COMMENTARY, July 2 — While Malaysia debates lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, other countries allow even 16-year-olds to choose their representatives.
To gather momentum and campaign for Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) plan to change the legal voting age in the upcoming Parliament meeting, which requires two-thirds parliamentary majority, the “Undi 18” nascent movement has been working hard to educate the public on the need to accept teenagers as important and equal partners in our country’s democratic process — voting.
The pertinent question here is — do we really need to get all flustered over the proposal? No.
Firstly, the question of maturity and rational thinking is rather subjective. Take a look around.
We have politicians and policymakers in their supposedly mature age who are still incapable of conducting themselves maturely during Parliament sessions. As someone who’s regularly at the centre of the whirlwind, I can attest to this, as with my many other journalist comrades.
Secondly, Malaysia is probably one of the last few developing nations to expand suffrage to 18-year-olds, still catching up to a federal policy which some countries have enforced as early as the late 1960s.
After the Second World War, Czechoslovakia had, in 1946, emerged as the first country to lower its voting age, albeit by only a year, to 20. Several other nations later followed suit.
Fast forward to the 20th century, some nations have even lowered their voting age to 16, namely Argentina, which had, in 2012, lowered the voting age from 18 initially.
The Argentinian Congress voted in favour of the move, as then president Cristina Fernandez ramped up efforts to court youth voters.
Prior to that, in 2011, Alpine nation Austria became the first country in the European Union (EU) to lower its voting age to 16 in a bid to correct the imbalance between its young and ageing citizens, The Independent reported.
The Independent reported that in 2007, Austria’s population of 65-year-olds exceeded the number of its 15-year-olds, leading to the decision to lower the voting age.
Then there is Brazil, which allowed 16-year-olds to vote as far back as 1988 in all elections, including its presidential elections. Bosnia and Herzegovina too allows 16-year-olds to vote, albeit with a caveat, they must be employed.
Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador too allow 16-year-olds to take part in elections. Close to home in the Asean region, neighbouring Indonesia allows 17-year-olds to vote, while Cambodia fixed its minimum legal voting age at 18.
Even North Korea, which has a rubber stamp parliament with literally no freedom of speech or dissent, allows its citizens to vote at 17 years old. Not that voting would change the future of the recluse nation anyway; at least for now.
Malaysia, therefore, is simply catching up to the rest of the world by lowering the voting age to 18, and is not attempting anything radical.
Those aged 18 and above here are already recognised as adults under Malaysian law, and are able to obtain a driving licence, sign legally binding contracts, and marry without further adult consent.
So, if they are seen as being able to handle responsibilities at 18, why restrict them from their rightful duty of having a say in their country’s future?
After all, aren’t policies designed bearing in mind the well-being of younger generations? Why then exclude them from the very core democratic process of voting?
In a nutshell, the debate as to the maturity of our youths is really much ado about nothing.
In the case of Scotland, in fact, the decision to lower its minimum voting age from 18 to 16 came after the Scottish government witnessed how the inclusion of teenagers aged 16 and 17 in its 2014 independence referendum yielded positive results.
In fact, according to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) based in the United Kingdom (UK), 16- and 17-year-olds had higher voter turnout in Scotland compared to 18- and 24-year olds.
“In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, turnout among 16-18-year-olds was 75 per cent, with 97 per cent of those who voted saying they would vote in future elections.
“Evidence has shown that they accessed more information ahead of the vote from a wider variety of sources than any other age group — showing that 16-year-olds are more than ready to engage in the democratic process in an enthusiastic and informed way,” Scottish newspaper The Scotsman reported ERS chief executive Darren Hughes as saying.
The ERS is a political pressure group campaigning for electoral reforms, much like our homegrown brand, Bersih 2.0, or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.
Much like the ERS, Bersih too has thrown its unflinching support for Putrajaya’s plan.
“To Bersih 2.0, this news could not have come sooner for it has been one of our proposals since 2008.
“As this move to lower the voting age to 18 will require amendment to Article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution that requires a two-thirds majority, Bersih 2.0 calls on all parties in the Dewan to support the motion to be put forth, as doing so would be an acknowledgement by our elected representatives that the youths of this country matter in the political process of election and that their views and interests are important to nation-building,” its steering committee said in a statement.
Bersih pointed out that concerns about one’s maturity level and political awareness should not be limited to those under 21, as age is not necessarily reflective of a person’s maturity level.
“Such concerns can be mitigated with voters education programmes targeted at these younger voters, conducted by the Election Commission, schools, civil society and even corporate entities,” it said, calling on policymakers to set aside their partisan political views for the good of the nation.