Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has been trying to court the youth vote. — AFP

Much has been written analysing the 13th General Election (GE13) due to be held on 5 May 2013.  No one is able to accurately predict voting trends, and this was evident in the last election in 2008. We are not political analysts or scientists, nor are we researchers or statisticians. However in our capacity-building work with various organisations, we are able to make several observations for public consumption.

The issue posed is to consider the prevailing sentiments of the young voters, many of them voting for the first time, and their impact in the upcoming GE13.

The reformasi context

In hindsight, one of the better things Mahathir Mohamad did to speed up the democratisation of Malaysia was to sack Anwar Ibrahim from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and from his post as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998 on allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct. In September 1998, Anwar was detained for 24 days under the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) where he was assaulted by the then Inspector General of Police, Rahim Noor. In 1999 and 2000, after undergoing trials widely seen as politically motivated and unfair, Anwar was convicted of corruption and sodomy, and sentenced to six and nine years’ imprisonment respectively.

The persecution of Anwar created a sharp split among the Malays – the majority ethnic group – and divided the largest political party in the country, UMNO. Being part of the ruling government coalition, the National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN), Anwar’s removal caused confusion and dissatisfaction among party members and supporters. This sparked a national reform movement, reformasi, opposing Mahathir and targeting BN. Mass demonstrations and civil acts of dissent were held on the streets of Kuala Lumpur demanding the resignation of Mahathir and justice for Anwar. The police responded by forcibly quelling the rallies and arresting those who demonstrated. Reformasi leaders were detained without trial under the ISA to stop the protests.

The language of “human rights”, specifically, civil and political rights to life, fair trial and freedom from torture, cruel and degrading treatment became part of the movement’s rallying cry. As a result of international attention and pressure after Anwar’s “black eye” incident, Mahathir reluctantly agreed to establish the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia in 1999. This move accelerated the mainstreaming of the rights discourse in Malaysia.

At the same time, reformasi grew to become a larger and more inclusive movement co-opting the causes of existing non-government organisations (NGOs) – among others, to repeal preventive detention laws such as the ISA and the Emergency Ordinance (EO), to challenge the licensing schemes for assemblies under the Police Act (PA) and for the media under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), to reinstate students’ rights on campus, and to promote gender and racial equality.

Subsequently, reformasi metamorphosed into a political party then known as the National Justice Party (PKN), today as the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat or PKR). PKR entered into a pact with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Malaysian People’s Party (PRM) to form the Alternative Front (Barisan Alternatif) to contest the 1999 general election. BN suffered a decline in its popular vote to 56%, with the ethnic Malays voting for PAS in protest against UMNO.

Fast forward 14 years, Malaysians are gearing to vote again in what is called the “mother” of all elections. Mahathir is no longer the Prime Minister but his influence looms large over public policies and the direction of UMNO through his proxies. UMNO and its allies in the BN continue with ethnic-based politics to shore up its support with the populace. To increase the Malay vote bank, the clever outsourcing of racism to NGOs such as the far-right Malaysian Indigenous Supremacy Organisation (Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia or PERKASA) receives Mahathir’s open support as advisor. UMNO’s GE13 candidate in Shah Alam is Zulkifli Noordin, vice-president of PERKASA and its de facto candidate in Pasir Mas is Ibrahim Ali, president of PERKASA.

Anwar on the other hand leads the People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat or PR), a coalition made up of three parties with diverse ideologies attempting to adopt a more centrist approach: DAP in its attempts to be more inclusive of Malay-Muslims, PAS in toning down its Islamic state and hudud demands, and PKR in its populist polices intending to appeal to the middle class and the poor, the disabled, women and children.

The social justice movement narrative

This opinion adopts the social justice movement narrative in considering GE13 and the issues that play on the minds of the youth. A social justice movement is used in this sense as nonviolent direct action by a substantial number of organised and mobilised citizens targeting the state to alter its behaviour to meet the movement’s cause(s). By playing the “rebel” role, movements prompt the general populace to challenge the state by adopting “trigger” events – documented over the course of history by Gene Sharp in 198 ways – such as holding rallies, protests and demonstrations.

Direct action has proven successful in many countries and has been used in various forms in Malaysia, dating back to pre-Independence. It enhances not only political education and activism, but forces the hand of the government and its agencies to take a position on the issues at hand. Should the government react irrationally or unreasonably, the more its source of power weakens and legitimacy to govern erodes. The movement then gains the moral high ground.

