ANALYSIS: Up to Khairy to tap the power of youth

The right approach and methodology to engage youth who are non-partisan, fence-sitters and Umno runaways will be crucial, as most of the 4.9 million young voters in the last general election shifted towards the opposition.

By Zubaidah Abu Bakar, New Straits Times

UMNO and the Barisan Nasional party it leads face the stark reality that the party no longer commands the support of the under-40s. Umno wants to rectify this situation fast.

Hoping to woo young voters back into its fold, that task has fallen to the new Umno Youth chief, Khairy Jamaluddin, who is focusing full time on the unenviable job assigned him by party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Khairy, despite his past mistakes, might just be young and intelligent enough to create the pull factors that will appeal to the young Malays who have turned their backs on Umno, as well as the youth of other communities.

Many doubt the 33-year-old Oxford-educated Khairy's ability to transform the youth movement, from being almost impervious to change, into one with which young voters can identify.

Khairy got the ball rolling with a "touching base with the grassroots" programme in Rawang recently, attracting some 500 Selayang Umno Youth members despite a heavy downpour.

His announcement at that event on establishing a special youth affairs committee, especially in the Klang Valley, to focus on the economy, crime, housing and small entrepreneurs, among others, has been seen as an extension of his Setiakawan (unity and friendship) concept to steer the movement towards being inclusive of all Malaysian youth — especially the critical lot outside the movement.

It's gratifying that Umno Youth has admitted the self-indulgence of its programmes in the past, conducting them only for those who were hard-core Umno and BN supporters.

"We should get out of our comfort zone and meet these people who have never been with us all this while," Khairy was quoted as saying by national news agency Bernama.

Umno Youth is beginning to adopt a new political culture that may be acceptable to all Malaysians. The Setiakawan concept, if fully translated into action, should be successful, especially in the present political climate where the clamour for race-based parties to change into platforms for all Malaysians has become all but irresistible.

The right approach and methodology to engage youth who are non-partisan, fence-sitters and Umno runaways will be crucial, as most of the 4.9 million young voters in the last general election shifted towards the opposition.

At the general election in March last year and subsequent by-elections, many young voters supported Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Pas and DAP candidates; all three, to their credit, are ahead of BN in warming to young voters. BN badly needs to secure the votes of youth, therefore, whose numbers are expected to reach six million by the next general election.

Projections are that two million more young Malaysians will reach 21 by 2013, the eligible age to vote, based on the country's present birth rate, with 450,000 to 500,000 new Malaysians born annually.

The power of the young will be further reinforced by four million eligible voters, many under 30, who did not register in time for the 2008 elections.

If all two million youngsters register, the voter population in the country will be 16.9 million, including the 10.9 million currently registered.

A lot of work has to be done to engage and understand the concerns of this generation of voters, whose opinions are shaped more by the Internet than any other media.

Umno and BN lost out to the opposition in the cyberwar on March 8, as information on the Internet, rightly or wrongly, set in young voters' minds that everything in the licensed media is a lie and everything on the Internet is the truth.

As it was also younger voters who caused Pas' defeats in 2004, when it lost Terengganu and almost lost Kelantan, there is still a ray of hope for BN to regain support from this group.

But if BN still thinks elections can still be won by massive propaganda through the mainstream media, it is completely ignorant of reality.

BN propaganda backfired in elections post-2008, in all of which the BN machinery had no answer to the opposition's vote-winning art of campaigning by questioning the Umno-led coalition's dearth of competent strategists.

Just recently, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has acknowledged that BN's campaign methodology was among the main causes of the defeats in the Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau by-elections. He said the first Umno supreme council meeting he chairs would deliberate on new methodologies for the next by-election, for the Penanti state seat.

It was noted that the fiery speeches of Umno general assemblies hardly translate into effective, hard work on the ground during elections. Umno members appear deflated by the electoral setbacks of the past year, raising concerns on the need for more frequent "Outward Bound"-type programmes to be conducted at Kem Bina Semangat. (These had long been replaced by courses at five-star hotels.) Umno Youth in the 1980s placed importance on such training, which possibly made for more resilient party members.

Youngsters tend to favour the opposition because they have more liberal views of democracy, with less preference for race-based politics, which explains the increasing appeal of multiracial Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

Engaging Malay organisations is a must in getting closer to young people, especially non-partisan professionals.

If Umno Youth practises what Khairy preaches, particularly on empathy and inclusivity, the future could still be bright.