By Zubaidah Abu Bakar – (THE NEW STRAITS TIMES)
Malaysia’s young voters appear to be getting impatient with what they perceive as Barisan Nasional’s reluctance and resistance to change, writes ZUBAIDAH ABU BAKAR WHEN Malaysia holds its 13th general election, in 2013 at the latest, the balance between victory and defeat will hinge on younger voters.
This opinionated group will determine whether or not Barisan Nasional stays in power. And BN should be worried, as young voters have sent a clear message — not just once but three times in the last 10 months — that they will only support a political party that shares their aspirations.
Weakened by the March 2008 general election, the Umno-led BN badly needs to secure the votes of young voters, whose numbers are expected to reach six million by the next general election. The biggest headache for Umno
and BN is that the majority of young people have grievances with either or both of them, and if this is not remedied within the next few years, the next election results could be even worse.
Based on the country’s present birth rate, with 450,000 to 500,000 babies born annually, two million more young Malaysians will reach 21 and be eligible to vote in the next general election.
The power of the young will be further reinforced by four million eligible voters, many under 30, who did not register in time for the 2008 elections.
If all two million youngsters choose to register, the eligible voter population in the country will be 16.9 million, including the 10.9 million currently registered.
This means young voters will hold the power to instigate change, and they can demand that their voices be heard. Ignoring them could spell disaster, as younger voters in the 12th general election and two subsequent by-elections leaned towards the opposition, especially in urban areas.
An analysis of the March 2008 general election results shows that many newly-registered voters and those below 30 supported Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Pas and DAP candidates; all three, to their credit, are ahead of BN in warming to young voters.
Opposition candidates got their messages across through social networking tools on the Internet and mobile phones, while BN relied mostly on newspapers and the broadcast media.
A bitter pill for BN was seeing young voters it ferried back in buses to Kelantan from the Klang Valley, not only voting for the opposition but also persuading their relatives and peers to do so.
In the Aug 26 Permatang Pauh by-election, more than 90 per cent of voters under 30 voted for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
One key reason for this was young Internet-savvy voters obtaining their news chiefly from the pro-opposition alternative media, which they perceive as more credible than the mainstream media.
In the recently-concluded Kuala Terengganu by-election, which BN lost, detailed voting data indicated that the ruling coalition had again lost most support from among those under 35.
Political apathy among youth is long gone. The young are aware of what is happening around them and have varied reasons to vote for the opposition.
BN’s disconnect from young people is most alarming in the case of urban professionals, who no longer believe that the ruling coalition is capable of making a better Malaysia.
Non-Malays cannot accept the New Economic Policy, considering it as benefiting only the Malays, while young educated Malays concerned with good governance, human rights and democratic ideals view Umno and BN as
Several political analysts think that youngsters tend to favour the opposition because they have more liberal views of democracy, with less preference for race-based politics, which explains the appeal of multiracial PKR.
Young people also do not feel indebted to the government that achieved independence half a century ago. BN leaders should realise by now that campaigning on the basis of track records, especially after Kuala Terengganu, no longer works with younger voters.
There has been no attempt to draw up a plan for Umno or BN to win over young voters since the March 8 electoral setback, despite many politicians talking about getting closer to this group.
It has been suggested that BN field more politicians in their 30s and 40s in the next general election, in the hope that these young leaders can speak the language of young people and connect with them.
The recent United States presidential elections, where more than 63 per cent of young voters backed 47-year-old Barack Obama, is testimony of how young people want leaders to whom they can relate.
According to a Gallup poll in October, even before the polls, young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 favoured Obama over John McCain by a huge margin of 59 per cent to 38 per cent.
In the Malaysian context, BN leaders need not comprise entirely of the young; older politicians, if they are able to embrace “young people things” and understand their needs and aspirations, are still needed for their wisdom and experience.
What matters to most young people are the two Es: engagement and empowerment. BN needs to engage and give them the recognition they deserve, and help nurture them to explore and expand their potential.
It needs to accept and fulfil sincerely their wish to have a say in the economy and governance.
In trying to reinvent and revitalise, prescriptions for BN to undertake “wholesale reform”, “sweeping change” and “fresh initiatives” should be seriously considered.
The focus should be on the economy, political stability, freedom of education, job opportunities and social problems, which are the main issues for youth. Managing the economy will be the key over the next three years, as the economic downturn will affect their job opportunities.
The uphill battle for BN is to rid Umno of its rent-seeking image and hold its own against the attacks of the alternative media, and for all component parties to find new ways and means to engage young people.