2 years after 8 March 2008: Young voters to call the shots

Voting trends in 2008 and subsequent political events taught young voters a lot about political decisions and manoeuvres. They now know the value of their votes and will be more calculating when giving them away on polling day.


Politics and governance in Malaysia have clearly taken on new dimensions since the watershed date of March 8, 2008 – the day the Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1969. In fact, that is almost an understatement. Consider the proliferation of segments – foreign graduates, the alumni of local public universities, the elites, young families and pensioners among others. Do they all view things the same way?

NEW SUNDAY TIMES looks at all these issues and more. This exercise, marking the second anniversary of the rather distinct general election of March 8, is designed to chronicle the events after the political tsunami, and prepare a political brief as the nation, now probably at the halfway mark of the current five-year parliamentary term, moves forward.

MALAYSIAN politics was rarely as vibrant before 2008, as most of the country chased after prosperity and the number of thinking voters grew.

There are many valuable lessons after the country’s political landscape changed dramatically in the last general election. The learning process continues two years on, and will keep moving until voters go to the national polls again, the latest by 2013.

Voting trends in 2008 and subsequent political events taught young voters a lot about political decisions and manoeuvres. They now know the value of their votes and will be more calculating when giving them away on polling day.

The little cross they put on the ballot paper is precious; it can change the government.

They know that they can vote for any candidate they want without having to join a political party — an option young people are more keen on because they don’t want to be governed by party regulations, disciplinary actions included, when the opinions they voice are against the party’s stand.

For those who are politically affiliated, nothing is stopping them from voting for candidates from other parties because of their own party’s actions or inaction.

The last general election that saw support for the ruling Barisan Nasional drop to 49 per cent of the popular vote in the peninsula and the loss of five states to the opposition, has caused a paradigm shift with lasting impact on the future of Malaysian politics.

As politics continues to dominate headlines, political awareness also increased among the 11 million registered voters. The bulk of voters in the next general election will be young people.

Political parties cannot dictate to voters any more. Trying to shape their opinions through selective information will be deemed as insulting to their intelligence. Voters now have many sources of information to confirm what they hear and read in the mainstream media and they will make their own decisions.

The current political climate, said Associate Professor Dr Mohammed Agus Yusoff of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, has not changed much since the campaigning for the 2008 general election.

“Election fever is still alive with issues cropping up one after another, creating political awareness but not necessarily political maturity among the people,” he said.

To Agus, it is still the politics of issues and of tagging — politicians giving each other labels — that dominate the country.

Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre, said: “We find more people, especially the young, articulating through discussions issues that have a political impact via the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.

“The government has to also respond through the same medium.”

Even when the Internet was new in 1999 and use of the Short Messaging System still low, alternative news spread quickly to influence the opinions of voters.

“Just imagine what it will be like in 2013. So, both the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat have to capitalise on the new information channels,” Agus said.

While it is hard to interpret political developments with both sides of the divide trying to stake a claim to the future, the war between the governing and opposition parties will nevertheless see the general public caught in the crossfire.

With the ground continuing to remain fluid and popular support returning slowly but unsteadily to the BN, the two political blocs will continue to try to outdo each other, competing for the favour of the electorate. Promised reforms, from both sides, will be monitored with interest.

Pakatan Rakyat has a lot of convincing still to do on the strength of the alliance of disparate parties, its future plans and strategies for sustaining the faith of fence-sitters and its support base.

It is losing its lustre as an alternative to BN and is in worse shape than when the promise of a “new dawn” for Malaysia won it bags of votes in the 2008 general election and subsequent by-elections.

Pakatan Rakyat now finds its hands full fighting a growing perception of ineffective leadership, discord and graft while opinion polls suggest that the BN under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has rebuilt support for Umno, while other BN co-founders, MCA and MIC, which represent substantial numbers of Chinese and Indian voters, implement measures to improve their positions.