Lowering the voting age: what’s next?

In this sitting, Parliament is due to debate a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

If the amendment passes, 2 questions arise. The first: how do we prepare the 14-year-olds of today to vote in GE15?

The Civics and Citizenship Education (CCE) subject is poised to make a comeback mid-2019, with new modules on anti-corruption and human rights, among others. Hopefully, the new syllabus will balance between cognition, action and reflection.

Last year, I joined the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) programme that allowed me to visit the United States. In Boston, we visited the Edward M. Kennedy (EMK) Institute for the US Senate. The Institute is a non-profit dedicated to educating the public about Senate’s role in government and encouraging civic participation and dialogue through exhibits, activities and topical programmes.

Using tablets, we followed the interactive exhibit called “How a Bill Becomes a Law”. Visitors work together to negotiate and select ice cream sundae toppings (more fun than actual legislation!), vote on bills, override vetoes, and practice skills needed to guide legislation through Congress.

In the “Today’s Vote” programme, as “Senator for a day”, we could debate an active bill being considered by the real Senate in Washington DC. The session ended with a live vote. The room in which “Today’s Vote” was conducted was a full-scale replica of the Senate, giving the exercise a real-life feel.

While the EMK Institute model requires some thought and investment, there are many ideas we can adapt to prepare Malaysian youths to vote.

Starting media literacy early

2 years have passed since Donald Trump popularised the term “fake news”. I recall seeing a 4-screen TV set showing different news channels playing simultaneously. I decided to snap a photo to capture the absurdity which an average voter faces in filtering noise from news. As I clicked the shutter, a Duracell advertisement aired. Its slogan? “Trust is power.”

In childhood, our understanding of politics is fed by our parents. In the age of social media, our understanding of politics is fed by news outlets, influencers and viral sites that we trust based on family and friends’ recommendations.

If we truly want to increase youth political participation after lowering the voting age, we need to teach media literacy. Media literacy enables us to access, analyse and evaluate written and digital media, and maintain a healthy scepticism of sources, even if they are government sources. It is worth recalling that the Sebenarnya.my portal, launched by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in 2017, had no mention of 1MDB up to GE14.

Growing youth participation in society

The second question: how are we building our youths to participate in public life, beyond turning up to vote? After GE14, many young activists and student leaders were recruited to help the new government. This leaves a gap within the 18-to-25-year old age group, although the recent UM campus elections, which was run independently by students themselves for the first time, gives hope.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports recently announced a RM 70 million budget for the Malaysian Future Leaders School (MFLS), through which successfully-screened participants will participate in mentor-mentee sessions with cabinet ministers, among others.

Post-GE14, many of my peers have asked me, “What can we do for our country?”

My message these days is: get involved in your local community. In many residents’ associations (RAs) and Rukun Tetanggas (RTs), it is the senior citizens who serve faithfully as committee members, tending to neighbourhood issues and organising community get-togethers. One might argue, the seniors have retired and have time on their hands. However, youth involvement at the local level is crucial for building future capacity.

Previously as an MBPJ councillor, I said to residents, I hope that they will field a fellow resident to run when local government elections arrive. If youth don’t begin now, then when? Not every youth will be a Syed Saddiq or Yeo Bee Yin. But there are many levels to contribute, with much work to be done.

Even as our Cabinet and other national leaders work to rebuild the nation, we need youth to participate and strengthen civic life from the bottom-up. If we work in tandem, we will be well-prepared with future leaders when local government elections and GE15 arrive.

Lim Yi Wei
Letter by Lim Yi Wei in Petaling Jaya on Wednesday, 13th March 2019