JULY 3 — Malaysia is bucking global trends of retreating democracies and declining voter turnouts. In fact, it recorded an improvement in its democracy score by 7 points in 2019 (Freedom House), and registering a historic turnout of 12,299,514 voters (82.32 per cent) in last year’s general elections.

More than that, the newly elected Pakatan Harapan government is now planning to table an amendment to Article 119 of the Federal Constitution. The amendment, to be tabled later this week seeks to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. If passed, an estimated 3.5 million newly eligible voters would be part of the collective captains of this country’s fate in the next elections.

Ostensibly, the proposal to reduce the voting age is being done at this juncture to capitalise on the country’s uptick in interest on democracy. By lowering the voting age and getting people involved in the political process earlier, research has shown, could lay the foundations for continued involvement in the political process in later years. This early onset anchor would be important to future proof Malaysia’s democracy against the worldwide trend of declining political participation.

Contextually, this move would align Malaysia’s age of suffrage to global benchmarks. According to the CIA World Factbook, globally, 207 of the 234 countries (88 per cent) listed has suffrage at the age of 18, with a mere 9 countries (3.8 per cent), including Malaysia, setting it at 21.

Besides this, proponents of the amendment claim that by the age of 18, Malaysians are able to obtain a valid driving license, serve in the Armed Forces, pay taxes, and to be tried fully as an adult in a court of law — so why should they not be given a voice to determine the future direction of the country?

Detractors of the proposal, meanwhile, are quick to point out at 18, the individual has yet to attain sufficient levels of maturity and knowledge to cast an informed vote. This presumes that the right to vote is predicated on the attainment of some semblance of knowledge, and arbitrarily set levels of maturity.

The logic behind this is flawed.

For one, surely age is no guarantee for wisdom nor rationality. Besides, votes are oftentimes cast based on impressions of the country’s management and blind political loyalties which came about through heuristics, rather than sound, objective, and deliberate consideration of the subtleties associated with political ideology and policy options.

This being the case for the “ordinary” electorate, why should the younger generation be held to a different standard?

Further, perceived political apathy among the “generation more interested in playing video games” can be attributed to the University and University Colleges Act 1971. The Act had essentially contained and suffocated the once vibrant student activism scene in Malaysia’s institutions of higher learning. While the problematic provisions have just recently been abolished, society still continues to compound on students to focus on their studies, and to ignore politics altogether.

Against this backdrop, is it the fault of some of the youth for being apathetic? Moreover, is it still their fault for being disinterested when the political landscape is tainted with racist remarks, and sex scandals tinged with homophobia, rather than questions over policy matters?

Besides, and to turn the tables around, the youth could question: where were these so-called “informed and mature electorate” when the country’s coffers were being robbed dry, and when the institutions integral to protecting this cherished democracy was being undermined left, right and centre?

To not enfranchise the younger generation would mean that Malaysia’s democracy loses its most active, critical, and rebellious constituents. This group, straddling the cusp of adulthood, coupled with their relative isolation in university campuses allows them to play the role of the critic — looking in from the outside — whilst critically questioning long-held assumptions and beliefs masquerading as immovable truths.

It is at this juncture that it is worth remembering that the youths were the ones who founded the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM), which later became the nucleus of the first Malaysian nationalist movement against the British. Imagine what would have happened if this group of youth were told that they are not mature enough to participate in the struggle for Independence?

Further to this, the inclusion of a younger generation of voters, which research has shown to be less likely to be loyal to one political party, will only result in a healthier, more responsive democracy and political landscape, blunting extremities associated with the winner-takes all, first past the post electoral system.

Beyond these arguments, the younger generation should be given the right to vote because more than any other vote base, they are the generation that will be living the longest with the decisions made today. Granting people suffrage at an earlier age would legitimise their needs politically, resulting in a government that is attuned towards their interests.

This would lead to a government that is more responsive towards issues beyond the immediate horizon such as climate change, the environment, biodiversity, and even education quality, student debt and high quality job creation.

Lastly, this would be a chance for politicians, who love to tell the youth that they are the “future leaders of the country”, to go beyond rhetoric and soundbites. Above that, it is about time to relegate the paternalistic thinking to the pages of history, and to treat younger Malaysians as equal, collective masters, of this country’s fate.

Giving them the right to vote is the first, and most imperative, step.

This article first appeared in the Malay Mail on July 3, 2019

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