Malaysia made history on July 16 when, in the country’s first unanimous parliamentary vote, it adopted a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age. The amendment, also known as Undi18 (“Vote 18”), is a laudable achievement for both youth inclusion and democratic reform. In approving the measure, not only did Malaysia’s government fulfill one of the promises it made before the May 2018 general elections, it also could add an estimated 3.8 million young Malaysians to the voter rolls, making them an increasingly important part the electoral map.

The ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition credits its victory in the 2018 elections in part to youth who overwhelmingly supported its insurgent campaign against the then-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. In the 2018 election, Malaysian voters aged 21-39 constituted the country’s largest voting bloc—totaling 41 percent of registered voters, while 21-to-30-year-olds alone made up a fifth of registered voters. This is an important statistic for politicians to remember when automatic voter registration is implemented ahead of the next general elections in 2023 and the number of young registered voters likely will increase.

While the constitutional amendment was a success for the governing coalition, it is a reminder to all political parties of the necessity to address issues important to young voters. According to a survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), economic growth is the most important issue for Malaysians between the ages 18 and 35. Forty-nine percent of Malaysians in that age group think the economy should be the top priority for the national government, while majorities believe the government is doing a “bad” or “very bad” job reducing unemployment (54 percent) and addressing the cost of living (50 percent), respectively.

To make meaningful progress on young Malaysians’ top priorities, political leaders will need to identify ways to provide more employment opportunities for youth and to slow the rising cost of living, which disproportionately affects the young. Since 2011, the unemployment rate for Malaysians between 15 and 24 has been rising. In 2018, the national unemployment rate stood at only 3.3 percent, but the unemployment rate for youth between the ages of 15 and 24 was 10.9 percent, making jobless 15-24-year-olds nearly 60 percent of Malaysia’s total population of unemployed. At the same time, surveys about wages and standards of living show that unmarried diploma and degree-holders earn less in entry level wages than what is necessary to live in peninsular Malaysia, which is where the majority of jobs are being created. In addition, the starting pay for graduates with a basic degree has remained virtually stagnant since 2010. 

One reason for this stagnation in starting pay for new graduates is that the Malaysian economy is not producing enough high-skilled and high-paying jobs. Between 2010 and 2017, the number of diploma and degree holders in Malaysia’s workforce increased by an average of 173,457 annually, outnumbering the 98,514 high-skilled jobs created over the same period.

Indeed, a 2016 report by the Penang Institute shows, an increasing share of Malaysian graduates are working in mid- or low-skill occupations that do not require the degrees they obtained at university. Malaysia’s top job-creating industries between 2011 and 2015—retail, agriculture, accommodation and food, education—employ mid-to-low-skilled workers.

However, many Malaysians graduating from university do not have the skills to take these higher-value jobs, and political leaders need to take measures to ensure that universities are setting students up for success as competitive job candidates. According to a 2014 survey by the World Bank and Talent Corporation, Malaysia’s graduates are entering the job market without the skills employers are seeking. Of the businesses surveyed, 80 percent think Malaysian universities need to revise university curricula “to reflect the current realities of the labor market,” including strengthening students’ critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills.

Political parties should not wait until the next general elections in 2023 to address these challenges. In Sarawak, where the PH coalition specifically called out low wages as “unjust” and promised in its election manifesto to create more employment opportunities, will hold state legislative assembly elections as early as mid-2020. Hoping to make gains in a state long dominated by local parties that once were aligned with Barisan Nasional, the elections may be a key test of PH support among youth.

Although it is still uncertain whether the voting age amendment will be implemented in time for 18-to-21-year-olds in Sarawak to vote in state elections, Malaysian youth are undoubtedly a crucial constituency. Asked in the same IRI survey how likely they are to vote in the next general election, 84 percent of Malaysian youth indicated they are likely to vote, a staggering percentage within the electorate’s largest voting bloc. The question for Malaysia’s politicians is who will get their vote.

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