Malaysia politics: How young, first-time voters could sway election

Young Malaysians are poised to become kingmakers this weekend as the country holds its first general election since lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, with 222 seats up for grabs in the powerful lower house.

More than a million registered voters are now 18 to 20 years old, though the fact that Malaysian youth demonstrate such a wide range of political leanings and literacy makes it hard to say which way these new voters will sway the election. But experts say one area we may see their hand at play is on climate. 

Why We Wrote This

In an upcoming snap election, 18-to-20-year-old Malaysians wield new power – and new responsibility. How are young voters approaching their first election?

While climate change has largely been absent from leading candidates’ campaign speeches, it’s high on the minds of young voters. In a survey from this year, 75% of respondents said they were concerned about climate change. First-time voter Sarah Edna says it’s the most important issue for her, and believes the youth vote will force major parties to rethink their climate policies, if not in this election, then in the future. 

“Young people [have been] sharing different manifestos on climate change from different political parties,” says Ms. Edna, an election intern with the youth advocacy group Undi18, which lobbied for voting-age reforms. “We have to be wise about who we are voting for.”

Young people are poised to enter the usual rough-and-tumble of Malaysian politics this weekend as the country holds its first general election since lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. 

Seen as potential kingmakers, young voters are navigating a chaotic political landscape – years of corruption and party politicking have left many Malaysians frustrated with parliament. The successive collapse of two governments since 2020 led to widespread calls for an early return to the polls (the national election was not actually due until mid-2023), and there are now dozens of parties vying for power. Meanwhile, many families have yet to recover from the financial impact of COVID-19 mismanagement, and racial and religious issues remain contentious.

As 222 seats go up for grabs in the Dewan Rakyat, the lower house and core of Malaysia’s political power, there is a strong sense that what Malaysia needs is stability.

Why We Wrote This

In an upcoming snap election, 18-to-20-year-old Malaysians wield new power – and new responsibility. How are young voters approaching their first election?

That’s a hefty responsibility to thrust onto young people voting for the first time. In addition to the threat of monsoons, the pressures of day-to-day life, voting logistics, and even a disinterest in politics will likely keep some would-be voters away from the polls tomorrow. 

Still, many young Malaysians say they feel a duty to weigh in on their country’s biggest challenges, from cost of living to climate change. Available data also speaks to strong political engagement: Around 1.4 million of Malaysia’s 21 million registered voters are between ages 18 and 20, and half are under 40.



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