KUALA LUMPUR - The defeat of a candidate from the Malaysian opposition in the Teluk Intan by-election over the weekend came as a shock to the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance, not least because the low turnout suggested many young people did not bother returning home to vote.
Their absence was a key factor contributing to the opposition Democratic Action Party's (DAP's) defeat in the Perak parliamentary seat which it had won by 7,300 votes in the 2013 general election.
Last Saturday, only 66.7 per cent of the 60,300 voters cast their ballots, against the 80.6 per cent last year. DAP candidate Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud lost by a scant 238 votes to the Barisan Nasional's (BN's) Mah Siew Keong.
The defeat was triggered by two factors: the sharp fall of 15 percentage points in Chinese support in this semi-urban seat, and the lukewarm response of young voters. Chinese voters make up 42 per cent of the electorate in the constituency.
About 10 per cent of its electorate, or some 6,000 people, are mostly young people who work in Kuala Lumpur or other towns. The low turnout suggested that many of them did not return to vote, despite the DAP having organised several buses to ferry them. The buses were barely half full, according to party officials.
This shows something about young voters. Often assumed to be natural opposition supporters, they can be fickle or astute in their vote, depending on how you see it.
Voters aged below 30 make up about 20 per cent of Malaysia's 13 million-strong electorate.
Political analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who runs the Ideas think-tank, said many people see them as a uniform group but they are not so. The urban young tend to sway towards the opposition while their rural counterparts' loyalties are more mixed.
DAP strategist, MP Ong Kian Ming, also noted that the loyalties of the young voters are not as heavily cemented compared to the older voters who generally stick to their choices.
He said the young, in general, support the PR alliance of three opposition parties in higher numbers, but they are liable to easily swing to the ruling BN coalition due to lower exposure to political issues compared to more mature voters.
If the BN appeared more positive for them at the point of election, their loyalties can change.
"The PR can't afford to neglect this issue. If the turnout is low in the next general election, especially among the young voters, it would face similar difficulties as it did in Teluk Intan," said Mr Ong.
For practical reasons, the cost and time needed to return to Teluk Intan - a 2.5-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur - may have deterred many.
"Politically, the PR also didn't give enough reasons for them to come back. Some disillusionment has set in over the PR's cohesiveness after the last general election," he said.
Also, the recent controversy over the plans by Parti Islam SeMalaysia, a PR component party, to implement Islamic criminal laws or hudud would have turned off many non-Muslims.