This article first appeared in Star R.AGE (via Melly Ling, 15 March 2013) found here.

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IT was reported last month that among the 13.34 million Malaysians currently registered as voters, 2.3 million are new to the list, and most of them are young people.

Great news, of course. The youth are taking the future of their country into their own hands, exercising their civic duty and standing up to be counted.

But apart from casting their vote, how much do Malaysian youth actually do when it comes to the political process? It’s fantastic that they’ll be voting for their representatives in the government, but after that, for the next five years, will they ever contact those representatives? Do they even know they can contact them?

Political awareness among young people might be on a high right now thanks to initiatives like UndiMsia!, LoyarBurok, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia and MyConsti, but the culture of being involved in the political process, of working together with elected representatives, is sadly still rather lacking.

Most of the young people R.AGE spoke to either didn’t know they could (and are actually supposed to) write to their representatives, or they know they can, but just aren’t bothered to do it.

Trust the system

Of course, the common reason young people give for not getting in touch with their representatives in the government is that even if they did, nothing would happen.

“Yes, there are websites where you can find out how to get in touch, but some people just don’t trust them. Even if the system actually works, they’ll think it’s unreliable anyway,” said social entrepreneur Zain HD, who helped establish UndiMsia!.

Wong Siew Eng, 25, who works in the F&B industry, said she has tried to get in touch with the authorities over the clogged drains and rubbish in her neighbourhood.

“I don’t know who my Member of Parliament or Adun (state assemblyperson) is, but I tried searching online to get in touch with someone, but the websites were so confusing. I gave up after a day,” said Wong.

Cafe manager Adam Azriff, 19, doesn’t even know the difference between an MP and Adun. “To be honest, I’ve always had complaints about the road conditions in my neighbourhood, but I always end up just complaining to my parents.”

UndiMsia! witty info graphics on the roles of an MP, ADUN and
UndiMsia! witty info graphics on the roles of an MP, ADUN and

Apparently, Adam isn’t alone. UndiMsia!, a movement to educate and mobilise young voters, created an infographic called “Longkang Jam” (pictured on page 3) to explain the different roles of an MP, Adun and local councillor.

Journalism student Ross Especkerman, 22, however, had much better luck getting in touch with the MP of the area where his college is located.

“It was actually for a college assignment. I interviewed Wee Choo Keong, who’s an independent candidate for the Wangsa Maju constituency.

“I was quite surprised that he agreed to meet us at his office, even though it was at 12am. He was quite straight up about all the current issues faced by TAR College students. Most of the issues I followed up on were actually seen to, like road conditions and Internet accessibility,” he said.

Voting just the beginning

John-Son Oei, 28, a volunteer with Growing Emerging Leaders who are getting youths to register to vote through their Voice Your Choice campaign.

Social entrepreneur John-Son Oei, 26, who was the coordinator of the Voice Your Choice voter registration campaign in 2010, said he’s only heard of “one or two” friends who have actually bothered to write to their MPs or Aduns, and they were both lawyers.

“Most young people wouldn’t do it. They don’t see it as an outlet,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve never contacted my own MP either! I’ve worked with other MPs and Aduns before, just not my own.”

The Voice Your Choice campaign was picked by the Election Commission as the first non-governmental organisation allowed to register voters directly.

In just eight months, the campaign managed to register 145,000 new voters, which was a massive achievement. Still, Oei believes getting those people to actually vote isn’t the end game.

“It’s not about casting your vote, choosing party A or party B. It’s about making a statement, and taking responsibility,” added Oei.

Change is coming

Students registering to vote during the campus elections at counters at Kolej 13 at Universiti Putra Malaysia.
Students registering to vote during the campus elections at counters at Kolej 13 at Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Oei and Zain agree that change will take time.

“This culture of working with your representatives can’t be forced. People need to be slowly educated about it,” said Oei. “Even now, a lot of older people wouldn’t know how it works. A lot of them still think all they have to do is vote for a party!

“Having said that, there should be
more efforts to help encourage people to be more involved in the five years between elections.”

Zain added: “It’s a cultural problem. We never had the political education. In school, we learn about democracy, but we don’t really get to understand the political processes behind it.”

At the end of the day, Oei believes the onus is on the people to make the change.

“I think the MPs and Aduns still have to prove the system works, but the system has always been there, and we are only just starting to learn about voter rights, writing petitions and things like that.

And ask yourselves – how many of our parents taught us these things?” he said.


Doing it right

Zain HD feels the youth should make the effort to get in touch with their MPs
Zain HD feels the youth should make the effort to get in touch with their MPs

HERE are some pointers from social entrepreneur Zain HD on how young Malaysians can start working together more closely with their MPs and Aduns:

Start with your local community.
Young people tend to dream too far, and when things don’t work out, they get frustrated and start saying “adults don’t listen”. Find your feet by working on a local project where your MP, Adun or local councillor can be involved in.

Prioritise your issues.
If your community sends your Adun 50 letters with 50 different problems, nothing will ever get done. Work together and come up with, say, three high priority issues, and then bring it up to him/her.

There is strength in numbers!
Be realistic – your representatives cannot correspond with every single person who comes with a problem. Start a petition, get signatures from people within your community, and then you will more likely be heard. Learn how to coordinate and mobilise the community.

Understand your representatives’ limitations.
MPs are very easy targets because they are such high-profile personalities, but you have to sympathise with the MP too. There is only so much they can do. Some problems are actually the responsibility of the police or local councils. And if possible, find ways to help the MP as well.

Online campaigns are overrated!
Well, sometimes they are. Instead of getting a thousand people to “Like” a page, why not get two or three of the most relevant people to like your campaign offline and actually help out? These days, everybody “Likes” hundreds of different pages. Facebook is so saturated with different campaigns. You must have an on-ground event, something that can be felt, not just seen.

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Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) is a non-profit based in Kuala Lumpur with the mission of promoting active democratic participation and human rights awareness.

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