On September 16, 2019, both the government and opposition unanimously voted and passed the constitutional amendment bill that empowers voters aged 18 to 20 to vote and to be electoral candidates, as well as permits automatic voter registration. The Pakatan Harapan government, being determined to take the first step to expand citizen’s political participation, has charted a significant and historic day of democratization in Malaysia that belongs to all Malaysians.
Nevertheless, from the perspective of progress made in democratisation, this reform only signifies the opening of the door to various reforms. The government should promote and implement institutional reforms in various aspects which include empowering local democracy.
Among all, the central government should implement decentralisation by reviving the local election in order to continuously expand political participation in many ways. This reform will give real meaning to the effort of lowering voting age and age of electoral candidate to 18.
Currently, the three layers in our government, namely the federal, state and local government, are not fully democratised. Citizen’s voting rights are only extended to the federal and state level, whereas the local government is appointed and its main affairs are managed by civil servants. Local councillors, on the other hand, have very limited power to govern and to exert the practice of accountability in the local government.
From the perspective civil rights, this is a system that is defective and severely lacks accountability.
Our voters are generally voting only once every five years to elect the federal and state governments. Besides, every voter in Federal Territories even have only one vote due to the fact that state government election does not exist. Such kind of political structure and environment that merely allows the exercise of voting rights once every five years does not help expand democratic political participation, hence civil awareness is always being kept at a low level.
Even though we have brought about a change of government, efforts to enhance political accountability and institutional reforms remain difficult to be implemented. In the past year, the Pakatan Harapan government had faced many times of reactionary backlashes, with the public opinion being seemingly dominated by small fractions of extreme voices.
In other words, by merely emancipating youths of 18, we will only increase in vain the number of voters for the next general election. Such a result does not automatically translate to real progress in our country’s democratisation process.
Besides, this constitutional amendment also brings changes to the Federal Constitution’s Article 47(b) by lowering the eligible age of an electoral candidate from 21 to 18. Lowering the age to take part in elections will test our youth representatives’ maturity, experience, political knowledge and insights, as well as the ability to analyse and grasp different issues. Apart from all the above-mentioned aspects, we should also not forget to take a closer look at our current system:
Does it really provide many opportunities for our youth?
The current number of parliamentary seats is 222. Even if all state governments are following in the federal government’s footsteps, there are merely 589 state seats in total. Therefore, if we do not provide enough political space for our youth, the effort of lowering the age of being an eligible electoral candidate will just be a pie in the sky that can hardly benefit our youth.
Hence, reviving local election is indeed the right solution at the right time to actively and gradually expand citizen’s political participation. This will open up a huge space for our youth to obtain real and practical experience in local government, train their political skills and gain political experience, expand citizen’s political participation, enhance the culture of accountability in local government, and in turn make the reform of lowering the voting age and age of eligible electoral candidate truly meaningful and significant to all.
From the perspective of political institutions in a country, the combination of local-level direct democracy and an arguably higher level of representative democracy in the federal and state levels can be very effective in guaranteeing the rights of citizens to democracy and their needs to participate, strengthening the progress of democratisation in our country, and ultimately building a nation that is democratic, just, free, progressive and prosperous.