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Mind the gap: The problem Mahathir faces with young voters

On the opening night of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, former premier Mahathir Mohamad posted a selfie with his wife Siti Hasmah Ali on Twitter, with the caption: "Looking for inspiration to fight Dark Forces."

It seems to have worked. Since that tweet in mid-December, Tun Dr Mahathir has steadily churned out a stream of messages featuring youthful lingo ("Siti rocking the violin"), light humour and his signature sarcasm, getting up to 40,000 shares per post.

Making Dr Mahathir cool again has been an ongoing effort in recent months by the opposition as Malaysia heads into a general election, expected to be called early this year.

On Sunday, the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) declared he would be its prime ministerial candidate in the big battle to come.

But how does a man who turns 93 this year persuade young Malaysians to cast a vote for him and his teammates, no matter how at ease he is with social media?

In a move that clearly reflected the opposition's concern about the generation gap, Dr Mahathir found himself sharing the stage at a library just outside Kuala Lumpur last November with fellow grizzled political stalwart Lim Kit Siang.

"Tun (Mahathir) and I belong to the 5 per cent, facing the 95 per cent who are the future of the country," said Mr Lim at the WhatSayYouth town hall organised by his Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after he was elected as the opposition's prime ministerial candidate during the Pakatan Harapan convention outside Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. Making him cool again has been an ongoing effort by the opposition as Malaysia heads in
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after he was elected as the opposition's prime ministerial candidate during the Pakatan Harapan convention outside Kuala Lumpur on Sunday. Making him cool again has been an ongoing effort by the opposition as Malaysia heads into a general election, expected to be called this year. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mr Lim, who went under the knife last month to remove a kidney tumour, turns 77 next month. The audience of some 200 people in that dialogue were under 35.

The significance of such efforts cannot be overstated, amid reports showing growing political disenchantment among young Malaysians.

A survey by top pollster Merdeka Centre last August found that seven out of 10 voters below the age of 30 in Peninsular Malaysia do not care about politics; two-thirds believe politicians were not just untrustworthy, but also the "main problem in Malaysia". Four in 10 were not registered to vote.

The Election Commission's data backs up this finding, with two-thirds of unregistered voters being in their 20s. As of June, 3.8 million eligible Malaysians have yet to sign up, more than a quarter of the 14.6 million who have enrolled.

This is in stark contrast to the exuberance of the 2008-2013 period. The electoral roll had increased by 2.35 million voters to 13.3 million between the national polls. New sign-ups are usually those who recently reached the voting age of 21. A 1.3 million increase since the 2013 ballot is paltry. Given the current mood of political apathy and fatigue, it is unlikely that the next general election will see the 85 per cent turnout of the preceding one.

Such a situation has huge ramifications for the opposition, which is hoping that the third time's the charm, after making gains in voter support against the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government in two general elections in the past decade. But those results were possible because of a significant youth swing for the opposition.

The Merdeka Centre survey also found that political apathy was higher among youth from the Malay majority, compared with other ethnic groups. This is significant as Malays are the ethnic group that the PH pact needs to swing the most. They are the majority in more than half of the 222 parliamentary districts and form the backbone of BN's grip on power.

Data analytics firm Politweet found that in 2013, there was a Malay swing towards the opposition up to age 36, while those older shifted towards BN.

In its August poll, Merdeka Centre also found that less than a quarter of youth in general were satisfied with the government.

But given that just about as many are excited about politics, the youth wave at this year's polls may be more of a sprinkle than a tsunami.

But such a tidal surge for the opposition is what is needed for it to do well, as the polling house also expects that even with a reduced share of the vote, BN can win more seats this time round, thanks to skewed electoral maps and the presence of Parti Islam SeMalaysia to split the anti-establishment vote.

Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian suggests that one reason for youth disenchantment is that young people are often overlooked in debates about the country's future.

"The political culture doesn't encourage questioning of critical policies and issues and in many ways disempowers our people, especially our young," he said.

Dr Mahathir and Mr Lim's willingness to be quizzed for two hours by a respectful but nonetheless probing audience young enough to be their great-grandchildren may go some way to better connect PH with young voters.

But the dominance of these two veteran politicians reveals an unwillingness to break with a past that rankles those of a more reformist slant among Malaysia's millennials.

Some youth activists have begun calling for the opposition to field younger candidates. Elsewhere around the world, 2017 was the year of the 30-something, with Mr Emmanuel Macron winning the French presidency at age 39, while Ireland's and New Zealand's new prime ministers Leo Varadkar and Jacinda Ardern are 38 and 37 respectively.

Mr Lim has criticised Prime Minister Najib Razak, 64, of appointing a Cabinet with an average age of 60, but they are relative spring chickens compared with the opposition's top brass.

While Mr Lim has stepped away from the official leadership of DAP, he is still its parliamentary leader, and garnered the highest votes in the party's internal polls last year.

Sunday's announcement that Dr Mahathir would be premier if PH triumphs at the elections means that the opposition's elders are not just playing a guiding role, but will be active governors. Besides Dr Mahathir and Mr Lim, PH's other key figure is jailed icon Anwar Ibrahim, 70, whom PH will install as prime minister after he is released.

Despite more young leaders rising through PH's ranks as compared with BN, this trio remain its most recognisable faces.

After finding out that Dr Mahathir was PH's candidate for the premiership, recruitment manager Katrina Khairuddin, 30, said: "He's past his time, really. It's not just about going against BN; we need someone who is visionary and innovative, one who has a plan to improve our policies."

Several participants at WhatSayYouth - which DAP has continued as a series of engagements between PH leaders and youth nationwide - do not think a leader's age per se should be the main issue.

But then again, they are among a self-selected crop who signed up to meet two men triple their own age. They did, however, express doubts over whether Dr Mahathir and Mr Lim are concerned about the same issues that worry young people.

Environmental science student Jason Wong, 23, cited British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, 68, as an example of the old representing the voice of the youth.

Malaysian politicians, by contrast, seem fixated on point-scoring. "There's a moralistic discourse around politicians - this person is bad, this person is responsible (for this scandal) - but that's not the crux (of our concerns)," he said.

It is something that PH needs to wrap its head around if it hopes to capitalise on young people's unhappiness with the government.

After the town hall, Dr Mahathir lamented how the young seem to believe that the Najib administration is no different from previous ones. "No one called Malaysia a kleptocracy... No one talked of the abuses of power and the stealing of billions of ringgit by the Prime Minister of the country.

"There was no 1MDB scandal..." he wrote in his blog. But harping on accusations that Mr Najib pocketed over US$700 million (S$934.4 million) from state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad is not a winning strategy, according to the Merdeka Centre poll.

Mr Najib's integrity and 1MDB were considered top issues by just 5 and 6 per cent of respondents respectively. Overall corruption was selected by 34 per cent, second only to inflation (51 per cent). Two-thirds also complained about difficulties in entering the labour market.

Overall, it shows that young Malaysians are more concerned about corruption and other economic issues, and how their own pockets are affected, rather than the personal character of politicians.

Dr Mahathir's assertion that there is nothing wrong with Malaysia's system of governance and that the main problem is Mr Najib will simply not wash.

He and his allies will need to face more uncomfortable questions like those posed at the town hall - on alleged abuses during his 22 years in power, and how his government might change economic, social and education policies first put in place during his leadership, often described by critics as a dictatorship which opened the way for present-day wrongdoings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2018, with the headline 'Mind the gap: The problem Mahathir faces with young voters'. Subscribe