Notes from the Field

National Malaysian Youth Opinion Survey: Taking a Closer Look

August 5, 2009

Whether you want to date it back to the year Malaya gained independence (1957) or the year the Federation of Malaysia was formed (1963), Malaysia is still a young country. And, not only is the country young, but its people are young. Official demographic figures (as of December 2008) say almost 32 percent of the population is under 14 years old, while about 63 percent are 15-63 years old. The median age for Malaysians is 24.6 years.

These figures emphasize just how crucial it is to find out what makes young Malaysians tick. Certainly the performance of certain political parties or the popularity of certain causes has been attributed to the “youth factor.” But just how well are young Malaysians understood? Numerous motivations have been ascribed to them, but just like any other demographic they are not a monolithic bloc. And how valid are the claims that have been assigned to them?

Merdeka Center, Malaysia’s foremost opinion research firm and an Asia Foundation partner, is no stranger to mining the depths of youth opinion. The recently-published 2008 National Youth Survey, for example, has been an annual assessment since 2006, made possible with support from The Asia Foundation. As in prior years, it sought the views of young Malaysians in their own words, through a combination of phone surveys and focus groups, on topics including community involvement, politics, as well as lifestyle and values.

Several youth-focused studies have been or will be commissioned in Malaysia. Merdeka Center certainly handles its share, but we find there is added value in having a regular, annual survey to chart trends.

For example, this year there was a marked increase in youth’s Internet access (a jump of 13 percent since last year, to 70 percent of the respondents polled), which is noteworthy for a country where online media is the predominant alternative and competitor to traditional mainstream news. However, out of that 70 percent, only 44 percent surf the Internet for news. Further, of that percentage, over half would choose to go to the online versions of the local Malay mainstream press. The vaunted giants of the alternative news sites scored as the top two choices for only 13 percent of the respondents.

Overall, about half of the respondents polled are regular news consumers – accessing current events through newspapers or television more than four days a week. But the level of trust in mainstream media is split almost evenly: 49 percent against; 46 percent for. Going deeper into the demographic breakdown, the bumiputeras (the collective term referring to Malays and the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak) registered a higher level of trust than the average (51 percent for non-Muslim bumiputeras; 59 percent Muslim bumiputeras).

This followed the general trend found throughout the survey, as it goes through a list of queries touching on their political beliefs and values, engagement, and self-efficacy: Malays and Muslim bumiputeras tend to be more conservative than their peers from other races and religions. In one sense, it’s not a surprising finding considering they are the majority. A new question was introduced in this survey to coincide with the U.S. 2008 Presidential elections. The question gauged the level of youth acceptance of a non-bumiputera Muslim, a woman, or a non-Muslim candidate as the Prime Minister. Across the three possibilities asked, the Malay respondents consistently polled the lowest numbers (only about 1/3 acceptance for the first two and under 10 percent for the last). Unsurprisingly, non-Malay respondents scored the highest, in the high 80s and above.

In fact, looking into the demographic breakdown to the question, “If you can only choose one identity, would you say that you are…?” of those who answered, “Malaysian,” only 39 percent of those were from a national school background and the youngest age group (20-25 years) scored the lowest (39 percent). Would this indicate a failure of the national education system in the last 50 years as a tool for national unity? Why are the younger respondents less likely to identify themselves as Malaysians? Is this related to the fact that the Malay respondents of all ages tend to identify first as Muslims? These are all questions that need to be discussed and explored especially by government policymakers, who are in the midst of advocating Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s “1Malaysia” ethos.

Young Malaysians continue to have a very low level of self-efficacy, as in their perception on their ability to effect change in their community. Forty-four percent remained unregistered voters. There is a marked decline of 16 percent from 2007 in the number of respondents who felt that their vote made a difference in influencing the government (64 percent in 2008). This pessimism needs to be placed in the context of when the survey was held, which was in late 2008, about nine months after the 12th General Election, where on the whole, despite the surprising electoral performance by the opposition, the view was that there had been no substantial political change. For those who continue to agitate for change this pessimism must be noted and taken into account as well.

Finally, the survey reveals that youth respondents are most interested in an establishment that can manage the economy well, effectively fight corruption listen to public views, and bring development to the community. Regime change, though bandied about as an idea, is not really on the cards for Malaysian youth. In this, young Malaysians sound no different than their elders. And that is perhaps the most notable finding of all.

Nurshafenath Shaharuddin is The Asia Foundation’s Program Officer in Malaysia. She can be reached at nina@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Nurshafenath Shaharuddin

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