Malaysia’s young people will hold an unprecedented degree of leverage when the nation goes to the polls on November 19 , as millions of new voters have been given the right to cast their ballots following constitutional amendments that lowered the voting age and put in place automatic voter registration. Voters between the ages of 18 and 39 account for about half of the country’s 21 million registered voters, according to Election Commission data, including about 1.39 million first-time voters in the 18-20 age group. But in a political system typically run by people old enough to be their parents – or even grandparents – are they convinced that it would be worth their time to line up and cast their ballots? “We have to admit that we lack political education … now we are asking the young generation aged 18 to start voting, to make important decisions for the country, the most important decision they can make at any given time,” said Adam Adli, youth chief of the opposition People’s Justice Party (PKR). “It’s very important for us to start looking at that. It’s not that we are not confident in the ability of this generation to make such decisions, but basically there is no benchmark or indicator (of their political engagement) as of now.” ‘My last effort’: Malaysia’s Mahathir, 97, on why he’s not done with politics Four years ago, Malaysians made a historic vote to change the government for the first time since the nation gained independence from the British in 1957. The new Pakatan Harapan administration saw the appointment of the country’s youngest minister in Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman , who joined the cabinet at 25. But the government was also led by Mahathir Mohamad , who set a record as the world’s oldest serving prime minister when he assumed his second term as leader. He was 92 at the time. Syed Saddiq aside, youth representation was woefully low in the 222-seat parliament. The median age of members elected in the last election was 55.9 years. We seem to be stuck in an immature democracy still, where all these cheap political stunts are so rampant and honestly I’m fed up Akash, 19-year-old first-time voter That lack of representation is a sore point among the youth, who feel that their concerns and interests have long been ignored by the older political class perpetually busy with politicking and dog-whistling tactics steeped in race and religion to secure their hold on power. “We seem to be stuck in an immature democracy still, where all these cheap political stunts are so rampant and honestly I’m fed up,” said a 19-year-old first-time voter, who asked to only be identified as Akash. “Also, I hate the same race card being played always by the same parties when they can’t counter valid arguments. They must remember that the electorate today is not the same gullible 1960s electorate that relied on state sponsored TV to get information,” he said. “We have the internet and read through your same empty, and frankly, toxic messaging to certain segments of society.” Parts unknown While Akash says he is excited about the prospect of casting his first ever vote, the sentiment may not necessarily be shared by others of his generation. Political analyst Bridget Welsh said the level of political awareness among the Gen Z – those born between 1997 and the 2010s – is spread across a spectrum ranging from the extremely engaged to apathetic. And this has a lot to do with the lack of political or voter education among youths, who may not even be aware that they can vote, she said. “A lot of times, we have young people who are just apolitical. They … haven’t thought through sets of issues, and they are now being socialised in this period of time, politically, especially many of the first-time voters,” Welsh told This Week In Asia. ‘Still angry’: as Malaysians lose faith in politics, will new faces offer hope? The generational divide further feeds into the distaste among young voters for the current brand of politics being bandied about by the contesting parties, who Welsh says are ill-equipped to assess youth voting trends for the simple fact that they are an unknown variable in this election. “In close races, and roughly a third of the seats are really close, the Gen Z are going to be pivotal. Who can capture them to come to the polls and to vote will actually have the advantage,” she said. To Syed Saddiq, it is important for political parties to stop ignoring or patronising young people and start paying attention to their concerns and actively engage them in finding solutions to their problems. New approach Syed Saddiq, now 29 and the head of a new party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance or Muda – the Malay word for young – said the country’s youth is tired of hearing rhetoric about defending race and religion when they can’t even secure jobs with decent wages. “I think young people today are a lot more issue-centred than ideology driven. I can be a Malay, and a proud Malay, however, what concerns me the most is unemployment, quality of education, issues of climate change,” he said. While he admits that oft-employed tactics of political brinkmanship by the ruling class are a turn-off for the young, Syed Saddiq said it should not deter them from speaking out and making sure their votes matter. Malaysia’s Syed Saddiq eyes battle of ideas as Muda seeks youth vote “We can choose to stay away from politics, but politics will always be with us. It affects quality of education, your ability to get a good-paying job, climate change, even your ability to speak freely,” he said. “So knowing that, it’s better for you to have a say in shaping politics than staying away and allowing the older generation to shape it for you, which may be in direct opposition in what you believe in.” But to make a decision, you would have to first know what options are available to you. Shakir Jamaluddin, who will be voting a second time next month, said the message was clear in the last election when Mahathir led the opposition on an anti-corruption campaign to oust then-premier Najib Razak , who has since been jailed for corruption for his involvement in the scandal-tainted fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad ( 1MDB ). “GE14 was about ousting Najib. But so far I’m still baffled as to what are the main issues for this election”, said the 26-year-old, using the acronym for the 14th general election. “I have no idea yet”.