Undi 18 – the tipping point for youth empowerment

Undi 18 – the tipping point for youth empowerment
By Zan Azlee

I’ve always wondered why the voting age in Malaysia has always been so high at 21, rather than being lower. I hold strongly to the belief that when there is an election happening, the people are actually voting for the future of the country, so who better to vote if not the younger generation?

It’s going to be their future anyway, since they are the ones who will be around as the years go by. So they have more vested interest in voting, especially for change. For older folks who aren’t going to be around as long as the younger ones, they would be more concerned about the now rather than the future, no? So that would probably affect their voting decision.

Okay, jokes aside, I don’t want to be ageist and I do believe that everyone has a right to vote and that each vote is equal no matter what age you are – that is, of course, if you are of mature character. And who is to say that those under 21 are not mature?

The time is ripe for the Malaysian government to now lower the age of voting to 18. In fact, we could go even lower. For example, Indonesia’s voting age is 17, and even then, anyone below that age who has an identity card (Kartu Tanda Penduduk) can vote. And we all know how vibrant a democracy Indonesia is. But it’s okay. We’ll take 18 for now.

And true to its promise, the government has tabled the amendment to Article 119(1) of the Constitution to lower the voting age to 18 in Parliament this week. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be passed because it still needs to be voted in by two-thirds of Parliament, but the opposition has given the green light provided that the government implements automatic voter registration (AVR).

Now, back to my question of who is to say that those under 21 are not mature enough to vote. I ask this because there are many people I have met who say that young Malaysians are not mature enough to vote and that they are too apathetic when it comes to the country’s politics. Well, I both agree and also disagree with this.

It is true that there are many young Malaysians below 21 who are apathetic. I would know because I also spend a lot of my time lecturing undergraduate students in universities and, let me tell you, sometimes, they can be blatantly ignorant when it comes to the governance of their own country.

But, the fact that this amendment was in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto during last year’s general election, the fact that many people (especially the youth) were campaigning and pushing for it, and the fact that we have the youngest cabinet minister aggressively pushing for it to be tabled in Parliament shows that the seed is there to be nurtured.

Fellow Malaysiakini columnist Azly Rahman wrote recently that when a group of three million young people get the power to vote, it becomes a huge risk whereby it could be a dangerous weapon that could be manipulated by the wrong people for the wrong causes. I agree. But I do not agree that just because of that, we should not lower the voting age.

To be fair, Azly states that we need to provide the proper awareness and education to the youth before we give them the power to vote. He says that we need to teach them why we vote and the significance of it.

I can see the reasoning for his argument and where he is coming from. But I have to respectfully disagree, partly.

For most of us Malaysians, we grew up in the same general environment in this country. It hasn’t really changed much. We were never educated about voting and democracy and there was never any form of civics and ethics class in our education system. Yet, as soon as we reached the age of 21, we could vote.

So there shouldn’t be any difference between someone who is above 21 and someone who is above 18. It would be terribly unfair to deny an 18-year-old Malaysian the chance to vote just because we think that he or she is not educated enough or aware enough to do so.

How certain are you that a 21-year-old (or even a 50-year-old) has enough of an education to vote? Or maybe the right question would be – how would you evaluate someone’s educational level in order to determine if he or she can vote?

As far as I understand it, if you are a citizen of a country of a particular age (in this case, the proposal for it to be 18 years old), you get the right to vote. You can come from any layer or level of society and you would still have the right to vote. Setting an educational qualification to it sounds a little it discriminatory and elitist.

With that being said, I do agree that education and awareness is still very important. Sure, we can re-incorporate lessons on civics and ethics in schools. We definitely need to create and nurture an environment where healthy and mature political discourse and debate happens.

To do this, the first step is to lower the voting age to 18. Let me stress that this is the first step because the people need to be given their rights first. Then we need to follow up with giving the people the right choices, or better yet, making them realise that they actually have choices.

Things are moving in the right direction. The amendment to the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 which allows university students to be politically active has already been implemented. Other amendments to the Education Act 1996 are also being worked on now. The media is pretty free these days (more or less until we actually make the amendments to the laws).

It may be slow, and it may not be perfect, but at least it’s happening.

Just remember that the first step is to give that right to vote. Once the youth know that they have that right, I trust that they will make the right choices. Do not underestimate them. Undi 18 – that is the tipping point for youth empowerment.

[This article was originally written for and published at Malaysiakini.com]

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