August 5, 2015
By Voon Zhen Yi, Research Analyst at the Centre for Public Policy Studies
How young can one be to represent the peoples in government? First let us look at examples around the world.
Mhairi Black, 20, from the Scottish National Party became the UK’s youngest MP since the 17th century. She is still a student undergoing her fourth year in law school. Saira Blair who became America’s youngest elected politician, was 18 when she was elected into the West Virginia House of Delegates. In Australia, Wyatt Roy became the youngest person ever to be elected into the Australian Federal Parliament at the age of 20 in 2010.
Nearer to home, Nicole Seah became the youngest Singaporean female candidate at 24 during the 2011 general elections, contesting with another young Singaporean, Tin Pei Ling, who was 27. Tin is currently the youngest Singaporean MP.
What are the prospects for Malaysian youth politics?
Is it unclear who the youngest elected Malaysian politician is, although in 1976 a young 23 year old Najib Razak was elected into the Malaysian Parliament, replacing his father who passed away that year. Nik Nazmi came close, having been elected at 26 when he won the Seri Setia state seat during the 2008 election.
Gen Ys, born between 1980 to 2000, and the upcoming Gen Zs currently make up the biggest portion of the Malaysian population which comprise of 11.9 million residents. Yet, only 9% of Malaysia’s 222 MPs fall within the Malaysian definition of youth, which is below 40 years of age.
In recent years, the youngest UMNO MP is YB Khairy Jamaluddin was elected into parliament during the 2008 General Elections at the age of 32. There are 6 BN MPs to 16 opposition MPs in their youth currently in Parliament.
Altogether, there are 22 MPs in their 30s (9%). At least 71.2% of Malaysian Parliamentarians are aged 50 and above .The median age of our current Members of Parliament is 56. The youngest MPs are 33 while the eldest, Tengku Razaleigh, is 78. The striking fact remains - there are barely any young politicians in Parliament.
One must wonder if a suitable ecosystem exists to encourage our young people for political participation. In other countries, youths tend to be involved in politics in university, campaigning aggressively in ways no different to how our politicians vie for seats in government. In Malaysia, political parties are not allowed to be set up in universities. It is ironic that we can find more active youth political involvement in universities overseas, such as the likes of Kelab UMNO in the United Kingdom, rather than see this develop locally. In most matured democracies, political careers begin at university. Denying this is a handicap to Malaysia’s own political development.
There is also a route to politics from the private sector, where such candidates are without extensive or prior political experience. Their success in developing a political career shift very much depends on their charisma and sheer bravery should they not intend to rely on crucial networks of contacts typically required for political success. This however, requires them to be popular youth figures with outstanding credentials, which is difficult (though not impossible) to achieve without being part of the upper-middle class.
Most politicians enter politics through membership in grassroot party divisions. The youth, naturally, will participate through the youth wings of such parties.
However, it typically takes a long journey for aspiring youth to be politicians in their own right. This is mainly due to the cultural setting of political parties and society in general. The Asian mentality of filial piety constructs a form of oligarchy amongst the old whom are given respect and preference to hold office.
Such rigid cultures found in many established political parties seldom open up to their young and capable grassroot members as the leadership positions are already taken by older party members. It is also a matter of protocol. After all, older politicians who rose from their various local division have carefully planned their way to their positions of prominence, making it a touchy and complicated affair to replace them with younger and inexperienced candidates.
In such established parties with rigid structures, the only way youth members can be elevated is if they already have family members in higher office. This encourages nepotism. However, one must also realise that it is perhaps through avid participation and exposure by older politicians to their offspring which encourages their young to participate in politics, giving these young aspiring politicians the early experience and boldness to enter politics when they come of age. Such politicians may also have caught the vision and cause from their parents. However, this does not negate the fact that more opportunities are needed for the youth to be more involved in politics.
To improve youth political participation, parties need to take more deliberate action to encourage their youth members to take centre stage. A new culture must be adopted to create an environment which extend inclusiveness to the young, instead of an exclusiveness among the old. Older party members must be reminded of the reasons for the party’s founding and existence, that is serve Malaysia and not their personal interest. If a better candidate exists, regardless of age, who can represent and serve the needs of society, it is best to make way. The lack of such a culture and mind-set is perhaps why many evidently incompetent politicians end up in high office due to the fact they have been given the preference of age and loyalty over brains and competency.
Seasoned political parties are now at the crossroads. They must consider this strategically if they intend to remain relevant to the majority youth populace, or simply be wiped out in the next general elections. Fielding more youth candidates will be in the interest of their political survival.
Ultimately, the issue is relevance. So long as elected politicians understand the views of their constituents, are able represent them well, and is willing to fight for their needs, they thoroughly deserve to be elected. It is unsurprising that young voters are choosing a younger line up from the opposition who the youth perceive are able to relate to their needs.
The old having a firm grip in politics also discourage the youth from participating in political activism, yet alone political leadership. The youth often perceive that they are wasting their time when their opinions are unheard or chucked aside. Interest groups and political parties must show their sincerity and seriousness in wanting youths to be involved and take the initiative to extend their hand to youths to be more participative. These are small but significant steps in developing youth political interest and involvement.
Malaysia needs more young politicians to represent the upcoming needs of the youth majority, particularly when youth unemployment is showing no signs of improving. Though it may be true that these relatively young politicians lack the raw experience, such experience requires practice. It will be an equally undesirable prospect for Malaysia when the Gen Ys reach their 40s or 50s without having sufficient political experience.
Age and competence are two separate matters. The youth have proven more than capable of handling their own with the same if not better levels of capability to their seasoned political colleagues. With this as the primary benchmark, it is ultimately up to voters to decide who they wish to give the mandate to.
Read media exclusive version on The Star.
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