Getting involved

Wednesday February 20, 2008 (The Star)

Young voters are still grappling with their roles and responsibilities in the democratic process.
IT WAS Chinese New Year, and talk about an impending general election was rife. The topic was however only brought up briefly when childhood friends Joanna Lim, Chelsia Ng and Grace Ho met up for a reunion. It was brushed off just as quickly.
Accounting student Ros Aida Rasid wishes that she had taken time off her busy schedule to register as a voter.
“I don’t read the newspapers, they make me depressed as if no good things are happening. To me it doesn’t really matter who’s leading at the top. No matter who fights whom, we don’t get anything and just live (our lives) every day,” says Joanna, 25, who runs an accessory shop in Penang.
The young businesswoman’s apathetic attitude towards politics is common among youths today.
The National Youth Survey 2007 conducted by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research shows that youths are not into the idea of engaging in community activities, with only about one-third saying that they can make difference in solving problems within the community.
In fact, most of the 1,508 youths surveyed prefer reading entertainment news more than political news.
It is not that youngsters are totally disinterested in politics. Chelsia and Grace find the United States presidential campaign interesting. They follow its developments and highlights, and know what Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain stand for.
Eighty percent of the young registered voters believe that their votes have some of a lot of influence on the election.
However, they are clueless when it comes to their own backyard.
“I don’t even know who to vote for or how the system works here. I’m more familiar with the American system. If you want my vote, convince me,” says Chelsia, a KL-based singer-actress who gets her doses of news only from CNN.
Grace has just returned from studying in Australia, and admits that she is more familiar with the politics there.
HELP University College psychology department senior lecturer Gerard Joseph says that the passion towards politics in youths stem from various factors, such as the psychological development in the youth (“A 16-year-old boy is trying to figure out who he is and his main concern is whether he has a girlfriend or not and attending parties”); stability of the country (“If I don’t have to worry about my basic needs, I have more free time to think about other things”); education system that nurtures civic-consciousness alongside academic excellence; and experiencing first-hand that the world around them needs their contribution and care.
Throughout history, young people are idealistic and if the right buttons are pushed, says Gerard, they can and have every potential to create change.
“This is not just talking about the poor and disabled in class. An experience like this has the potential to awaken a deeper sense of social responsibility, other-centredness, and realisation of their role in the society and their contribution towards a better Malaysia,” says Gerard.
However, youths’ exposures to democratic processes are lacking in schools. When these students enter tertiary institutions, the Universities and University Colleges Act prevents students from being involved in politics.
Young voters like Law student Samuel Leong read the newspapers and go on the Internet to keep tabs on the general election.
Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed recently cautioned students against getting involved in political parties in responding to reports on the proposed student-based political party, Parti Mahasiswa Negara.
The best thing students can do, he says, is to vote.
Young entrepreneur Joanna Lim believes that life goes on no matter what the outcome of the general election will be.
He says that their core business is to study, and they need not concern themselves with politics.
Physics major Andy Anderson Bery concurs with the minister.
“In university we have rules that we can’t be involved in politics. It’s the rule. We need to obey the rule.
“I think it is good that students can concentrate on studies instead of getting involved in political parties. We don’t need to know everything (about politics), just basic knowledge is enough,” says the Sarawakian, who does not even know how to register to vote.
As of last April, 4.9 million eligible Malaysians have not register to vote. Of these, 70% of them are aged between 21 and 35.
“I was busy studying and I’m far from home. I don’t know where to register,” says Andy.
Accounts student Ros Aida Rasid, 21, wishes now that she has taken time off her busy schedule to register as a voter.
“I forgot to register. Now I feel left out as this could be my first time voting,” she says.
During the general election, pictures, notices and instructions educating the people about the polling process will be put up.
For other youngsters, the choice to not register as a voter is deliberate.
Marketing student Chandran Balachandrun says that he chose not to register as a voter because he was concerned about certain developments in the country, and events such as the demonstrations that took place recently.
Whether they are voting or not, some youths cannot help but be caught up in the excitement of the general election.
Although the Act prevents students from being directly involved in politics, it does not deter those interested from seeking information and keeping abreast of political developments.
The Internet has opened up platforms for anyone and everyone to post their side of the story.
Marketing student Chandran Balachandrun is still figuring out his responsibilities as a citizen.
“For young voters who are dying to know what the other side (non-mainstream) is saying, we go online,” says law student Samuel Leong, 22.
On the Internet, talk of denying Barisan Nasional of a two-third majority is widespread.
The younger generation today is inexperienced in politics, but they are not totally naïve either. Some are also able to digest the information available to them, and make their own judgements.
If anything, young people these days are exposed to the way political discourse is conducted abroad, and are more likely to demand for a more balanced and better thought-out arguments from contestants in this general election.
Samuel does not find the Opposition’s approach of “coming up with opposing views by default” appealing. He hopes that all politicians will make their stand on the principles they believe in, rather than blindly toeing the party line.
Although some youths do not think that their vote will change anything, a majority of the youths who are registered voters believe that their votes are important.
The Merdeka Centre survey indicates that 80% believes their votes make some or a lot of difference in influencing the Government.
Malaysians have voted in the Barisan Nasional coalition in all the previous 11 elections. But people also want a strong Opposition team to keep the check and balance in the country.
However, there are also those who are sceptical of the Opposition’s ability to govern and bring development to the people.
Kelantanese Mohd Zulhazri Azmi left his family to start a business in Pahang due to the lack of opportunities in his PAS-led home state.
“Most of my friends have left for KL. Perhaps the East Coast Economic Region will offer more job opportunities but how long do we have to wait?” asks Zulhazri, 25, who follows closely the developments in Kelantan which has been ruled by PAS for 18 years.
Mohd Hapizul Hapis Abdullah, 25, has been actively involved in the general elections since he was a child.
“One vote can determine the winning party,” says the ambulance driver from Merapoh in Pahang.
Hapizul’s father used to be a strong supporter of Barisan Nasional. During his secondary school days, Hapizul and his friends had loads of fun putting up banners and posters for RM20 a day. Election season has always been a merry time for him, but this year it’ll be particularly significant for he will be voting for the first time.
He’d like to see more development in Merapoh.
Hapizul laments there is no petrol station in Merapoh, and locals have to travel an hour to Gua Musang, Kelantan to pump petrol and shop.
“Prepaid card for RM10 is sold for RM10.50 in Merapoh, but who wants to travel so far to Gua Musang to buy it? We have to buy it here anyway,” says Hapizul who also hopes there will be more affordable housing available.
Ultimately, Hapizul says he wants a leader who cares for their welfare, keeps his word and brings development to the town. Given a choice, Hapizul would rather read about Arsenal’s bid to win the Champions League than who said what at which ceramah.
But now that he is going to cast his vote, he wants to keep track of this general election so that he can choose the best leader for his constituency.
Whatever their level of understanding or sentiments about politics, young people still have faith in democracy.
Chelsia says that she will travel from KL to her constituency in Penang to cast her vote.
“We don’t let other people choose our boyfriends, why should we let people decide who becomes our leaders? I’m excited to vote. Besides, it’s home,” she says.
Chandran says he will miss voting this time, but he will register to be a voter so he can vote in the next general elections.