Young voters may call the shots in Malaysia polls

By Yong Yen Nie | Source: ANN
Call them the wild card in Malaysia’s looming national election.

Some 2.3 million of the country’s 13.3 million registered voters – or one in five – will be entering a polling booth for the first time, going by figures provided by the Election Commission.

Analysts say these voters – mostly under 40 and Internet-savvy, raised amid growing prosperity but now irked by inflation, passionate about Malaysia’s future and more willing to experiment – are unlikely to be as yoked to Barisan Nasional (BN) as previous generations.

One reason is that they have not experienced nation-defining events such as independence from British rule or the 1969 racial riots.

So far, neither the ruling BN government nor the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) can claim to have won them over.

Many people have not voted before as voting is not compulsory in Malaysia. The surge in voter numbers is caused by a spike in political awareness and active registration campaigns held by both sides of the political divide.

Pollster Merdeka Centre surveyed 826 first-time voters between November and December last year. More than half admitted to being agnostic in their politics. Still, two-thirds felt the government had paid attention to their needs.

These voters, of whom 90 per cent said they had access to the Internet, are less likely to vote by political party and more ready to base their votes on issues, said Merdeka programme director Ibrahim Suffian at a recent forum.

What worries BN is that there is no shortage of issues troubling the young – including corruption, crime and the economy.

Writer Melody Song, 27, lives in Australia and has registered for a postal vote. She said she and others who have enjoyed a Western education, are less likely to be thrown by threats of civil unrest if they vote opposition.

“Younger voters are sick of having propaganda stuffed down our throats, and not being able to question if things could be different,” she told The Straits Times. “We are not ungrateful – we just want things to improve because we care about Malaysia.”

That said, she is still undecided about which way to vote.

In an election where every ballot could count, both BN and PR have lavished attention on this group.

BN has given vouchers for smartphones to young voters and 250 ringgit (US$81) cash handouts to singles earning under 2,000 ringgit a month. PR has promised free education and lower car prices.

Vinod Hariram, 30, an engineer in Sarawak, said rising crime and the recent incursion by armed Filipinos into Sabah helped him make up his mind – he is voting for the opposition.

“I want to vote in a government that can give me greater security.”

Mervyn Leong, 33, who lives in Kuala Lumpur and is unemployed, is still on the fence. “Both BN and PR have good and bad leaders, and I doubt the opposition can give us a significantly better government,” he said. “I need to look at the track record of the politicians being fielded.”

David Yeoh, a 30-year-old accountant, is flying back from China to vote because he is frustrated by the widening income gap and inflation. His decision seems to have been made.

“Malaysia is becoming increasingly polarised, and I feel that, despite the economic reforms, many of us have been left out of the policies, and the young are finding it harder to own homes.”