Are 18 Year-Olds In Malaysia Politically Mature Enough To Vote? – OpEd


In Malaysia, on July 4, the day of American independence, a proposal was tabled to lower the voting age to 18.

Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world that has mature voters who are not able to decide who they want in government. As many as 3.8 million citizens will be eligible to vote if this is passed. 

They will join millions of others and participate in this ritual of Malaysian-styled “guided democracy,” inspired by the Suharto regime.

I am sure we will be hotly debating this matter after the issues surrounding the latest homosexual scandal video affair – or “porno-politics” – have simmered down.

But what will our 18-year-olds vote for when democracy itself is not mature? When authoritarianism still reigns, and when schools have not prepared the young on the basic idea of voting?

When lewd and gutter politics is the norm, and when politics is about robber barons fighting for loot? Which political party is the ‘cleanest’? Or are we only going for numbers for old politics to stay in power? 

Voter maturity

We should first educate first the young on what sustainable politics look like. The ages between 18 to 21 ought to be a “gestation period” for young, potential voters to learn about a third force, to choose what they want as their political future. 

Politics is not about replacing one sick hegemony over another. It is about renewal. Platonic politics, not the porno-politics we are seeing now. 

Watching the way the Americans scrutinise their presidential hopefuls from the Democratic party a few nights ago, I was left with a sense of hopelessness and hopefulness.

Hopelessness because the Malaysian political culture is a disabling one, with the vestiges of Mahathirist authoritarianism and brand of bulldoze-politics still dominating as the anchor to the multitude of post-Umno excesses of abuse of power and public funds, religious ridiculousness, and race-based-addiction to policy implementation. 

A year after the Pakatan Harapan won, politics is the mere rebranding of old practices, with those in power keeping ways of doing things that will still be profitable, with promises of promises being kept.

But I am also hopeful because there is still the chance to educate the young on what it means to vote and to be a citizen, amid the destruction made by the elders who do not deserve this respect.

Why the rush? Here are my thoughts and questions concerning the rush to make our voters younger.

Malaysia’s prime ministerial candidates should undergo public scrutiny, as in the US primaries. Can we have that system? Our system of ‘transfer of power’ is not sustainable. We must do better than just promising to pass the baton. 

Why not have many capable prime ministerial candidates running for the post? Make the public know where each candidate stands on issues critical to the progressive evolution of Malaysia as a liberal and tolerant multicultural society.

Our young cannot be made to vote at 18 if they are to be used and bribed by religious and racist parties. Educate them first. We’d rather have three million 18-year-olds abstain from voting than to be used to prop up yet another authoritarian regime.

Teach our youth to be radical, independent thinkers critical of existing political parties, than to be the new ‘Hitler youths.’ 

Our youths need to be activists of social, educational, ecological issues, not be blind voters at 18, ready to be bought. 

Do 18-year-old Malaysians know about the rights to be a citizen, the constitution, being participants of democracy? Don’t rush to lower the voting age. The youth now confused what it means to be a politician, let alone what those parties stand for. 

Since the time Dr Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister in the early 1980s, what have we seen in terms of the check and balances and respect for the three branches of government? Are we proud enough to teach the young what sustainable politics means?

In the US and many advanced countries, primary school children are already taught about how presidents are chosen. Do we have this educational culture in Malaysia? 

If we ask the young of today what they think the qualities of a prime minister in a multicultural society is, what do you think their answer would be?

Civics education first

Do Malaysians want to teach their children that a prime minister can stay as long as he or she wants to? Voter maturity depends on that of the country’s population. Democracy should not be for sale. Look what happened for 60 years. 

What are we seeing in today’s politics that would give us the confidence that our 18-year-olds would be wise enough to choose leaders who will be sane enough not to turn the country upside down, and in turn, damage the future of the young voters who chose them?

Why rush through the proposal, when what we need to do is for the Education Ministry and Youth and Sports Ministry, and perhaps the Prime Minister’s Department, to work together and find ways to revamp our education on civics and ethics? 

We ought to prepare our youth to understand not only how to vote and who to vote for, but also why we vote, by making wise choices. 

This is a lifelong educational process. Voting is only part of ‘politics’. The laying of the foundation of political consciousness, the practice of good citizenship, and to do public service to help fellow men and women – this is what ‘politics’ is supposed to mean.

I doubt our 18-year-olds have a sense of this yet. We need to prepare a strong foundation for democratic participation through education. 

Or else, we will still see young and old voting because they are being paid a ringgit or two, given free gifts, or be promised the moon and the stars for voting in parties that thrive on race and religious bigotry. Or worse still, the promise of paradise.

Remember that today’s installed leaders are a result of the choices supposedly mature voters made. See how much we are in a mess? 

Imagine our 18-year olds deciding. What will they have been taught in schools by then? 

Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

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