The Youth Vote and GE13: Two Different Perceptions, Two Different Approaches

The Youth Vote and GE13: Two Different Perceptions, Two Different Approaches

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak maintains a Twitter account, from which he famously posts on his own. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim does the same, though with far fewer followers. Both men maintain an active presence on Facebook and on other social media, and tirelessly interact with the rakyat through those media.

Both men are keenly aware of Malaysia’s low median age — just under 27 years — and are making a hard push to capture the imaginations, and votes, of the enormous under-30 voting bloc in Malaysia. It was in this context that Najib visited the Millions of Youth Gathering in Putrajaya on Saturday, calling on young voters to remember the young voters of 55 years ago, who voted for Barisan Nasional (in its Alliance Party form then) and who, in each succeeding generation, have supported the Government because of its concrete achievements.

Najib was keenly received at the gathering, a fact that will likely darken Anwar’s day. Anwar sees the young vote as the kingmaker in this election, but both men and their coalitions are bringing very different approaches to young men and women who were still children when Anwar attempted to overthrow Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and fell instead.

Barisan is playing up not only its long history of political and economic transformation, but also Najib’s historic reforms of the last year. The Government is therefore running not only on its record, but on a concrete agenda going forward — thus Najib’s invocation of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and the national transformation agenda at the Millions of Youth Gathering.

Pakatan Rakyat, by contrast, continues to run on the vague promises that have characterised its component parties since before there was a Pakatan, following Anwar’s lead of vague chants of ‘Reformasi!’ when in doubt. Where Barisan relies on data and concrete promises, the Opposition pact relies instead on inspiring the young to identify their own life development and changes with three parties run by men in their sixties and seventies.

Trivial as that sounds, this is a classic battle over the younger voting bloc. Barisan’s implicit bet is that young voters are more concerned with concrete results and ideas such as having a job, affordable housing, a safe and clean place to raise children, and expanding opportunity and economic growth over their lifetimes. Pakatan’s implicit bet is that young people are more excitable than their elders, prone to wanting change for change’s sake, and impatient enough with the status quo to gamble on something that seems new and exciting.

This is a reflection of how both coalitions are approaching GE13 in general. Barisan Nasional is gambling that young voters are mature voters; Pakatan Rakyat that they are young people who happen to be able to vote.

The data so far suggest that the Government’s approach is the better one. Not only have recent polls — including those testing Najib’s popularity — reflected growing youth engagement with Barisan, but the contrast in the parties’ approaches to messaging reflects growing certainty that the youth vote is running with the Government as well. Barisan has continued its course; Pakatan has switched from vague cries of reform and change to playing up the police violence at Bersih 3.0 (omitting the crowd violence that started it and Anwar’s part in the whole debacle) to demanding reform from Putrajaya of the sort the Government is delivering.

The recent attacks on the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) and promise of ‘free’ tertiary education are part of this strategy. Following Anwar’s lead, Pakatan is attempting to make free education one of its promises heading into GE13, assuming they are not distracted by something new along the way. The details on how this will be funded remain sketchy, as do the details on how the Opposition would fund its entire, vague slate of programmes.

Therein lies the essence of the matter. Pakatan Rakyat is embracing its freedom to make vague promises on which it need not deliver, seeking to inspire young voters who — they presume — lack the sophistication and maturity to ask about things like affordability and practicality.

Barisan Nasional is putting forward concrete achievements and promises, based on a long experience with governance and the understanding that they can and will be held to account if those programmes do not succeed. They are gambling that the young are educated and seasoned enough to vote for something that works, rather than something that simply looks pretty.

The results of GE13 will show who was right.