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Youth participation in the multiracial and democratic opposition to the Najib Government

Nalina Nair, Women’s Wing State Secretary of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) Malaysia


Indonesia’s first President once said, “Give me a thousand men, I’ll move a mountain. Give me 10 youths, I’ll shake the world.” This well known quote exemplifies the importance of young people in contributing to nation-building. Throughout history, young people have proved to be vital components in changing political landscapes by constantly confronting old ways and bringing in new ideas of reform and progress.

In Southeast Asia, the struggle for independence was fought and led by the youth. In Indonesia, the young Sukarno, Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir were at the forefront for Indonesians freedom. General Aung San of Burma and José Rizal of the Philippines, both called ‘Father of Independence’ in the respective countries, were in their 20’s when they fought against imperialism.

The 1MDB trigger

Malaysia obtained independence from British colonialists in 1957, long before Najib Razak became Malaysia’s Prime Minister in April 2009. However, it felt there was another round of struggle for independence in 2010’s. This time, it was to be free from a kleptocratic government, led by an extremely corrupt premier The hegemony of the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (in English, the National Front) led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) recently brought corruption to new jaw-dropping levels, no thanks to Najib Razak and his cronies.

Investigations on state-owned investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) casted an unflattering spotlight on then Prime Minister and Finance Minister NajibRazak. Investigations are not only taking place in Malaysia, but also in other countries such as Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Luxembourg, Seychelles, Singapore, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. It was found that there were irregular transactions amounting to at least $4.2 billion, of which $681 million ended up in Najib Razak’s personal bank account. Dubbed as the ‘Mother of all scandals”, the 1MDB fiasco was just the tip of the iceberg, topping many other corruption scandals that arised during Najib Razak’s tenure.

This eventually led to the #TangkapNajib (directly translated to Seize Najib) rally, organized by a youth activist group called Demi Malaysia (now known as Liga Pemuda Malaysia). Demi Malaysia is led by young Malaysians from various Non-Governmental Organisations, student activists and youth leaders of then opposition parties such as the Democratic Action Party (DAP), The People’s Justice Party (PKR), National Trust Party (Amanah) and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu). The 2015 peaceful rally demanded for the immediate resignation of Najib Razak as Prime Minister following the 1MDB scandal.

Demi Malaysia spokesperson and one of the country’s most profound youth activists Adam Adli stated that the #TangkapNajib rally set out to “save the country and free the people from continued economic, political and social uncertainty". Demi Malaysia called on youths to participate in the democratic process by participating in the rally, as youths were seen not to have an opportunity to speak in Parliament.

The authorities feared the impact of dissent this youth group would bring. A day before the rally, the police had requested Adam Adli and fellow youth activist Syukri Rezab to discuss about the rally and promised that no arrests would be made. However, the police had nabbed both activists and detained them under the Sedition Act and Section 124(b) of the Penal code for activities deemed detrimental to parliamentary democracy.

Nonetheless, youths marched on the next day, unfazed by the arrests and police warnings. However, the rally was short-lived. A string of arrests occurred as soon as a crowd of 200 or so had gathered. This showed that the voices of Malaysian youths were strong enough to instill fear in Najib and his government, so much so that force was used to silence young dissenting voices.

To nip dissenting voices in the bud with force and injustice was something very common for the Najib administration. Then opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was made to serve a five-year sentence for sodomy. Malaysia inherited colonial-era British laws, which made sodomy, regardless consensual or not, illegal. This law has been long used to restrict freedom of expression and damage the reputation of political opponents. The conviction of Anwar Ibrahim resulted in the #KitaLawan rally, which saw around 10,000 Malaysians taking to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to call for his release and for Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign. Many who attended the rally were youths, who were the manifestation of the undercurrent of support for reforms and change.

Again, we saw young activists and politicians being arrested and charged for either organising or attending the rally. Youth activists Mandeep Singh and Adam Adli along with young lawmakers Lee Chean Chung and Chang Lih Kang were charged under Section (2)(c) of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for participating and organising a street protest. The following year saw a new wave of student activism. They organised the TangkapMO1 rally which was held in August 2016. These student activists had led over 1,500 protesters, demanding for the arrest of ‘Malaysian Official 1’. Najib Razak was named ‘Malaysian Official 1” in the United States Department of Justice’s 1MDB civil suit.

The consequence was that 4 Universiti Malaya students were found guilty of acting in a manner detrimental and prejudicial to the interests and good reputation of the university, detrimental to public society and violating the university's regulations by organising and participating in the rally. This resulted in the suspension of all 4 students from the university. In opposing the Najib Razak administration, youths did not only mobilise street rallies.

