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By Carolyn Hong for The Straits Times on 25 August 2012. This article was reproduced from Asia News Network and can be found here.
Over the last four years, a group of lawyers have been travelling across the country to talk with Malaysians about the Constitution and what it says about nationhood.
Most of these lawyers are under 35. That the MyConsti programme is led by some of Malaysia’s youngest lawyers gives it the kind of cachet that makes public activism hip and cool.
“We will also hold a… music festival next year,” said its coordinator Syahredzan Johan, 29.
MyConsti is among the dozens of initiatives by young Malaysians that have flourished in the last few years, in what Syahredzan describes as the “mainstreaming of activism”.
This burst of activism is not limited to the young; once placid seniors have turned up at protests by Bersih, the movement for free and fair elections, and by Himpunan Hijau, an environmental group. But the old are eclipsed by the young people looking to make a difference in society.
These young people also happen to make up the bulk of the 1.6 million new voters in the next election, due before next April.
Political analyst James Chin of Monash University Malaysia said these sort of movements tend to reinforce anti-establishment sentiment even though they are non-partisan.
“It also gives a platform to the young who are already interested in current affairs but do not know how to participate. They fill the vacuum outside the political parties,” he said.
Think-tanks such as the libertarian Ideas and left-leaning Refsa, led by Malaysians in their 30s, routinely lead public debate on economic and governance issues.
Loyarburuk, whose tongue- in-cheek name means “terrible lawyer” in Malay, is led by young lawyers, takes on public interest cases for free and offers a platform for debate.
Undi Malaysia, or Vote Malaysia, holds workshops to encourage Malaysians to take charge of their own well-being instead of relying on politicians. Then, there is Occupy Dataran – which saw young people camping at historic Merdeka Square.
These groups are changing Malaysia’s activism landscape, once dominated by more confrontational pressure groups. In response, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has held glitzy gatherings like the Million Youth carnival, and job and housing fairs for young people, with some success.
Syahredzan says the youth movement started in 1998 when the sacking of then deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim divided the nation and ended a culture of deference to political authority.
“It created a generation of Malaysians who are more critical in their outlook,” he said.
Then came the 2008 general election, when the opposition made startling inroads, sweeping five states and denying BN its customary two-thirds in Parliament.
“Many young people saw that change was possible,” said political analyst Ong Kian Ming, 37, who is affiliated with both Refsa and Bersih.
Undi Malaysia volunteer Azira Aziz, 26, a lawyer, helps organise weekly workshops for young Malaysians on their democratic rights. She also helps a group called Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (I am a Malaysian Child) to bring urban and rural children together for multi-cultural workshops.
“All my weekends go to these activities now,” she said. “But I love it.”