Common examples in Malaysia are the use of tear gas and chemical-laced water to deny and disperse peaceful rallies, and the use of force when arresting demonstrators. The images of these acts enact long-term damage to the credibility of the state. In the short-term however, the movement’s success may not be immediately evident due to the almost absolute control of the mainstream media by the state as it attempts to justify its own actions or demonise those of the movement. In the long-term, nevertheless, the prominence of mass civil acts of disobedience – if executed well – would win over majority public opinion.

Without discounting the contribution of activists and citizens pre-reformasi, it is observed that reformasi spawned numerous NGOs struggling for human rights on various fronts, in particular the Abolish ISA Movement (Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA or GMI) in 2001 that has a membership of more than 80 NGOs, seeking to end detention without trial. GMI’s persistent campaigning by hosting numerous protests and candlelight vigils (at times resulting in arrests) drew enlarged public support and in 2012, the government finally conceded. It repealed the ISA and the EO and amended the licensing schemes under the PA and the PPPA.

Another legacy of reformasi today that cannot be ignored is the growth of PKR and, by extension, PR as an Opposition bloc with Anwar at its helm. In fact, many of the personalities in PKR may be traced back to the period of reformasi when they were then activists with various NGOs.

The 2008 General Election

The 12th General Election on 8 March 2008 saw PR make huge gains by winning 82 seats in Parliament and five states – Selangor, Perak, Kedah, Penang and Kelantan. BN failed to secure the two-thirds majority required to amend the Constitution. Leading up to the polls, we remember the heightened pressure on the ruling coalition with numerous rallies and protests against the state.

On 26 September 2007, the Malaysian Bar Council organised a “Walk for Justice” after a video clip featuring a senior lawyer was released on the internet which showed him trying to influence judicial appointments. More than 2,000 lawyers and civil society members walked to the Prime Minister’s Office at Putrajaya to call for a Royal Commission of Enquiry (RCE) to investigate the video. After a drawn-out debate, the government finally established the RCE which heard shocking evidence of the close ties between several judges, politicians and corporate bigwigs. Brokering of cases and judicial appointments were also uncovered.

On 10 November 2007, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Gabungan Pilihanraya Bersih dan Adil or BERSIH) consisting of more than 20 NGOs called on citizens to protest against electoral fraud and irregularities in light of the impending 12th General Election. A memorandum was to be sent to the King to highlight the issues. 15,000 to 40,000 protestors turned up but significantly, the police broke up the rally and arrested more than 200 people.

On 25 November 2007, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Barisan Bertindak Hak-Hak Hindu or HINDRAF) made up of 30 Hindu NGOs pushing for equal rights for the minority ethnic Indians impacted Indian support for BN when it organised a massive rally at the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Almost 30,000 Indians came out in force and once again, the police moved in to break up the rally. More than 300 protestors were arrested. Prominent members of HINDRAF were later arrested and detained under the ISA.

Numerous other rallies were held at the cusp of the 2008 election with GMI spearheading the protests. The issues that were being spoken about naturally grew to include the independence of the judiciary, corruption, electoral reform and minority rights. With the mainstream media playing down these protests, Malaysians turned to the internet media for reports that highlighted the respective movements. By and large, Malaysians started to see that the state is not impregnable and fellow Malaysians would no longer be silenced.

Many of the rallies saw the participation of young Malaysians in spite of strict legal restrictions on students being active in political events. With the self-realisation that getting arrested and detained became commonplace, fear of the state featured less as an internal bar to attend public demonstrations. The mass rallies leading up the 2008 election contributed much to the political awakening of the general populace. What is commonly known as the “political tsunami” of 2008 emboldened Malaysians, especially the youth and with greater access to the social media, dissemination of anti-establishment messages spread faster.

The trend did not buck after the election. Even the BN and its members got into the act. With BN losing five states, its coalition members started organising their own protests against PR-led governments on issues ranging from corruption, administrative incompetence and land grabs to preferential treatment and discrimination. The proliferation of civil dissent made protests a usual occurrence and this bode well for participatory democracy.

The youth vote

Up to three million new voters have registered for GE13 of whom 60% are 30 years old and below. They make up 25% of the electoral roll. The University of Malaya Centre of Democracy and Election (UMCEDEL) found that 48% of first-time voters are undecided on which party to vote for.

UndiMsia!, a non-partisan movement that works to educate voters on the important issues of the nation, has been using a set of questions in a form of a Report Card (Laporan Rakyat) to gauge the level of awareness of Malaysians regarding our Members of Parliament and State Assemblypersons. For all the carefully designed questions, the majority of the answers returned by first-time voters have been resoundingly empty and unsatisfying. For example: Which constituency are you voting in? Not sure. Who is representing your constituency in the State Legislative Assembly? I do not know. Where is your Member of Parliament’s service centre? I do not know.

