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The Rise Of Youth Power In Southeast Asia And The Future Of Free Trade – Analysis

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By Anbound Malaysia*

If there is a word to describe the multitude of public protests around the world in 2019, it will be the word ‘youth’. Be it Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong, France, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, Peru, Iraq or Spain (the list goes on), large segment of the youth population went to the streets for a myriad of reasons against respective ruling governments. One of them would be the unequal distribution of wealth that drastically divided the haves and have-nots — with the latter seeing the current economic development as beneficial to the elites instead of themselves. 

While free trade used to be understood and even pride upon as the great vehicle to economic growth and progress in the past, such perception is definitely getting less relevant among the youth generation in the developed world today. Reaping inadequate and certainly, not live-changing benefits from the existing free trade regimes, our youth counterparts in the developed world have been staging anti-globalization movements as early as in the 1990s. The Seattle and Genoa protests in 1991 and 2001 were but the two events that saw anti-globalization movements spearheaded by different groups in the developed world (in cooperation with certain groups in the South).

In Southeast Asia, however, such anti-globalization sentiment was much less significant in the 1990s with member countries openly embracing free trade for their own economic growth and progress until today. That said, it is unrealistic to assume such positivity will continue unabated considering the rise of youth power in the region that produce repercussions which no one is able to predict. With more than half of the Southeast Asian population under the age of 30, political and economic elites of this region should really pay serious attention to such phenomenon as it is entirely capable of shaking the long-standing free trade positivity adhered by those in power. 

Among all Southeast Asian countries, the youth power has been featured prominently in the case of Indonesia. From the last combined elections (presidential, regional and legislative) in April 2019, those between the age of 17 and 35 made up nearly half of eligible voters in the country. As noted by Gabriel Natalia Siahaan, the youth factor had been obviously shown in the campaigns of various political parties aspiring to win the elections, especially for the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) which called for the removal of the oligarchs and the youth empowerment in the political affairs of the country. On a relatively extreme front, it was also the Indonesian youths who took the streets in almost every province in the country, against the Jokowi administration’s attempts to pass several bills criminalising sex before marriage, weakening of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), and banning any insult against the head of state. 

Similarly, the last Filipino general election in May 2019 also saw the youths participating actively as first-time voters in the country. Among all issues, the issue of endemic corruption among the politicians, had been the main driver for young voters in determining their choices for the Senators, members of representatives, governors and so forth. Making up more than one-third of the overall voters in the Philippines, these youth voters had shown their critical political demand in the last general election and would become even more significant electoral force in deciding the next president in 2022.    

In Thailand, the youth power is again featured by the rise of the Future Forward Party (FFP) led by the young billionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. For the first time in Thai election history, the new party became the third force in the country’s politics, ending the long-standing bipartisan division between the political parties associated with the Yellow and Red Shirts’ movements. And when the FFP was banned from Thai politics in the mid-December, thousands (mostly youths) rallied on the streets in Bangkok while others also expressed their support for the political party via social media platforms. With Thanathorn declaring the rally as the ‘beginning’ of the wider democratic movement against the military junta government, more developments will be expected in the coming months in the Thai political landscape.

In Cambodia and Myanmar, the youth power is relatively reserved but very much alive in their domestic political fronts. From the last Cambodian general election (July 2018) that featured Hun Sen’s political party as the sole running party in the election, the youths (46% of the eligible voters) had turned to social media to express their protest against the ruling party. Instead of voting, there were substantial youths who supported the #CleanFingers online campaign (initiated by the banned opposition party, Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP)) by opting not to vote during the election. In particular, the #CleanFingers campaign in Facebook drew huge support among netizens with some even openly criticizing the ruling government without trepidation.  

For Myanmar, the reservation is much less pronounced than in Cambodia. With as much as 4.8 million youth voters aged 18 to 22, they become the targeted group of electorates that has to be won over by political parties in the coming general election 2020. But unlike Cambodia, there is ambiguous political activism as displayed by the Burmese youths with many focusing on the fruits of economic development in recent years. Having said that, the fact that Burmese youths (like other Southeast Asian youths) are active social media users would mean that any politically-related information or news spread via various platforms has the potential to become viral among online netizens. Provided with the right contexts and timing, there is no question that political activism among Burmese youths would be stirred up by the social media. 

Finally, Malaysia is the latest to join the foray following the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s lowering of national voting age to 18 years old. With the bill passed on such policy, it is expected that Malaysia will see 34.4% of youth voters entering the electoral roll — a phenomenon that is slated to change the political landscape of the country. By that, it means higher education, high-income job opportunities, housing affordability, cost of living and transportation will become the yardsticks in securing the support of Malaysian youths, whether by the ruling PH or the Muafakat Nasional or any aspiring political parties looking to establish the third force in the political front. 

By all means, all these developments only showcase that the rise of youth power is going to be more and more evident in the Southeast Asian region. In the event that free trade’s benefits are not translated to the youths, the rise of youth power will evolve into a colossal force that is bound to end the free trade positivity as practised  by the political elites in the region. As articulated by UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in July 2018, it is of paramount importance for the national governments to remove the multiple barriers — expensive higher education, low-paid or unpaid entry jobs, inadequate training and lack of funds for entrepreneurship — that impede the youths from taking advantage of various free trade deals. Therefore, it is up to the political elites in the Southeast Asian countries to ensure that its youths are reaping the benefits of free trade as one of the participants or else, the region may witness similar anti-globalization wave as seen in the developed world.  

*Anbound Malaysia is part of Anbound China, a leading independent think tank based in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm working with the corporate players in China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact: [email protected] 

Anbound

Anbound

Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

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