ST Global Outlook Forum: Malaysia's Khairy says ensuring voter loyalty from millennials is big challenge for politicians

Former Malaysian Cabinet minister Khairy Jamaluddin said that in the past, voters would reliably stick with a political party that gave them a stable economy and good jobs. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Corralling the votes of millennials will be a challenge for political parties as young people tend to have little loyalty for a single party, and they could switch support at the last minute, said former Malaysian Cabinet minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

These were seen in election results in Malaysia in May and the recent Taiwan municipal polls, he told The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Wednesday (Nov 28).

"Young people are not as sticky with party loyalties. They look at certain key markers such as jobs, cost of living," Mr Khairy said in a special address at the annual forum.

"Young voters really swung in Malaysia" in the May general election, he said. This led to the defeat of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that has ruled the country for 61 years.

Millennials refer to those born between 1981 and 1996, who are now in their early 20s to mid-30s.

Mr Khairy said he met Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing for breakfast on Wednesday, and they discussed millennial voters.

"I told him I cannot advise him on that," Mr Khairy said to laughter from the audience. "We were trying to figure out what do they want? And that is something that governments need to understand."

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Approval ratings for the Malaysian government have dropped, six months after the opposition took power in a historic win. Meanwhile, tensions are high ahead of Indonesia's upcoming polls, say panelists at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum.

He said that in the past, voters would reliably stick with a political party that gave them a stable economy and good jobs.

The 42-year-old politician, who is now an opposition MP, also said that politicians should not rely too much on data collected by opinion pollsters to predict voter behaviour.

These, he said, had proven to be wrong in the Malaysian polls in May, in the 2016 electoral win by US President Donald Trump, and in Brexit, the British vote to exit the European Union.

Mr Khairy said that just days before the May 9 polling in Malaysia, he asked then-Prime Minister Najib Razak how BN was doing. He said he was told by Najib that "We look good for 140", out the 222 Parliament seats - meaning BN would be safely returned to power.

"We ended up with less than 70 seats, that's how catastrophically wrong we got it".

He said this sudden loss of voter support could happen in other parts of South-east Asia, citing upcoming general elections in Singapore and Indonesia.

"Politicians need to recover and need to bring back what we used to call political instincts and political nous. A lot of politicians these days tend to rely too much on data, on surveys and polls," he said.

Mr Khairy said political parties must also realise that social media trends are today as important as political rallies were in the past, as many millennials might not attend these outdoor events anymore.

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