In May 2017, Demi Malaysia organised the 2017 Malaysian Youth Congress (KAMM 2017), the first ever of its kind. KAMM 2017 was attended by over 500 youths from various Backgrounds from every state in Malaysia. The main objective was to collectively discuss where Malaysia ought to be steered in the near future and to have the voices of the vast Malaysian youth to be heard via this platform.The culmination of KAMM 2017 was Deklarasi 13 Mei, a 13-point declaration of Malaysian youths’ aspirations and goals. The 13 resolutions vary from issues on race and class to issues of corruption and the environment.

The 14th General Election saw 1,672,622 new voters, many of them being young voters casting their votes for the very first time. The electorate this time around was relatively young. 17.02 per cent of voters fell in the age group of 21-29, while 30-39 year-olds made up 23.92 per cent. That is a combined total of 40.92 per cent.

However, having registered as a voter does not mean that one will vote. Having such a young electorate, political parties were aware that that they needed to appeal to younger voters and influence these voters to vote for them. With the political structure of Malaysian political parties, having younger leaders securing leadership positions in the central committee or supreme council is not exactly seen as an ideal.

However, there were no less than 28 candidates who were 30 years and below, something unheard of in past general elections. The youngest candidate was 22-year-old law student P. Prabakaran who won the Batu seat. Political parties knew that the hopes and expectations of Malaysian youths needed to be reflected by these young candidates.

Moving forward

Youth participation in Malaysia’s democratic process, be it through activism or politics, has improved since I first dipped my toes in political activism. However, in my opinion, there is still a vast majority of young Malaysians who are oblivious to basic day-to-day governance, are not able to think critically about political and economic issues and are vulnerable to fake news. I find this hazardous in an environment where the current opposition is using race and religion to maliciously further divide multiracial and multi-religious Malaysia.

Perhaps lowering the voting age to 18 years old will encourage more young Malaysians to participate in our democratic process. Currently, the voting age is 21-year-old. During Najib Razak’s tenure, a group of youths kick-started a campaigned called “Undi 18”, seeking to amend Article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution, which governs the voting age. In Malaysia, the age of majority is 18. At 18, the law treats one as an adult. The person can obtain a driving licence and may marry. However, the person is deemed not “matured” enough to vote. In Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, the voting age is 18. It is high time that Malaysia catches up and make a progressive amendment to Article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution.

After Pakatan Harapan’s victory during the 14th General Elections, we now have a progressive government in comparison with the previous Barisan Nasional-led administration. Voices of young Malaysians are now being heard more than ever before. For starters, Pakatan Harpan has produced the youngest ever federal federal minister. Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq was 25 years old when he took office. On the other hand, Pakatan Harapan also appointed Yeo Bee Yin as Energy, Green Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister. At 35 years old, she became the youngest woman minister Malaysia has ever had. It doesn’t stop there. The current government has also given birth to notable young first term elected reps like Lim Yi Wei, Michelle Ng, Young Syefura, Jamaliah Jamaluddin and Sheikh Omar Ali who are State Assemblypersons in their respective states. There is also an increase in numbers of youths in other important roles of governance, such as city councillors and municipal councillors.

Although there are many progressive developments in empowering youths lately, we still need to inspire and empower more young Malaysians to hold decision making positions and to take an active role in the country’s democratic process. Besides giving young Malaysians a stronger voice, there must also be sufficient political education to prepare youths to use this voice effectively and productively.

An initiative called Sekolah Demokrasi has provided a platform where youths can discuss and learn about local government and democracy, parliamentary democracy the electoral system, issues on ethnic relations in Malaysia and current affairs. Another youth empowerment group, University Bangsar Utama  was born out of student activism during the Reformasi period. It is a wide coalition consisting of young pro-democracy activists, environmentalists, artists, animal rights advocates, etc. UBU nurtures a democratic space for discussions on crucial domestic and international political issues via community-based programs, performing arts, film screenings and art exhibitions. Although organisations like Sekolah Demokrasi and Universiti Bangsar Utama are progressive in their aims, ideas and programs, these platforms alone are not extensive enough to reach the majority of young Malaysians of various races and cultural backgrounds. There needs to be more youth groups, especially in non-urban areas to reach the vast youth population.

I am hopeful that Malaysian youths will continue to step up and direct Malaysia to be more progressive in the near future. Without realising, the young had a huge role to play in bringing change of government and we did succeed! In this new Malaysia, youths must continue to be torchbearers of democracy, progressiveness and justice.

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(Aliran, 2018)

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