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Clara Ferreira Marques

Will Malaysia’s Young Voters Use Their Power?

The Southeast Asian nation has lowered the voting age to 18, expanding an already youthful electorate. That won’t necessarily mean radical change in an election due within weeks.

Bright young things.

Bright young things.

Photographer: Ian Teh/Bloomberg

Some six million newly enfranchised voters, either young or previously unregistered, could determine the outcome of Malaysia’s first general election since the political earthquake of 2018. Yet apathy, wildly uneven constituencies and a striking conservatism among youth mean this isn’t the prelude to the lasting change that it could be. That’s not good news for a country economically scarred by the pandemic and sorely in need of inclusive growth, not old-style patronage.

The dramatic ousting of the United Malays National Organisation-led coalition, Barisan Nasional, four years ago was supposed to draw the line under identity politics and end the Malay nationalist party’s monopoly after six decades. Hopes ran high. But democratization hasn’t played out as expected. Voters have seen two government collapses, three prime ministers and a splintered opposition. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak is in jail on corruption charges, but UMNO is back in the ruling bloc and confident enough to call an election in the risky monsoon season.