The knowledge of young voters regarding their representatives is ambiguous at best, yet their hopes and expectations for Malaysia are concrete. They are aware of the many problems affecting them and their immediate surroundings – transport and crime as examples. They also emphasise larger issues that plague the nation such as corruption and racial discrimination, and want their elected representatives essentially to solve these problems. But the failure of our education system to provide sufficient understanding of our democratic system and involve our young in nation-building has created a large gap between youths and our elected representatives. Politics is seemingly, by design, detached from education. Politically linked activities (especially those organised by the Opposition) are portrayed by school administrators as having no relevance to the lives of the youths, and thereby discouraged. With the exception of a few vocal politicians who constantly receive media coverage, many others remain strangers to the younger constituents. Youths do not know who to turn to, much less where to find their elected representatives. How then would one expect the youth to decide who should lead them?

The answer – unsatisfactory as it seems – for the moment is to rely on the political parties that the candidates represent and whether these parties represent similar sentiments of the youth. The stance of the candidate on gender equality and freedom of expression matters little compared to the perceived general opinion of the candidate’s party on the same issues. We say this when an overwhelming majority we questioned using the Report Card were unable to properly rate their representatives’ performance. Why does it matter whether or not a candidate has the ability to perform when voting is still very much based along party lines? This state of affairs supports the reflection that first-time voters would probably be absorbed by party politics, as opposed to the issues the parties champion.

On this score, the fight for the youth vote will be determined by the extent the mega-rallies organised in anticipation of GE13 continue to feature in the youth psyche. BERSIH’s second rally dubbed the “BERSIH 2.0 Walk for Democracy” on 9 July 2011 drew more than 50,000 protesters out of which more than 1500 were arrested including BERSIH’s chairperson, Ambiga Sreenevasan. BERSIH’s third rally – this time a sit-down protest – held on 28 April 2012 had varying crowd estimates ranging from 80,000 to 200,000. More than 500 protestors were arrested and 50 injured. About 20 police personnel were hurt.

The emergence of several grassroots, pro-environmental rights lobby groups — Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL), Stop Lynas Coalition (SLC) and Green Assembly (Himpunan Hijau or HH) — to challenge the government’s decision allowing an Australian company, Lynas Corporation Ltd, to build a rare-earth processing plant in the east of Peninsular Malaysia spark numerous protests across the country. The significant rallies by HH on 9 October 2011 and 26 February 2012 thereafter linking up with BERSIH’s protest on 28 April 2012 rapidly raised the tone of discontent against the state. Many of the participants in the rallies were youths.

The last important rally organised by various NGOs and Opposition parties on 12 January 2013 — the People’s Uprising Assembly (Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat) — was a culmination of a series of forums around the country which started in December 2012. It brought together demands of various NGOs and included the call for free education, the return of oil royalty owed to several states and the preservation of language, culture and heritage. 100,000 people reportedly attended the assembly.

The big picture

The current system skews much power in favour of the incumbent BN government. Constitutional institutions such as the Election Commission, the judiciary and the police have not been as effective as many would have liked due in part to political control and interference. For more than 50 years, one political party has had a monopoly of politics and ideology through informal structures such as education and the media.

In this final lap of campaigning, PR faces a juggernaut in the BN. PR has no access to the government-controlled mainstream media and competes on an unequal playing field against government machinery, money and fear-mongering. Yet many of the social movements which organised widespread protests with their sometimes disparate demands have – whether fortunately or not, by accident or otherwise – given reason to ordinary Malaysians to support the call for a change in government. And these movements have sparked the imaginations of citizens that a different Malaysia is possible.

No strong Opposition as a second party had emerged until Anwar cobbled together the three parties to form PR. Nagging and serious issues still subsist about PR, but apparently these have been ignored in the meantime for the larger picture of “capturing” Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia. How PR – if it wins Putrajaya – will fare in power is not at present in the equation. It cannot however be denied that the government took stock from the 2008 results and rolled out its various “transformational” policies as a result of greater political competition posed by the Opposition. Some say that a two-party system has emerged. Some say that with more than 60% of citizens living in urban areas, we have steadied ourselves to seek a new way forward, and need not rely on the cyclical dependency the government attempts to foster by handouts. What the truth may be is uncertain. What is certain is that Malaysia’s political landscape will never be the same again.

Youth voters may not have lived through the throes and pain of reformasi. But they have experienced and – with the advent of the social media – read of or seen the abuse of government powers in crushing the massive protests and rallies post-2008. Most if not all remain unsatisfied that the demands of these movements have not been fulfilled. This, for a large part, will be determinative of how they will vote.

This article was co-authored with Yap Jin Rui and published by LoyarBurok, archived at Perma. An abridged version of the article was published by Al Jazeera.