Race to woo young voters in Malaysia

Race to woo young voters in Malaysia
File photo: Democratic Action Party (DAP) national chairman Karpal Singh arriving at the court on 21 February 2014.

They may be young but Malaysians in their 20s are being courted avidly by the political parties who see them as having a wide influence on the country's see-saw politics.

Malaysians under 30 make up around 20 per cent of the country's 13 million voters.

Their large numbers and fickle loyalties make them a prime target for political campaigns, with both the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) stepping up their efforts to woo them in recent months.

The strategic importance of young voters was amply demonstrated in last Saturday's by-election in Teluk Intan, where the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) suffered a shock defeat.

This was partly because many young voters did not return home to vote, due in part to the disillusionment with the PR's incessant squabbling, say analysts.

While young people tend to vote in higher numbers for the opposition, their loyalties are also less cemented and their votes easier to shift.

"Young Malaysians are a very important voting group. The programmes are usually intended to first get them into the system by registering them as voters, and then harvest their votes," said Mr Ram Karthigasu, who heads a private political consultancy.

"The next move is to get them to work for the parties, whether as interns or volunteers, to create a longer-term link and commitment."

The parties' efforts range from widespread targeting through youth events, such as festivals and fairs, to targeted programmes like internships and volunteer movements.

The internship programme is a particularly important one, as it targets the more influential members of the youth community who could become future leaders in their parties or opinion leaders among their peers.

Both sides have been vying for the best talent through internship programmes, which promise to give talented young Malaysians a taste of political life.

The opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and DAP were the first to begin this programme some years ago, with ad hoc placement of interns with willing MPs.

The PKR is now making its initiative more structured. Twice a year, it picks 20 interns for a 10-week programme where they will undertake parliamentary research, as well as grassroots constituency work in Penang. There are plans to include stints in Sabah or Sarawak.

The BN followed suit last year with the Perdana Fellowship programme, which offers 70 spots for young people to be interns to Cabinet ministers. The work focuses on policy research. It is now in the midst of recruiting the second batch.

"Both sides know the importance of recruiting talent early, but we started earlier," said PKR MP Sim Tze Tzin, who runs his party's internship programme. "We are constantly looking for new talent."

He noted that these programmes have a long- lasting impact as many of their interns later return to volunteer with the party, and also actively campaign for it in their home villages and towns.

Besides internships, the DAP also launched another imaginative programme - to build a volunteer base by harnessing the energy, idealism and sense of adventure of the young.

It recruits volunteers to spend time in remote villages in Sabah and Sarawak to build infrastructure, such as power and water supply, and even roads. The programme was recently extended to peninsular Malaysia where the first project was mangrove replanting in Johor.

Hundreds have taken part in this Impian Malaysia (Dream of Malaysia) programme, which also has the added benefit of bringing a DAP presence into rural areas, where there is barely any now.

Mr Billy Wong, 26, who had taken part in this programme, said he joined to learn about Sarawak's interior and its people. He also felt it was his duty to "walk the talk" when it came to his beliefs on social justice.

"I was living in my own small Chinese world in Kuching, and have learnt so much from this," he said, referring to the capital of Sarawak. In fact, he was so taken by the new insights that he has since left his job as an auditor to join a DAP MP as a personal assistant.

The BN also recently held a successful Youth Festival in Putrajaya, which offered a range of events to tap youthful idealism about the environment and sports, for instance. It drew thousands over the three days.

The impact of these events, noted Mr Ram, is different depending on the level of commitment they require from the interns and volunteers.

"The internship and volunteer programmes hit the right notes and can be productive," the analyst said. "They create a long-term link to the party and coalition."

He said it was important for the BN to carry out more of such programmes rather than youth festivals or job fairs. While the latter has a bigger reach, it does not do much to create a sense of ownership.


This article was first published on June 7, 2014.
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