TMI – Karim Raslan, KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 — Political strategists have been very focused on how to win over Malaysia’s all-important new voters. There are now more than five million young people aged 20-29, most of whom are first-time voters with no clear political loyalties.
Over the Chinese New Year in Penang, the prime minister made a stab at winning their support. Sharing a stage with the global YouTube sensation Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame, he sought to enhance his “coolness” and therefore his electability.
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning that YouTube sensations like Psy are exactly that — momentary blips on the radar of celebrity. Bringing him into Malaysia to drum up support shows that Barisan Nasional is behind the curve in understanding this youthful demographic because these fads pass very, very quickly. They aren’t anticipating or leading: they’re just following.
Secondly, if Malaysia was a presidential-style democracy, such tactics might stand a chance.
However, we are not. For better or for worse, we’ve adopted the Westminster system: a system that requires strong political parties, solid constituency representation as well as an adept collective leadership.
Thirdly, the event with Psy also reveals the pitfalls of seeking to win over the younger voters by associating yourself with something “cool”. Being “cool” isn’t easy. Moreover, once you try too hard you’re instantly the opposite of cool, something the PM experienced on that stage on Monday as he implored people to vote for Barisan.
Finally, there’s also a major tactical error at work. Young people may well enjoy watching Psy on YouTube — the music is infectious and the dance steps are great fun but that doesn’t mean they’d select their leaders in the same way: entertainment is one thing, politics is another.
For young Malaysians and especially those with degrees, the issues they’re facing are very straight-forward. A cool PM is great but one who can solve sky-rocketing car prices, dismal starting salaries and the soaring price of housing would be truly rocking…
With this in mind, I’ve spent some time talking to some Malaysian graduates — especially those pouring out of the country’s 20 public universities and 50 or so private institutions of higher learning.
For them, the job market is extremely challenging. A 2011 Graduate Tracking Index released by the Ministry of Higher Education in September 2012 revealed that at least 40,000 of these graduates were unemployed 12 months after they had completed their studies.
Johari (not his real name) is recent graduate from the International Islamic University (IIU) in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur. First mooted under the current Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim when he was in the administration, the IIU with its lavish suburban campus has become a leading tertiary educational institution, in part because the course-work is conducted in English.
Working at a non-profit, Johari earns a seemingly comfortable RM3,000 per month. However, as he explains his take-home pay is very quickly reduced to a far more modest amount:
“I’m every lucky that my parents live within commuting distance of the city. Friends from Terengganu or elsewhere have to fork out another RM400-500 on accommodation. Having said that, I spend about the same amount on my transport, leaving home every morning by 6.15am. More often than not, I only get back to the house by 10 or 11 at night.”
Transport is a big chunk of Johari’s monthly expenditure. He’d like to buy a car but he knows he can’t afford to run it and more especially pay for parking in the city.
Separately, he resents Malaysia’s inflated car prices — a legacy of the Mahathir era especially that of the national car project Proton.
“I go on the Internet and compare prices for cars in Malaysia with Thailand or elsewhere. We’re paying so much more for the same models because of the duties!” In fact, he’s read the criticisms of the Malaysian automotive policy from the up-and-coming opposition politician Rafizi Ramli.
Johari adds: “I’m not a political person but I have to agree with Rafizi’s arguments.”
However, Johari stresses that he does not necessarily agree with all of the opposition’s populist rhetoric. For example, he rejects their more radical views on student loans dished out by PTPTN (National Higher Education Fund Corporation).
“I believe we should be responsible for paying for our own tertiary education. However, I would add that if we’re good students and win better grades this should lessen our repayments.” At the moment, he’s accumulated some RM28,000 in student loans that he’s paying off at the rate of RM100 per month. He acknowledges that he won’t settle this debt until he reaches 40.
Housing is a further source of complaint and he says: “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a house in the Klang Valley. I imagine that I’ll have to settle for a small flat somewhere. Saving enough money for a deposit will take a very long time and that’s before we’re even talking about marriage! As graduate I should be able to bring mas kahwin (dowry) of at least RM12-15,000. My last girlfriend was quite straightforward about her expectations. Status really matters.”
All this is not to say that Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration hasn’t been trying to address the concerns of these young graduates. No government wants a large pool of over-qualified, unemployed graduates, recognising the destabilizing potential of such a group.
Indeed, the prime minister has launched various initiatives targeting the youth like rebates for the purchase of smartphones.
However, one can easily point out that only a handful of Najib’s policy initiatives are specifically designed to address this demographic, which could be a major strategic flaw.
Still, the PM’s broad reformist sweep has also been hampered to by vested interests and sluggish implementation.
Others would argue that Malaysian graduates are asking for too much given their lack of job marketability although they can hardly be blamed for the poor state of our education system.
Whatever the case, Malaysia can’t afford to have its youth feeling disenfranchised and fearful of the future.
People can’t live on rhetoric but neither will they be satisfied with bread and circuses for very long.
Such disillusionment can very soon turn to anger and the faction which is able to harness such sentiments — for good or ill — will be a force to reckon with moving forward.