Expectations of young voters

The Star: Monday February 18, 2008CERITALAH WITH KARIM RASLAN
This general election will hinge on three important themes that are linked to the growing influence of young and demanding Malaysians.
MALAYSIA’S 12th general election will not be a cliff-hanger. This is not an epochal contest.
Still, the Barisan Nasional’s extraordinary majority (won in 2004) will be reduced. And, as befits an electoral contest led by the mild-mannered Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the issues will also be similarly low-key and understated though that doesn’t mean they aren’t important for Malaysia’s future.
Nonetheless, by March 9, as the Prime Minister surveys the results, his own position within Umno (especially if he wins back Kelantan) will be strengthened in anticipation of the long-awaited party polls at the end of the year.
To my mind, there are three important themes which have to be addressed in the upcoming polls; firstly, generational change; secondly, the demands arising from these changes and the pressures they’ll place on our political class; and finally, the Dr Mahathir Dilemma (which actually has nothing to do with the man himself).
Firstly – generational change; according to United Nations statistics, 53% of Malaysians are under 24. At the same time government figures reveal that only 4.3% of Malaysians are over 65.
These figures should remind us that the Cabinet in particular must reflect and acknowledge the demographic reality of the nation.
Furthermore, with the global economy moving as quickly as it does, we need a continuous infusion of new ideas and initiatives because the policies that succeeded in the 1980s and 1990s may not work for us any longer.
Having said this I recognise that there is a need to balance youth with age and wisdom. However, there are far too many Cabinet ministers who have failed to adapt to the changing demands of our society.
Still, credit must be given to Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik and Datuk Seri Effendi Norwawi for having the good sense to leave the political stage of their own accord. These two gentlemen understand that a Cabinet post is not a long-term sinecure. Indeed some Cabinet figures have become electoral liabilities – so much so that their continued retention may well undermine the Barisan’s chances of going forward.
Secondly – young Malaysians of all races are far more demanding. In the past they would have been satisfied “swallowing” the government line. Nowadays, they want their rights and they want to be “served” by public servants. We don’t want to be grovelling in front of the men and women whose salaries we are all paying through our taxes: it is both demeaning and wrong.
Young Malaysians also want to hear the whole story when it comes to election time. They want the Opposition to be given a fair chance to present their views and programmes so that they in turn can make up their own minds.
Young Malaysians are no longer satisfied being told that the Opposition will “destroy” the nation. Frankly, the scare-mongering will not work. Instead, we need to be persuaded and “won over”.
What does this mean for the next generation of Barisan leaders? Well, the Barisan (and more importantly Umno) needs leaders who have passion, intelligence and empathy. We don’t need low-grade dropouts grubbing around for government contracts. We need young men and women who can explain national policies, do the work on the ground and “win” over the public of all races – that’s why I stress “empathy”.
Sadly, I’m not convinced that many of these emerging figures understand the challenges ahead. This is going to be a problem because young Malaysians view politicians like “service providers” – basically past success is no guarantee of future performance and changing “service providers” is no big deal.
Thirdly – the “Dr Mahathir Dilemma”. Over the past four years Malaysians have shown themselves to be increasingly confused and contradictory when it comes to the type of leadership they’ve expected of Abdullah.
Initially, most of us were relieved to see the end of Dr Mahathir’s tenure.
His high-octane and micro-managing style had exasperated and exhausted most of the population. In 2004, we all wanted a more relaxed, consensual approach to governance.
However, in the intervening years, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Malaysians (and especially the non-Malays) no longer want Abdullah to be so “laissez faire”. Nowadays we expect him to intervene (and firmly) against the hotheads within his own party and certain commercial interests perceived to be greedy.
Moreover we need him to correct and discipline the countless “little Napoleons” in the civil service.
Notwithstanding the “economic corridors”, we want to feel that Abdullah has an overall strategy for the country economically and politically – a strategy that he will drive and implement personally.
Besides, we need him to be a constant presence: vigilant, tough and uncompromising as he enforces standards of business efficacy, equal treatment, tolerance and decency.
In short we want him to speak out in the interests of the nation as a whole, balancing out the undeniable power of private business, political parties and the predominantly Malay civil service.
The 2008 polls should mark the end of “Abdullah Badawi the nice guy”.