ON July 16, 2019, Members of Parliament from both sides of the political divide set aside their differences to pass the constitutional amendment to lower the voting age in this country from 21 to 18 years old.
Thirty-two MPs debated the Bill and all the 211 present voted unanimously to support it. This was a historic moment in Parliament.
Kudos to Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman who led the effort to table the Bill and ensure a bipartisan buy-in. It demonstrated competent leadership from a minister whom some have derided as “too young”, “too naive” or “inexperienced”. This is indeed a good sign for having youths as leaders.
So what’s next?
One question that was often raised about the lower voting age was what the government planned to do to educate young people to become responsible voters. Of course, the government must and will ensure that youths are properly informed.
The Education Ministry is in the process of improving the school syllabus on elections and democracy, the Youth and Sports Ministry will launch a new programme called Sekolah Rukun Negara as a platform to inculcate democratic values among youths, and the Election Commission is educating the public on issues pertaining to elections in our country.
But #Undi18 is not just about giving young Malaysians the right to vote. It is really about giving them the opportunity to lead and shape this country.
I think we must rethink how we look at young people. Firstly, we must recognise that they know what is right and what is wrong when an issue is presented to them. Ask them if we should take care of the environment or if there is a difference between “corruption” and “donation” and chances are their answers would surprise us, but only because some of us believe that morality and maturity are factors of age.
Secondly, we must recognise that young people do care about politics and are willing to do something for the country. Many people say that youths are not interested in politics and I used to believe this. In fact, I wrote a book imploring young people to get involved in politics.
But as I work with them, I have come to realise that when they say they are not interested in politics, what they really mean is they are not interested in the kind of politics which manifests in abuse of power, bullying, corruption, racism, sectarianism and violence. In other words, they do care about politics but they reject gutter politics.
Thirdly, we must recognise that youths have good ideas to contribute but not in forms that are familiar to us. Perhaps that is why we call them immature. For example, instead of writing an essay, they write music; instead of debating, they dance, draw or paint. What I want to say is we must not discount their message simply because we are unfamiliar with their methods.
Fourthly, we must recognise that the new youth voters grew up in the age of hyper information, where the problem is definitely not scarcity of information or the lack of access but rather information overload. The last thing they need is more information.
Yes, having a lot of information may not mean anything. In fact, with the proliferation of fake news, it can be a problem. But fake news is a general problem of our times and not limited to the youth alone. In fact, a recent study by Princeton University and New York University showed that those who are older are more prone to sharing fake news than youths.
So how do we cultivate the discipline of information processing and culture of consultation, conversation and deliberation with our youths?
When #Undi18 was discussed, detractors mocked them as the “Tik Tok Generation” (Tik Tok is a social media platform for “creating and sharing short lip-sync, comedy and talent videos” – think of it as a hybrid between Instagram and YouTube). Some commented that this type of punchy, sound byte media is all that youths are good for.
The truth is these are the only platforms available to young people! They do not have access to newspapers, so they write on Facebook. They do not get to go on radio stations, so they post on Instagram. They do not get to go on TV, so they express themselves on TikTok.
What we need to do for these young voters is to give them ample space on mainstream media to express their aspirations, creativity, criticism, ideas and opinions. I believe we will be positively surprised by the results.
I am excited about the inclusion of youths in the formal democracy of our country. I look forward to seeing fresh ideas complementing the seasoned ones, and new idealism balancing old cynicism in politics and nation-building.
Deputy Minister for Youth and Sports