The proposed lowering of the voting age to 18 by the Pakatan Harapan government, together with the automatic registration of voters proposed by the opposition, will be a major game changer, transforming the way politics and policies are conceived and executed in Malaysia forever.
Being young has an advantage: one has less historical baggage and is thus more courageous.
Those who possess an old mindset may have been disturbed by the insistence of Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman to push for the lowering of the voting age, despite the PH government not having a two-thirds majority to amend the constitution.
There are also columnists who peddle racial ideas, claiming such a move would inject millions of Malay voters, thus benefiting Umno and Pas, at the expense of the Chinese and Indians.
Of course, I wonder which fools advised Umno and Pas to counter-propose to the Pakatan government to include automatic registration of eligible voters, which has promptly been agreed upon by the Pakatan Harapan presidential council.
I wish to congratulate Saddiq for pushing this and I hope that the constitutional amendments would be passed by Dewan Rakyat tomorrow, and by Dewan Negara subsequently.
With millions of youth between 18 and 21 coming into stream as voters in 2023 when the next general election is due, we can almost be certain that this nation will do politics and think about policies differently.
First, the very young become a crucial group of stakeholders. If the election is held in 2023, we will have to start engaging 14 year olds now.
Malaysian politics is so used to the top down and talk down culture.
Today’s youth are learning about the world through You-Tube and the Internet.
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.
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
Second, no more fixed deposits. How did Barisan Nasional rule Malaysia for so long?
Essentially, Umno won through its strongholds and used all sorts of ways to dilute the votes of others.
Umno claims to have 3.5 million members and MCA a million members. All this while, Umno was voting on the assumption that as long as all its members voted for Umno in a general election and with the condition that the opposition was split and not act as an united coalition, Umno would continue to form the government.
It was also assumed that civil servants, police and members of the armed forces are fixed deposits. Hence, Umno and BN were never interested in expanding the voting base as such a move would dilute the worth of its hardcore voters.
Of course, Umno, MCA and other parties found out that members do not equal to votes in a general election. By then, it was too late.
The Umno way of building a huge party base and thinking about practically everything only in terms of its fixed deposits did not work and would never work again.
While some in Pakatan lament that it has no fixed deposits, we must accept that we will never have a huge hardcore voting base which vote blindly for us. Politics is now about swing voters.
Third, good for public policy formulation. The number of people who voted in the 14the General Election was 82.32 per cent, or 12,299,514 persons, out of the total number of registered voters of 14,940,624.
Lowering the voting age to 18 and introducing automatic registration means that the voting base will be widely expanded. I won’t be surprised if we have an electorate of 20 million voters very soon.
In the old days, Umno just had to take care of Umno grassroots leaders, who would then convince their circle of relatives and supporters. There was no need for policy discussions. More often than not, politics was about patronage and targeted goodies.
But you can’t bribe 20 million voters at once.
Former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak attempted that. He was trying to give goodies to various groups in a segmented fashion.
But at some point, the people would realise that giving cash handouts to 60 per cent of the families in the country is a strange way of dealing with economic concerns, to say the least.
The proper policy question is to ask why 60 per cent of the population are seen as needing economic assistance.
Expanding the voting base means politics can no longer be about goodies; politics has to be about public policies.
We will have to debate about jobs, healthcare, education, security etc and make collective decisions.
Fourth, recognising that we are quite urban.
By 2017, I was already predicting that BN would lose power in Johor, but I was laughed at initially.
My prediction was based on the fact that as much as many Johor seats are seemingly semi-urban or outright rural, up to half of the voters stay in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
While Umno and MCA were great rural service parties, the demographic change cut the ground out from them.
Lowering the voting age to 18 and automatic registration will just make it even more apparent to everyone that Malaysia is a highly urbanised nation and that many of our debates and public policy assumptions are outdated.
Fifth, goodbye to racial politics. I suspect Umno and Pas are pushing for automatic registration on the basis that more Malay voters will enter the electoral roll, thus giving them better chances to win.
I would like to suggest to Umno and Pas that they should even ask for compulsory voting, if that is their line of thought.
I am of the view that once everyone in the political field recognises that with the influx of huge numbers of the young, swing voters with no political allegiance but reasonably exposed through social media, the battle is no longer about race.
The policy battle is about jobs, housing, health, public transport and social upward mobility.
Pakatan may not have an advantage with the entirely new terrain, but Umno, under Najib and Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, are certainly not the choice of the future.
Giving 18 year olds the right to vote and automatic registration is a long overdue institutional catch up for Malaysia to mature. It is my fervent hope that the amendments would be passed by Parliament.
The writer is deputy defense minister