are failing to address the real pressing economic questions head on.

Hundreds of thousands of Malaysians – especially young ones – worry each day about whether they can buy enough nutritious food for their children or afford the type of education that will allow them social mobility.

Do these Malaysians really care about whether it is this fellow or the other who is in a sex video? If neither cares enough about focusing on actual problems everyday Malaysians face, then what does it matter whether person A or person B becomes Prime Minister?

Lastly, there is the Environment. The United Nations gives us 11 years before we reach the point of no return with climate change.

Many of our current political leaders will not live to fully experience the disasters that climate change is en route to wrecking on our globe.

Young Malaysians, on the other hand, are very much at risk.

We are a small nation but, as the problems with Sungai Kim Kim in Johor, Kuala Koh in Kelantan and illegal plastic recycling have shown, we have more than our share of problems. These problems are the perfect example of issues that can be focused on by leaders to unite, rather than divide, Malaysians.

The simple question at the end of the day is: Why aren’t politicians talking about things like education, employment and the environment every day instead of running around fighting endlessly among themselves?

If this is part of their culture, then for the love of the nation, let us give more space to youth to come in and completely turn that culture on its head. It’s well past time.

  • Nathaniel Tan is a consultant specialising in impactful communication and navigating public perception.
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