IF 18-year-olds were to vote in 2023, current Third Formers, those who will be taking their PT3 exams, will be part of a potent political force whose impact few can imagine.
Together with those who were not eligible to vote in the previous election, we would see an estimated 7.8 million new voters, adding to the 14 million or so registered now. This is perhaps the most significant change since the first election in 1955.
The amendments to the Constitution to lower the voting age and introduce automatic voter registration were passed by both houses of Parliament last July, with bipartisan support, too. The Election Commission is now dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s before they come into effect.
Elections are often impacted by the entry of a new cohort of voters. First-time voters are often energised by the novelty of going to the ballot box. With they being a third of eligible voters in 2023, one can only speculate how the demographic will affect the outcomes.
Our political system favours the older generation, as they are the ones who have invested time in politics. Yet, the electorates are getting younger. The country’s median age is a shade under 29, and significantly more than 60 per cent of the population is under 40.
However, our politicians and politics are old. The 55 and older, of which I am one, constitute 15 per cent of voters, but we have a disproportionate influence over politics, policies and the political process.
Granted, one can get wiser with age, but as one gets older, one is also compromised, cautious and keen to retain the status quo. Older folks hardly move the needle when it comes to innovation or addressing new issues.
Climate change, for instance, is much understood and feared by the millennials, who will likely have to live through the catastrophe. It is a rarity for an older person to be as concerned about a future that he has no part in.
Most of our political thinking and philosophies were formed decades ago. While they evolved over time, they continue to be bogged down by old political chestnuts of race and religion, which hold less sway among the young.
There are many who say an 18-year-old is still unwise to the ways of the world. Well, we have seen too many sins committed by older, presumably wiser folks, too.
As it is, the law recognises them as adults, and if they do the crime, they will do the time. It is patently unfair that they be disallowed to have a say in the formation of a government that can ask them to put their lives on the line if they were to enrol in the military.
No one should be denied the right to suffrage just because we think their tender age may lead them to vote differently. Democracy is not perfect, but it is the system we have and advocate. More important, however, the lower voting age widens representation and brings youth issues to the forefront.
Many young people are unlikely to have committed to political views or ingrained themselves to ideologies, and their decision-making may just be governed by issues affecting them and their peers. What are their aspirations, fears and concerns, their values and world views?
Many young people, for instance, feel disenfranchised and marginalised over what they see to be an uncertain future. Jobs, opportunities, social issues, and the environment, for example, weigh heavily on their young shoulders. As a result, many millennials suggest family and property are luxuries they may not be able to afford.
A graduate driving for a ride-hailing service or delivering food obviously suggests industry and an admirable quality, but it also indicates structural issues in the economy, the education system or human resource development policies. This has not gone unnoticed by the young, including the mismatch in the cost of living and wages.
At the moment, there is too much politicking, for instance, over the spoils of victory, that no one is really listening to the young. Ignore or dismiss the young at your own peril, as they will be the kingmakers, befitting their numbers.
This is the new reality in Malaysian politics. I believe the survival of the political parties, and their relevance and success in the next general election probably hinge on how they deal with the young and issues important to them. And yes, it includes engaging Third Formers who may decide the fate of the nation’s politics.
The writer, a former NSTP group managing editor, is now a social media observer