In The News

In Malaysia: Youth Power?

December 5, 2007

Although generally perceived by Malaysians to be ignorant on political issues, young people — 21 to 35-year-olds — account for nearly 45% of all eligible voters in Malaysia and could soon become the primary force in determining the issues and discourse of public policy and debate in the country.

It is in this context that a survey by Merdeka Center and The Asia Foundation was formulated ” to uncover and examine the opinions and expectations of Malaysia’s younger voters for a wider audience, with the intention of sparking interest and attention among policy makers and community leaders. Last year was the first time this poll was conducted. The second poll was just completed, providing a chance to compare and contrast the data against current events in the country.

According to the 2007 survey, 67% of young people in Malaysia still turn to television most often for news, while just 12% turn to the internet. Although a recent report published by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission showed 47.8% internet penetration in the country, 43% of those polled in this year’s youth survey say they have no internet access. For those who do have internet access, they are mostly using it to view sports and entertainment news. Others say they use the internet for email and to view the latest information on job opportunities. While the internet is becoming increasingly relevant as a platform to voice concerns and as a source of news in Malaysia, the survey suggests that youth are not using the internet to be informed and engaged on political and social issues.

The youth participating in the current poll say crime and public safety, and the state of the Malaysia’s national economy, are their primary concerns. Just 3% expressed concern about world politics. These findings suggest that young people are more focused on issues that affect their daily lives more immediately, like the economy and national security, but are paying little attention to the world around them.

The 2007 poll found that young people showed positive attitudes towards elections and voting, with 93% responding that voting in elections is important, yet 56 % have not registered as voters and 52% think there is little they can do to hold government accountable between elections.

Ethnic background continues to impact perception and attitudes of youth polled, especially their perception towards political parties, democracy, and patriotism. While 56% of youth thought the parliament needed more opposition, more Malay/Muslim and non-Muslim Bumiputera disagreed with this compared to their Chinese and Indian counterparts. When asked whether the government is treating everyone equally, 51% of those polled said yes. However there is a huge split in opinion on this according to ethnicity. While the majority of Malay/Muslim and non-Muslim Bumiputera agreed that the government is fair, the non-Bumiputeras begged to differ. This split was similar to findings on patriotism. While 64% youth believed that Malaysian should sacrifice their personal interests for the country, the majority of the Chinese youth polled disagreed.

The views expressed by youth in this survey raise some areas of concern for Malaysia. While the majority of those polled are concerned about local issues, only 39% feel that they can make a difference. The survey suggests that Malaysian youth are concerned but disconnected from civic activities. Respondents’ ethnic background also seems to play a significant role in determining interest in politics and governance. The poll shows that Malay/Muslim and non-Muslim Bumiputera are more likely to participate in political activities than Chinese youth, who are more indifferent.

To what extent the findings of this survey will attract the attention of policy makers is yet to be seen. What is clear is that the national appetite for public polling is growing as citizens desire to compare and contrast their views against those of their fellow citizens. This could well be “˜the alternative’ medium of contact between civil society and the government that Malaysians have long been searching for.

Herizal Hazri is a Consultant for The Asia Foundation in Malaysia.

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