While changes to Malaysia’s voting age were approved by parliament, the effective start date has not been gazetted. Photo: AP
by Bhavan Jaipragas
by Bhavan Jaipragas

In Malaysia, it’s election fever again – but still no vote for anyone under 21

  • Sabah state is going to the polls in the country’s latest instalment of political drama, but an amendment to lower the voting age to 18 has yet to be effected
  • As nations from Japan to Canada have shown, there are no losers from having more young voters – and there is only stability for Putrajaya to gain

“It’s election time” seems to be an evergreen statement in Malaysia these days.

As I sat down to write this column about youth voting in Asia, my colleague in Kuala Lumpur messaged the Slack group in which we discuss all things Malaysia and Singapore: “Sabah state elections in 60 days.” Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, it seemed, had decided enough was enough.

After weeks of speculation about katak (frogs – or, in the Malaysian context, defection-prone politicians) who were planning to lompat (jump, or in this instance, cross aisles) due to financial inducements, Shafie obtained permission from the state governor to call an election that must be held in 60 days.

The poll in the eastern Malaysian state is the second watershed political moment of the year.

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In March, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin came to power after instigating a party-room coup within the then ruling government. Talk is that he too has his eyes on a snap general election – perhaps by the end of the year – to shore up his razor-thin majority in the national legislature.

Based on young Malaysians’ views online, there seems to be a strong hankering for an end to the roller-coaster ride that the powerful have put the country through with these moves.

The common refrain is that people can effect change through the ballot box.

Unfortunately, not every young, politically cognisant Malaysian citizen will be able to do this when either of these elections come around.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin came to power in March after instigating a party-room coup. Photo: Bernama

Last year, the then ruling government passed a landmark constitutional amendment lowering the minimum voting age to 18 from the current 21 – first set when the country gained independence in 1957.

Alas, while the changes were approved by parliament, the effective start date has not been gazetted, meaning for now the status quo remains.

It is anybody’s guess why the Muhyiddin administration seems to have done little to move the process forward. Might it be that the incumbents worry which way new, younger voters will vote? The experience in the West – and Japan, which lowered its voting age to 18 from 20 starting in 2016 – suggests such worries are unnecessary.

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The benefits, going by the experiences of these countries, are not insignificant.

The presence of more young voters – who at 18 by and large are likely to have developed views about how they want society to be ordered – is an important signal to this segment of population that they have “skin in the game” and should stand not on the sidelines.

In the West, there was anxiety about lowering the voting age in the 1960s and 1970s, when the first major move to bring it down from the traditional threshold of 21 was taken. Britain became the first major democratic nation to lower the voting age to 18 in 1969.

The United States, Canada, West Germany and France followed suit in rapid succession over the next five years. In the US, the argument that pushed through the change was simple and age old: men as young as 18 were being drafted, so why weren’t they allowed to vote?


Malaysia’s former PM sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined US$49 million

Malaysia’s former PM sentenced to 12 years in jail and fined US$49 million

In contemporary Malaysia, the arguments put forth by the proposers of last year’s constitutional amendments were equally straightforward: expanding the polity in favour of younger people would add vitality to politics and bring the country – belatedly – into the large league of countries that had reduced the voting age to 18.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are all members of this group, while Singapore is one holdout among the democracies in the neighbourhood, with a voting age of 21.

Young Singaporeans are believed to have voted in larger than usual numbers for the opposition instead of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the July 10 election, dealing the ruling party a worse-than-expected result.

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The PAP has signalled no intent to change the voting age, though it seems to be something that young voters favour.

Some opposition parties gave voice to these hopes by adding the issue to their manifestos.

My hope is that in Malaysia, Muhyiddin – or whoever comes after him – moves quickly to operationalise last year’s constitutional amendments. None of the country’s major political players seem to believe, publicly at least, that they will lose out from having more younger voters – and parliament’s bipartisan backing of the changes last year is testament to that stance.

In the long term, having more younger voters who have less patience for katak among their elected representatives will herald more stable politics.