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KUALA LUMPUR, July 20 — Race and identity politics could gain more prominence should parties fail to foster critical thinking among social media-obsessed youths, analysts suggest as Pakatan Harapan (PH) inches closer towards lowering the voting age.
They warned that the ruling coalition’s unprecedented feat in uniting the political class to agree to the move will mean little if key electoral reforms fail to materialise, while the younger generation of voters — who mostly source information from platforms like Facebook — remain politically illiterate.
Communications experts said social media, or even text messaging applications like WhatsApp, have become effective tools for political manipulation through propaganda.
“With greater social media there is more superficiality, emotional voting power,” said Bridget Welsh, political science associate professor with John Cabot University, citing concerns with “fake news” and the race-driven messaging that often permeate political websites.
“The next step should be proper civic education that encourages critical thinking and political literacy, two serious gaps.”
Parliament’s Lower House on Tuesday resoundingly voted to pass a Constitutional amendment that would lower the voting age from 21 to 18, allow them to stand in elections and introduce automatic registration, a momentous move that saw lawmakers from both ends show unprecedented unity.
Undi 18 which was tabled by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, saw 211 out of the 222 Members of Parliament voting for the Bill. Muar parliamentarian Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman and Dr Mahathir’s party colleague in Bersatu, was the Bill’s main architect.
But some PH supporters echoed what political observers thought about the move: that it would be rivals Umno and PAS that would stand to benefit the most.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, believe PH would be mistaken to assume the youths identify with the many moderate or progressive policies of the ruling coalition, and instead argue the younger generation is more apathetic.
“What they thought to be their “young” supporters are actually Gen X’s and Y’s who still care about politics and perhaps even harbor a bit of progressive thoughts,” Oh said.
“Whereas the newly added even younger voters are mainly millennials who don’t particularly care about politics and in any case do not necessarily hold dear to progressive ideology,” he added.
“If they are urban or suburban, they could be easily swayed by the rempit appeal of Umno’s Bossku.”
“Bossku” refers to what observers say is disgraced former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s successful attempt to rebrand his image through a public relations gimmick, one that often depicts him doing things most Malay youths from lower income families identify with.
But while detractors say the exercise is merely an attempt to distract the public from his corruption trials, they too conceded that the “Bossku” brand had despite his scandals successfully endeared him to a demographic soon to form nearly half the electorate.
And based on this anecdotal observation, analysts suggest Umno, and to a large extent its new ally PAS, stands to gain the most if the Senate is to pass the Undi 18 Bill.
“Looking at past voting behavior and trends among Gen Z, PAS stands to gain the most, Umno the least until they remove Najib and co from the leadership as opposition parties,” Welsh said.
But such observation is anecdotal. To date, no data can decisively declare that majority of Malay youths identify with the racial rhetoric espoused by the more right wing elements in Umno or PAS, nor do they indicate popular support for Najib.
Optimistic PH leaders like Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong, a key PH strategist, believe the inclusion of teenage youths into the political landscape would tilt public debate toward policy discourses instead, and eventually render the nativist narrative that has long dominated national politics a thing of the past.
“They may not have the most comprehensive and sophisticated view of the world as yet, but talking down to them would just be counter-productive,” Liew said in a letter.
“We will need to talk to the young in respectful ways and to take their concerns as seriously as possible.
“With the 14 year olds this year as potential voters in 2023, politicians and governments will have to be concerned about the quality of, and opportunities for, education, job opportunities, public transportation (since most people can’t afford single-use cars), sports and recreation.”
Merdeka Center director Ibrahim Suffian agrees:
“The voting pattern of the younger voter is hard to tell as we don’t have data on that. Overall the demographics is slightly overweight to favour of Malay voters but how they will vote is dependent on prevailing conditions.”
“I agree with Chin Tong that the youth would be more issue driven but they can still be mobilised on identity politics given how polarising social media has been,” he added.
But as infighting engulfs the ruling coalition and the threat of a slowing economy looms, analysts agreed that lowering the voting age could be a ill-calculated misstep on PH’s part.
“PH is losing support, especially due to infighting in PKR and weak economic performance,” Welsh said.
“They will need to ratchet up performance and engagement to strengthen their base and win over support. It would be wrong for PH to think that giving younger voters the vote will translate into support.”