JUNE 28 — During my internship with US NGO Mikva Challenge last year, I was blown away by how the Chicago-based non-profit worked with teenage students and taught them how to use political and local government processes to solve problems in their community.
I saw how 16- and 17-year-olds worked on various projects in a showcase, from something as “basic” as putting sanitary dispensers in schools (which ended up with students stealing from it) to national issues like sexual violence, school shootings, police brutality, homelessness, mental health, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights.
Mikva Challenge also gets students, even before they reach voting age, to participate in election campaigns by both Democrats and Republicans so they can learn about the issues.
The voting age in the US is 18 for federal elections, though minors in a few small cities can vote in local elections.
After student activism was suffocated under six decades of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule, Dr Mahathir Mohamad comes full circle as Pakatan Harapan (PH) now attempts to get bipartisan parliamentary support to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 next week. Malaysians are legally allowed to have sex at 16, drive at 17, and get married at 18. Setting up a household and raising children does require a fair bit of maturity, so why shouldn’t 18-year-olds be allowed to vote for their assemblyman or Member of Parliament too?
After all, it’s not just young people who don’t know who our ministers are, but adults too, as revealed by an Astro Radio News vox pop.
While lowering the voting age to 18 is a no-brainer, this should be accompanied with rigorous civics education on constitutional rights, how a parliamentary democracy works, the three branches of government, and the legislative process.
Education Minister Maszlee Malik said last November that Civics and Citizenship Education (CCE) would be reintroduced in all primary and secondary schools as a compulsory subject by the middle of this year, after BN abolished it as a standalone subject in 2013 and 2017 for primary and secondary schools respectively.
Hopefully, the syllabus will promote the spirit of democracy, instead of just harping on national unity and security, loyalty to the country, and political stability.
Maszlee said corruption would be part of the CCE syllabus. Students have reportedly tried to bribe their schoolmates to vote for them as class monitors or school prefects, according to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
The Education Ministry should go a step further and encourage schools to hold robust elections for head prefect or class monitors, where candidates campaign on their ideas to improve their school and can hand out campaign paraphernalia like placards and badges.
School autonomy is crucial. Because politics is local, the federal Education Ministry and school headmasters and administrators must allow students to advocate for issues related to their schools.
Dissent should be encouraged if the government is sincere about raising teenagers’ political awareness, so that they are equipped to vote when they turn 18.
The government must also allow school students younger than 18 to volunteer in election campaigns. Otherwise, how will they know what various political parties stand for, or how to critically analyse issues before they go to the ballot box upon turning 18?
The Election Offences Act 1954 prohibits Malaysians below 21 from being appointed as election agents, polling agents, or counting agents. If Malaysia reduces the voting age to 18, this must change. Perhaps the new age limit can be 14 or 15.
School students must also be allowed to express political opinions, including participating in street protests. This requires an amendment to the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 that prohibits those aged below 15 from taking part in a peaceful assembly. No age limits should be set on our right to freedom of speech and assembly.
The most important factor in expanding suffrage to 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, and 20-year-olds is local government elections.
If we want teenagers to get politically active, the first place to start would be in their local neighbourhood, where they should be able to pressure elected city councillors to resolve issues.
Residents, including youths, should be allowed to attend and speak at local council meetings or hearings.
When teenagers see the value of the political process in local issues that affect their everyday lives, then they will be motivated to vote upon turning 18.
The problem with Malaysia is that while people complain about excessive “politicking”, we are actually not “political” enough.
We worship our YBs after casting our vote once every five years because we think that obsequiousness is how we get them to solve all our problems, instead of treating them like our equals, who are meant to use the power we give them over us to serve us. We care more about personalities than process.
Even though we changed government, we simply shifted our sycophancy from BN to PH.
If PH is serious about lowering the voting age to 18, then it needs to undertake all these other reforms.
Hopefully, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman is genuine about reducing the voting age and isn’t just trying to make a show of it, though it is surprising that the Opposition does not have a stand on it yet. One would think that PH had learned from its previous failure to amend the Federal Constitution on the status of Sabah and Sarawak and, this time, rallied enough MPs to support lowering the voting age, so that the government is confident before even tabling the motion.
The last thing we need is blustering political showmanship to distract the nation from PH’s scandals and failed promises.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.