New Wave of Youth in Malaysian Politics

By Rian James

The newly launched UK arm of Friends of Pakatan Rakyat held a forum for young leaders of the Malaysian opposition party here in London today.

The event held at the Holiday Villa Hotel in Bayswater was attended by around 80 Malaysians (including Raja Petra Kamarudin) and paneled by Hannah Yeoh, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) State Assemblyman for Subang, Ginie Lim Siew Lin, PKR Angkatan Muda committee member, and Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, State Assemblyman for Seri Setia, all of whom highlighted their experiences as youth leaders in Malaysian politics today.

Hannah Yeoh, 31, divulged that having only had 2 weeks to run an election campaign after being asked to run for State Assemblyman of Subang, she was shocked by her landslide victory and was quick to form a Service Centre, American town-hall style, following her election in order to keep her ear to the ground, rendering it an initially scary experience but concluding that it was necessary to dialogue with her constituents and tackle key issues faced in the area. Quickly getting to the crux of the matter in her direct way of address, Yeoh brings a refreshing change when compared with mature politicians who practice ‘beating around the bush’ with Olympic precision. She noted that young people aren’t afraid of change and take full advantage of alternative media sources to quench their thirst for objectivity in local politics. Fuelled by a wave of information available online as well as direct or indirect involvement with issues like social injustice against Malaysia’s youth (such as the deaths of Kugan and Teoh Beng Hock), Yeoh has had great support from young volunteers in helping to run her office and Service Centre, as they are eager to become agents of change in Malaysia’s political front. Yeoh highlighted that 500-600 volunteers under the age of 35 had campaigned for and registered over 100,000 new voters in the country. After surviving  3 years in the state government,  Yeoh’s brand of politics involves good governance through accountability, announcing that she could confidently declare her financial assets if anyone was interested and ensured that strict use of funds allotted to her constituency are used for that purpose alone and not for DAP based activity. Yeoh remarked strongly that she hated race-based politics and is in favour of needs-based assistance instead, a notion which rings true with many young Malaysians today, bumiputra or otherwise. She encouraged the youth of Malaysia to involve themselves in politics as the opposition struggles to find good candidates to stand as state level electorates by saying “You don’t have to be smart to be a politician, you just have to have common sense – just do it!”.

Ginie Lim, PKR Angkatan Muda executive committee member and spokeswoman who ran for the state seat in Machap during the general election of 2008, was roped in to become a panelist in today’s event with little notice but proceeded to engage the audience with her experience of involvement in pro opposition politics as a student in Universiti Sains Malaysia. Lim naturally fell into politics after becoming acutely aware of marginalised pockets of society that needed defending. She also felt there was an air of acceptance among students and the wider public that politics was dirty, corruption rampant and that the status quo in government had to be challenged to make way for a democratic space. Following her graduation, Lim continued her involvement in politics by joining PKR. Despite garnering unfavourable responses from other Chinese colleagues at university in the early days of the Reformasi as she engaged in dialogue with PAS supporters, the years have seen preconceived notions about the opposition coalition slowly dispel as the country becomes increasingly intolerant toward the belligerence of the ruling coalition. Voting for Barisan National was condoning a government that had blood on its hands, Lim warned, as she encouraging the audience to join the movement for change.

The ‘Obama’ of Malaysian politics, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who has had involvement in local politics since the tender age of 26 and who now holds the State Assemblyman seat in Seri Setia for PKR, reminisced about the time he was a student in London and had a hand in smuggling Nurul Izzah Anwar into the UK so she could propagate overseas involvement in the release of her father, Anwar Ibrahim, from prison. Following his graduation, he took a well paid job and found his feet with PKR, for which he subsequently gave up his job and had to pay back his student loan to his sponsors when Anwar Ibrahim personally requested that Nik Nazmi run his office for him. Due to the lack of candidates and after several revocations, Nik Nazmi finally relented and managed to win his Kelana Jaya State Assembly seat by campaigning for just three weeks. With the help of amendments made to PKR’s party constitution in 2009 which now adheres to the one member one vote process, the principle where party supporters are entitled to equal legislative representation, more young people have taken the helm in opposition politics such as Y.B. Sim, State Assemblyman in Pantai Jerejak, Penang. Challenges young opposition members face, according to Nik Nazmi, is battling cynicism following a win, because the changes promised to constituents before being elected take time to implement, especially as the old race-based politics still grips the country and legislation such as the University & University College Act (UUCA) prevent all hands from being on deck. He highlighted that many of Malaysia’s middle class who have the knowledge and resources to make a big contribution towards change in local politics prefer to remain indifferent. This is perhaps due to the apathy brought about by 55 years under a corrupt ruling party that will go to any lengths to continue its reign. Nik Nazmi urged involvement in opposition party politics at all levels and said that young people need to get involved in policy and legislation and not just ‘susun kerusi dan pasang bendera’.

There was a question and answer session which followed where audience members posed queries to the panel but none more poignant than Raja Petra’s challenge to develop an opposition-owned newspaper to counter the monopoly of coverage that Barisan National holds over the media. Unprecedented publicity for PKR could be garnered via the middle-aged middle-classes and those in rural Malaysia who don’t normally rely on blogs and online podcasts for information. Hannah Yeoh admitted that there was no excuse for the lack of a daily opposition paper. The mammoth task of publishing a paper would have to have capital backing and the involvement of a massive pool of resources which, for the time being, seems like a big ask for a young party.

Youth of Malaysia, here’s your queue to put your shoulders to the plough.