For young Malaysians, electing a 92-year-old was no easy call

Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad claims to be a changed man and says he plans to step aside within two years.
Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad claims to be a changed man and says he plans to step aside within two years.PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Like many young Malaysians, Mr Daniel Mizan Qayyum yearned for change in a country that has been under one party's corrosive thumb for six decades, so he naturally had misgivings about voting for a 92-year-old former autocrat.

But Malaysia's rambunctious politics often creates unlikely allies, and Mr Daniel is one of millions who catapulted the elderly Dr Mahathir Mohamad to a shock victory in the May 9 elections over the corruption-plagued political machine that he once led.

 

They had no choice.

"We were revolted," Mr Daniel, a 27-year-old law student, said of Dr Mahathir's late conversion into a reformist.

"This guy was the one who strong-armed all the draconian laws," he said, referring to Dr Mahathir's tough stance towards dissent in his 1981-2003 tenure.

But Mr Daniel and other young voters held their noses and voted, convinced that anything was better than the long-ruling former regime.

The untested Pakatan Harapan coalition now faces the challenge of delivering on rising expectations for a new era, even while conservative attitudes and vested interests remain strong in the Muslim-majority country.

 
 
 
 

And above it all looms Dr Mahathir and his track record of crushing opponents. He now claims to be a changed man and says he plans to step aside within two years.

"For any new government it is very important to manage expectations. You must be seen to be starting the processes of reform and doing things like reducing cost burdens," said political analyst Wong Chin Huat with the Penang Institute.

"I think enough can be done to keep young voters happy, but expecting wholesale changes in the next two years is unrealistic."

Many young Malaysians are merely enjoying the honeymoon period following former prime minister Najib Razak's fall.

His Barisan Nasional (BN) government had become increasingly corrupt and repressive, stifling expression and stoking racial divisions for political gain.

It dismayed a younger generation raised on free-wheeling social media and deeply concerned about job prospects and the country's direction.

More than six million of Malaysia's 14.9 million registered voters are between 21 and 39 years old.

Detailed figures on how they voted have not been released, but analysts believe the demographic was decisive in ousting BN.

For some, their demands are clear.

Mr Daniel, a student leader at Universiti Malaya, is one of many calling for Dr Mahathir's government to quickly fulfil a pledge to replace a decades-old law restricting political activity on campuses which has stifled a generation of students.

"The real struggle is to make sure that any new law erected by the current government limits their own powers in universities," he said.

Ms Anis Syafiqah, who works for a leading civil-society group that has led past student protests demanding Mr Najib's arrest, also wants education revitalised and academic freedom ensured.

"Youths and students were afraid to speak out before," said Ms Anis, 26. "We want to come back to academic freedom. It may take a long time."

Others may also seek greater space or attention, from the LGBT community to Chinese and Indian minorities that have spent decades under Malay political domination, to economically disadvantaged groups.

Travel consultant Tan Jin Jie, 24, said he almost did not vote because of Dr Mahathir, and believes Malaysians should temper their expectations for now.

"How practical would it be, or how long would it take, for the new government to set Malaysia back onto the right path?" he said. "These are uncertainties but we hold onto hope that this will come to pass."

Mr Tan added: "It goes back to what we Malaysians actually want. To continue struggling under the incumbent regime or vote for hope."

He said he wants to see steps to ease living and housing costs.

Much depends on whether Dr Mahathir will be able to work with Mr Anwar Ibrahim.

Mr Anwar was Dr Mahathir's deputy prime minister until a spectacular falling out saw the premier oust and jail his protege in 1998.

Later, Mr Anwar united the opposition against BN, until Mr Najib's government jailed him in 2015.

But Dr Mahathir engineered Mr Anwar's release last week and has indicated he will eventually give way to him, a pledge that no doubt enticed many young voters to back Dr Mahathir in the polls.

But Mr Anwar himself is now 70, and admitted after his release that he will need to learn how to use a smartphone.

So young Malaysians should not just sit and wait for change, said Mr Fahmi Reza, a graphic artist and activist.

With his signature shoulder-length hair and black beret, Mr Fahmi became a public hero with his viral images depicting Mr Najib as a sinister clown, which earned him a criminal conviction for violating multimedia laws.

"Don't wait for change. You be the change," he said. "Whatever change you want...do it now."