Political parties are recruiting 16-year-olds: Why are they doing this and what the law says

MCA legal bureau chief Datuk Tay Puay Chuan says that the party is ramping up its recruitment now that election laws have been revised to enable 18 year olds to vote, down from 21 previously. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
MCA legal bureau chief Datuk Tay Puay Chuan says that the party is ramping up its recruitment now that election laws have been revised to enable 18 year olds to vote, down from 21 previously. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 6 ― Last weekend, Opposition party MCA moved to amend its constitution to lower its membership age from 18 to 16 during its annual general meeting.

It’s a pretty bold move to get more youths into politics, considering the average 16-year-old who would be in Form Four or its equivalent would have more immediate milestones to conquer ― motorbike licence, then driving licence, and SPM (groan).

The floor age for membership into most political parties is currently 18, with the exception of perhaps DAP, which has it set at 17 when most Malaysians would be done with compulsory education.

But does the law allow 16-year-olds to enter politics when they can’t even drive a car yet (the legal age to apply for a car licence is 17)?

Actually, yes. Section 22(1) of the Societies Act 1966 states that a registered society may admit a person under 21 years of age as a member.

But there are restrictions.

The same Act bars members who have yet to reach the age of majority from holding any office-bearer position. That means those aged 16 to 20 cannot become a member of any committee in a political party, or even a trustee, secretary, manager or treasurer.

If membership is approved, a 16-year-old can only be an ordinary member.

So why did MCA lower its membership age?

Its legal bureau chief Datuk Tay Puay Chuan told Malay Mail that MCA is not the first party to initiate this change, the distinction goes to its Barisan Nasional ally, MIC.

He also said that the party is ramping up its recruitment now that election laws have been revised to enable 18-year-olds to vote, down from 21 previously.

“As you are aware, individuals who are eligible to vote is now at 18. So this is also a reason why MCA made the decision to lower its membership age to 16.

“MIC has done it already, so we are not the only one,” Tay said.

Tick-tock, goes the clock

Just a few days ago, the Election Commission (EC) said it expects to complete the ongoing process to enable 18-year-olds to vote by July 2021.

Coupled with the other amendment to allow 18-year-olds to not only vote but also run for elections, it is easy to see why political parties are speeding up their own internal reforms to recruit younger members.

Currently, voters aged between 21 and 39 make up around 40 per cent of the Malaysian electorate, twice the number of voters over 60 years old, according to EC data.

EC chairman Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun confirmed on June 25 that 3.8 million youths have yet to register as voters in the first quarter of 2019, despite reaching eligibility.

The government also predicts that 7.8 million new voters will be added by the time the next general election is due in 2023.

Compared to 14.9 million registered voters in the 14th general election in 2018, the government projects that the number of voters will increase to 22.7 million by 2023 when the 15th general election must be called.

Opposition scramble

MIC Youth chief R. Thinalan told Malay Mail his party has submitted its constitution amendments to allow 16-year-olds to join to the Registrar of Societies (RoS).

“We brought the matter to our council, it was agreed and have submitted our application to the RoS and just waiting for them to get back to us,” Thinalan said when contacted Wednesday.

Malay Mail has reached out to RoS to verify if it has received MIC's application, but has yet to receive a response at the time of writing.

Similarly, Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi said the party will be amending its party constitution at its annual assembly tomorrow.

“Previously, the age was 18. We will be amending the party constitution this Friday to lower the membership to 16,” he told Malay Mail on Wednesday.

Pakatan parties

Former PKR Youth chief Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad previously called on his party to conduct a study to also lower its membership age, but there has been no update on the outcome.

Parti Amanah Negara Youth chief Mohd Sany Hamzan is expecting delegates at the party’s congress which kicks off tomorrow to raise the issue this weekend.

“I feel there is a need for the party membership age to be lowered to 16 as the voting age has been lowered to 18.

“Previously, the voting age was set at 21, and that is the reason why we set party membership at age 18, so that we can prepare voters. So it is only natural that membership age is now lowered,” Sany told Malay Mail.

Entry into PPBM ― the youngest of the Pakatan Harapan component parties ― is set at 18 currently.

DAP’s membership age threshold has always been set at 17, according to its Youth chief Howard Lee who believes it to be a suitable age for youths to be politically involved.

The 36-year-old declined comment when asked if he thought MCA’s floor age at 16 to be too early, but disclosed that at that age, he was already participating in his school's student union elections ― indirectly showing off his 20-year political activism experience.

“Let me ask you, doesn't decisions made by political parties the youths? Shouldn't they have the right to speak up?

“So by joining a political party this is a way or a path for them to voice out their concerns,” Lee told Malay Mail.

However, he appeared satisfied with DAP’s 17-year-old age threshold to become a member and indicated that the party is unlikely to reduce the age at the moment.

But the real question now is whether many 16-year-old Malaysians will be jumping for joy at the chance to join a political party.

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