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Malaysia mulls lowering voting age to 18 to empower youth

Kuala Lumpur

MALAYSIA'S youth are likely to get more power after having backed 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad in his quest to topple a regime that had ruled the South-east Asian nation for 60 years: the country is "very serious" about reducing the voting age to 18 before the next elections due by 2023, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman said in Kuala Lumpur.

The two-month-old Cabinet plans to ask the Attorney-General's office to look into the laws that need to be amended, said the minister, who, at 25, is the youngest minister in the country's history.

Lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 would add an additional 3.7 million voters, he said, increasing the number of registered voters by about 25 per cent from the election in May.

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Voters aged 21-39 make up around 40 per cent of the Malaysian electorate, twice the number of voters over 60, according to Election Commission data. "This means the youth voter bloc becomes bigger and stronger, and therefore, they cannot be sidelined in the Malaysian political scene anymore," said Mr Saddiq, a member of Dr Mahathir's political party.

High youth unemployment proved to be a critical factor in a vote that ousted former premier Najib Razak, who championed economic policies favouring the Malay majority and now finds himself facing charges in a corruption probe at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Mr Najib, who denies wrongdoing, had made a last-ditch effort to woo younger voters on the eve of the vote, pledging income tax exemptions for those aged 26 years and below.

Unemployment among Malaysians aged 15 to 24 stood at 10.8 per cent last year, World Bank data shows. That is more than three times the national rate of 3.3 per cent. Meanwhile, joblessness among local graduates has risen more sharply than that for non-graduates since 2011, according to data from the central bank.

Mr Saddiq said: "The youth care about two primary issues: one is the cost of living, affordable housing, good employment opportunities and quality of life."

The second is getting their voice heard in the nation-building process. "Power should be returned to the people. That means opening up more democratic spaces, which means more young people can join and speak up," he said.

About 75 per cent of younger voters backed the opposition, said Ibrahim Suffian, the executive director of pollster Merdeka Centre, which tracks voter sentiment. The Merdeka Centre estimated a voter turnout of about 81 per cent for youth, with more young people than the elderly voting in the urban areas of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.

"Young voters were the true king-makers in the elections - they were the ones who brought us into government," Mr Saddiq said. "But also a word of caution: they could also be the ones who take us out from government, because they are not loyal to any political party."

The young minister, who has pledged to reshuffle youth associations to ensure they are led by people under the age of 35, also wants to phase out political appointees in sports and give more attention to student programmes that involve coding, automation and artificial intelligence. Reducing the voting age will help break the "youth glass ceiling" and encourage young people to be more active in political organisations, he said.

The going won't be easy for him. In April, Mr Saddiq was called a "greenhorn kitten" by Hishammuddin Hussein, who was vice-president of the then-ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

Mr Saddiq said: "Almost everything I do, including what I wear, is scrutinised, but I don't see that as a liability. While the limelight can crush a person, that limelight can also be translated into positive vibes and energy. If we succeed, we will set a precedent - that appointing young ministers is not bad."

He said Dr Mahathir has asked him why young people show up late for appointments and always play with their phones at meetings. Mr Saddiq said: "It's not about politics, it's a lot more about a relationship between a son and his father - or a son and his grandfather." BLOOMBERG