The current state of our nation is one that should worry us all. Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike over the past months have awakened to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases and an escalating death toll. Exacerbating the frustrations of the pandemic is the political instability and questionable governance of our nation. It has been a historically painful year for Malaysia and yet, the good fight continues. In the midst of such sadness and frustration, we have seen a rise in the people’s voice. We are often referred to as a passive society however, ever since the 14th General Election, Malaysians have become more vocal about what are lacking or needed in the country’s laws or policies more so over the past months.
In the face of increasing criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, including the declaration of the Emergency Ordinance and the suspension of Parliament, there has been a collective youth movement brewing that aimed to tackle the problems plaguing this nation. Youth civic engagement is an important tool in overcoming the marginalization of young people, who are often ignored or unheard in the governance of a country. On the 31st of July, under the scorching sun and watchful eyes of the Royal Malaysian Police, almost a thousand people, consisting mainly of youths converged on Dataran Merdeka for the #Lawan protest. Their demands were simple; for the Prime Minister to resign, the reopening of Parliament and a full loan moratorium for all Malaysians. This was not the first protest, but it will also not be the last.
In 2019, the Dewan Rakyat unanimously voted in favour of the Undi18 Bill, making it the first law to be passed by all Members of Parliament. The Bill not only lowered the legal voting age to 18 years also but also ensured automatic voter registration for 18-year-olds and reduced the minimum age for elected representatives. However, two years post that vote and nothing has happened. The Election Commission has stated that the right can only be exercised after September 2022, citing that although the preparations for the implementation of Undi18 is still ongoing, the Movement Control Order (MCO) had directly affected the Election Commission’s planning and preparations for it. The decision led to 18 Malaysian youths filing a lawsuit against the Prime Minister, the Government of Malaysia and the Election Commission, demanding their right to vote in April 2021. The #ManaUndiKami campaign is symbolic, brave and a collective demand of almost 1.2 million young people whose vote, which is a constitutional right, is being delayed.
As a young person myself, I have spent years questioning and worrying about a future in Malaysia. However, we have a moral responsibility to try and make the world a better place from when we first came into it. This thought is what attracted me to the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR). My internship has exposed me to aspects of human rights and advocacy that the general masses are not accustomed to. Young people are always deterred from human rights advocacy, this is due to Malaysia’s track record when it comes to the treatment of human rights defenders. We are a state that often punishes and suppresses, rather than welcoming or engaging views that seek to question or challenge the system and societal structures. MCCHR’s UndiMsia programme aims to empower youth, it is for those that ask themselves “What can I do for this country, for its people?”. I had the privilege of attending certain activities organized by the participants of the Youth Advocacy Academy 2021 (YAA 2021) regarding the rights and protection of the LGBTQI+ community. These webinars had exposed to me the hardship faced by the members of the LGBTQI+ community in Malaysia, the difference between sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and how we can be an ally for them. In the face of increasing crackdown, educating youths regarding civic responsibility, and equipping them with the tools to participate in the democratic process is what gives Malaysia hope for the future; that a more informed future generation will do better at crafting a country that provides for its beautifully diverse society equally.
Under the UndiMsia banner, I had organized two webinars; the Police Powers and the Need for Accountability webinar that discussed the recent spree of custodial deaths that shocked this nation and the Citizenship: The Plight of Children Born Abroad webinar that considered the gender discriminatory citizenship laws that provide citizenship by operation of law to a child born abroad to a Malaysian man and his non-Malaysian spouse, a right that is not given to a child born to a Malaysian woman in the exact same scenario. The aim of these webinars was to not only educate the public regarding certain problems that should be addressed, but to provide them with ideas as to how they can participate in tackling the problem. These webinars are an important tool in raising awareness regarding these serious issues as it serves as a platform to obtain information and have a dialogue. Both webinars had experts who were currently working on the issue or directly affected by the issue. Custodial deaths and discriminatory citizenship laws are unacceptable in a democratic country where everyone has the right to life and dignity. However, it is important to remember that these are problems with proposed solutions, what we lack is the political will to implement them.
The youth of this country are often ignored or considered too young to be heard although history has seen the power of the young in demanding change. Whether it is challenging racism during the Freedom Rides, demanding for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square or converging upon Masjid Negara for a demonstration against the Internal Security Act (ISA), young people have forged themselves into the history books and the generational consciousness of this country. Youth activism is not a new concept for us. Indeed, the current crop of young people are determined to be the voice of unprecedented change, in hopes that they will inspire others to join them. Not only for the future, but for the present and the past, it is our duty to protect Malaysia and that responsibility now, more than ever before, rests on the strong shoulders of the youth of this nation.