Project Youth: Departing from Malaysia’s status quo

IT has been a bumpy 2020 thus far. Amid an increasingly chaotic international system, the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic and sudden change in government, we now have former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman recently announcing his intention to form a youth-centred political platform.

He described the initiative as an attempt to alter the existing political setting of feudal mindsets and corrupted patronage. Dismantling bad practices originating from such rooted structures as well as ending established monopolies on power are top priorities. The idea has generated public interest, with various personalities weighing in on this proposal.

Many, especially veteran politicians, have disapproved of the move and downplayed its significance, including his former mentor, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but concurrently, it gained open-minded support from opponents such as Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who viewed it as a catalyst to rejuvenate the political scene with more youth representation and candidates across the board. 

This “manifesto in progress” intends resetting Malaysia’s political affairs in the aftermath of the “Sheraton Move” that confused the rakyat. The proposed youth party wants to be an alternative to help make sense of ongoing events, although will find itself encountering many sceptical Malaysians unwilling to risk striving for change once again.

The challenging task ahead for bold youths such as Syed Saddiq and his team is to translate interest in politics from mere coffee-shop opinions and online forum discussions into a proper voting bloc, especially the sizeable young urban migrators returning to home towns to vote. They must amplify their appeal to a nationwide audience motivated towards making more political changes. 

Dealing with grassroots

Some credit must be attributed to the older generation of statesmen and leaders for laying foundations that encourage such shifts in mentality. Youths today are more aware, vocal and not easily impressed, thanks to higher levels of education, sufficient domestic stability and infrastructure developed by those elder figures during their era of governance.

Perhaps an immediate obstacle for this youth party is to obtain a solid consensus across the numerous youth entities and student groups. It will not be easy managing critical viewpoints and diverse beliefs. However, the prospect of working together with a wide pool of talented persons is worth having quarrels early on rather than have them fester later.

Next would be the challenge of resources. Any new party will initially struggle with its electoral viability, even more so to penetrate semi-urban constituencies and rural seats that are mostly conservative, Malay-Bumiputera-majority areas. Here, plenty of electoral experts and seasoned operators are needed to counter other heavily experienced and well-funded party machineries.

Another test revolves around its objectives. How does a youth party justify its existence in an already crowded chessboard? How does it strategise to establish its brand into the mainstream distinctively from other youth wings in other parties? How to convince potential recruits and disillusioned voters to consider their ideas and policies? Can it withstand criticism?

Equally, it faces a personality baggage issue. Syed Saddiq’s track record in campus advocacy is unconvincing, apart from debating; his performance as minister and first-term MP was too brief to be appraised and having a perceived elitist background and select inner circles hesitates his peers from endorsing him. Likewise, the creation of the Youth Power Club when he was minister caused hostilities with other influential youth associations.
A youth party might also run into difficulties of getting full-time commitments from its supporter base as youngsters attempt to balance between stabilising their livelihoods, academic duties and party field work. If the party somehow makes it into power, adapting policymaking skills quickly is vital to deal with office politics, from senior officials and the bureaucracy of civil servants, throughout different agencies. Can public administrators genuinely cooperate with youngsters as their superiors?

Better innovation

Robust investments, patience and wisdom from key stakeholders are needed to produce a youth roadmap that ensures its relevance to survive and inclusively expand its reach. The youth party must tackle growing unemployment due to automation and the global recession, as well as misinformation in social media. Huge anticipation awaits on what solution it offers to stop economic uncertainties, heal a fractured national identity, detoxify political culture and ease societal anxieties.

Initially, this party must win over first-time voters because of the constitutional amendment lowering the age for eligible voters from 21 to 18 that was passed in Parliament last year. Building momentum from Parlimen Digital’s popularity and reiterating its position on futuristic policies are cool and clever ways to revive a sense of optimism among the rakyat.

Such exciting vibes are important to gather all segments of youth onto a united direction and speak to each other constructively. However, it cannot allow itself to be manipulated as “tokenism” or “window dressing”. Thus, financial independence is crucial to not only serve enriching special interests but to seriously boost the socio-economic capacities of the next generation.

Besides that, the youth party ought to construct its framework to shrewdly take small victories, such as engaging young scholars overseas and resolving the long-standing postal vote dilemma. It should also look at emulating the pioneer work done by Rafizi Ramli at Invoke, which was tech-savvy and research driven, to establish a strong party volunteering system.

In addition, have in-house training programmes that provide political literacy and campaign strategies, like the “Sekolah Politik” model. It should learn to groom its own batch of young politicians with diplomacy and integrity instead of converting wearied civil society activists or famous artists into “shortcut” political players, as how other parties typically do.

Thinking ahead, the party must be sensible enough to negotiate seats with a stronger coalition. Do not be too naive to split the votes as a “spoiler”, nor be too fanatical to consider being a “kingmaker” as a third force. It’s a long-term goal to work with the realities yet reflect a new spirit of politics that seeks collaboration over competition. A democratic reconciliation across partisanship via linkages between youth wings can spearhead efforts at enhancing our institutions.

Drastic shifts yearned

Citing Indonesia, Thailand and France’s experimentation with youth parties, plus taking inspiration from competent young premiers in Finland and New Zealand, can be alluring arguments although tricky to contextualise. This youth party must not be emotionally hyped by trends and instead overcome the fundamental equation unique to Malaysia, which is the ethno-religious factor. 

Traditional-styled politics of cash bribery, racist taunts, egoistic feuds, scandalous rumours and idiotic stunts will gradually die out once the demand for it ends and is replaced with more pertinent topics to be frankly discussed, like women’s rights and roles, climate change, mental health, aging population, vulnerable communities, etc. That requires crafting a conducive narrative that is sincerely cosmopolitan.

For decades, Malaysia has suffered from the problem of lacking a succession plan because of entrenched discrimination and the ruthless nature of party politics. Only when identity politics fades away from the system can a healthier concept of youth step in to provide better choices of quality leadership. A firm youth-centric agenda needs be exemplified to minus the zero-sum attitude and add win-win engagements that uplifts the whole democratic process.

The 14th general election proved that youth should never be underestimated at the ballot, and indications are that Malaysians in general can eventually move on from iconic figures to embrace a multicultural collective. Millennials consisting of Gen Y want to be heard and represented by their own equals who grasp layered nuances and the present zeitgeist. They reject being “handled” and patronised by Gen X or Baby Boomer politicians, as shown with the Veveonah Mosibin bullying incident by deputy ministers.

Notwithstanding, the arriving youth party must consciously refrain from evolving into an extremist faction or incline towards populist tactics, as seen with emerging movements abroad. Youths are at a crossroads to prove themselves worthy of meaningful values that set them apart in earnestly wanting to repair democracy, promote good governance and build a more positive political culture.

Nothing changes unless divisive lines are resolved. It will be our time once we come to terms with that. – September 17, 2020.

* Halmie Azrie is a research executive at the Democracy & Governance Unit, IDEAS. An occasional writer, some of his essays on Malaysian politics and foreign affairs are available online. Halmie is reachable via his social media accounts.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.


  • The eunuchs and jesters in DAP and Amanah should seriously consider co-operating with Muda INSTEAD of Pejuang.

    NO MORE the return of the ultra-racist and religious bigot Emperor!!!!

    Posted 1 year ago by Malaysian First · Reply

    • Hold your horses, I might be pessimist, but just a year ago didn't Syed host a dinner with Zakir Naik - the person who gave statement that hurt some of the Malaysian citizens?

      By all means, it's a good idea, it's a good move.

      We need to see more on the execution part - else a debate champion will only remain as a debate champion.

      Posted 1 year ago by Tavern Folks · Reply