Lowering voting age to 18 will ensure democratic vibrancy

Aside from Malaysia’s usual political drama and gutter politics, the talk of the town has been about the constitutional amendment to lower the minimum voting age to 18.

Mooted by Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the amendment spurred a nationwide debate on whether those under 21, which has been the minimum voting age since Merdeka, should be allowed to vote.

At least 160 countries around the world already allow 18-year olds to vote. However, in such a young democracy as ours – is this the right thing to do?

Possible higher voter turnout

Lowering the minimum age for voting means those between 18 and 20 years old who were never part of the electorate will now be allowed to participate in the voting process. This immediately translates to a significant increase in the voter pool, which could lead to a greater voter turnout.

However, an interesting point to take into account are family ties. Youths, especially those who have moved to cities for a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, have a very strong impact on their parents and relatives back home. More senior parents and relatives who are usually not inclined to come out to vote, may feel more at ease knowing their children will now be able to accompany them and take part in the democratic process.

Greater democracy

Malaysia’s elections, as we all know, are very heated. Issues such as education and jobs usually take centre-stage yet those who are directly affected by these, the 18 to 21-year olds, have never been involved in the voting process.

This amendment will allow them to voice out on causes that concern them, such as the public education policy, youth unemployment, and cost of living, rather than being subjected to policy decisions that are decided upon by a more senior voting pool.

By allowing 18-year olds and above to vote, fresh ideas and perspectives will flow into the electorate, allowing for a more vibrant campaign during elections. This is evident through the dynamic engagement sessions on “Undi 18” done through Akademi #HarimauAsia, the initiative under the youth and sports ministry which had gathered young minds to discuss and deliberate on whether the constitutional amendment will truly chart a new future for the nation.

It is sometimes assumed that teenagers are not exactly interested in policy affairs of the nation at such an age, as they are more attracted to issues pertaining to their studies and future career paths. Be that as it may, allowing them to develop voting habits will inculcate a sense of awareness, and help youths better understand the impact of real-time policy issues and political affairs of the government.

Voting choices may be exploited

An important point to note however is that youths may be vulnerable to making voting decisions purely based on what their parents or peers choose, especially with the widespread use of social media to influence the decision-making process in an election.

As highlighted by former defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein in his meeting with Syed Saddiq, the use of social media to spread fake news and influence the hearts and minds of the young must be taken into account when lowering the minimum age. The politics of hate and divide can be grossly exaggerated with the use of social media. So too the rapid spread of information which may provide youths with a distorted perspective on the realities of the situation.

No vote is wrong

As we move towards greater democracy in Malaysia, it is crucial to not deny people to vote simply because we think they may vote “badly”. The right to vote is not given due to maturity or knowledge. It is time that youths are empowered to make their decisions at the polls. These citizens are old enough to drive, serve in the armed forces, pay taxes and get married – they should also have a voice in their government.

An estimated 3.5 million newly eligible voters are expected to join the electorate, pushing Malaysia to be a more democratic and progressive nation. Let’s all prove to our politicians who pride themselves on saying “the youths are the future of the nation” that this is not mere rhetoric and simply the hard truth.

Sufiyan Abas is the president of the Organisation for National Empowerment (ONE) and supports the #Undi18 Movement.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.