In Malaysia, young people find their voice amid a pandemic

Youth groups are now campaigning for an array of causes – from refugee rights to climate change and decriminalising suicide – dissecting legislation and policies into more understandable and shareable forms across Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.

Emily Ding, Al Jazeera

At the end of June, when Malaysians were grappling with a drastically worsening coronavirus pandemic, pictures of black flags, and people waving them from their cars or their homes, appeared on social media.

Hashtagged #lawan, which means “fight” in the Malay language, the flags became a rallying cry against the government’s failures in handling the outbreak. The discontent spilled onto the streets in a series of largely peaceful protests in July.

By that time, COVID-19’s toll had hit a new peak, with more than 20,000 new infections and 200 deaths daily, and the protesters demanded that then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin resign. As the protests continued, the police picked up at least 47 participants for questioning.

The black flag movement was initiated by a loose coalition of about 40 youth activist groups calling itself Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR), which first came together in March to protest against the delay in implementing the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18, which was passed in Parliament in July 2019.

Political analyst Bridget Welsh told Al Jazeera the government’s delay in implementing the legislation after it was passed was the catalyst for the disaffection felt by many young people.

Other factors include the high unemployment rate among 15 to 30-year-olds – almost double the national average – stagnating wages, unaffordable housing, and the lack of any real social safety net in a pandemic.

Dressed in black, young Malaysians took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on July 31 calling for the resignation of then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin who had gotten the top job after a power grab within the ruling coalition that was elected in May 2018. He resigned the following month [FL Wong/AP Photo]

All this has been exacerbated by Malaysia’s political upheavals since the 2018 general election, which resulted in two changes in government since February last year, and the devastation wrought by the pandemic.

“There are young people who lost their family members. I know someone who, within a week, lost his grandparents, granduncles, and his uncles and aunts,” said Qyira Yusri, the 27-year-old co-founder of Undi18, an NGO that led the campaign to lower the voting age. “They’re just looking to our government and wondering what’s going on.”

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