April 23, 2010

Youth Empowerment and Participation

Posted in Malaysia, Reflections, The Cause at 9:31 pm by egalitaria

I was invited to speak at the National Christian Youth Assembly in December 2009, on the theme of “Youth Empowerment and Participation.” You will note that there is nothing religious or theological about my speech, which is in line with my belief that young people of all races and religions ought to be equally empowered and inspired to make a difference in this country – in whichever field they would like, and within whichever group whose cause they ultimately believe in. 

This was to a bunch of eager young people, wanting to do something for their country, Malaysia. The National Assembly was apolitical. 

Youth Empowerment and Participation

National Christian Youth Assembly, Kuala Lumpur

12th December 2009

We all love an inspiring story when we have one. While Malaysia’s story is still unfolding, I’d like to take a page out of another book the world has now come to learn and understand. This is the fairy-tale story of Obama’s ascent to Presidency. I won’t speak about the issues he campaigned on, or the ideological policies of the Democratic Party today, but I do want to focus on the incredible wave of youth participation that contributed significantly to his win.

The reason I cite examples from Obama’s campaign so often – in other public talks and this – is because I was physically present in the United States during the last two weeks leading up to, and including, the actual US Election itself in 2008. The experience was an excellent opportunity to observe and interview the new young generation of Americans so eager to contribute to change in society, country and the world. Let’s use them as a case study today.


Were young Americans always this way? It would take days to debate the ebb and flow of youth political participation in the United States over the years, but the answer is: apathy had set in deep during the years of then President-Bush Junior, where any engagement was deemed as futile. For political analysts, this sudden shift and wind of change, the awakening of millions of young people across the country, was a phenomenon indeed.

Authors Winograd and Hais hit the pin on its head in their book “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics”[1] in their analysis of the generation that caught the political bug. In describing them, they say the following:

A new generation, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, is coming of age in unprecedented numbers. The Millennials bring with them a facility and comfort with cutting-edge communicaiton and computing technologies that is creating the same kind of bewilderment that parents of television-addicted Baby Boomers felt in the 1950s and 1960s… Recent survey research on the political attitudes of this generation shows a high tolerance for lifestyle and ethnic differences and support for an activist approach by government to societal and economic issues. Millennials are united across gender and race in their desire to find “win-win” solutions to America’s problems.”

Other parts of their analysis described their optimistic attitudes, inclusivist views, and how Millennials think politics can make things better. For example,

“Millennials disagree with their elders in their level of faith in the political process to resolve problems and improve things… and are much more likely than older generations to believe that the government is run for the benefit of all the people.”

The Millennial generation in America, with their unique combination of technological gadgetry and prowess, and their changing attitudes towards systems and institutions, proved a powerful force for the taking. Obama, who had his pulse on the nation, was able to identify with what tugged at their heart-strings, spoke an honest and clear message to them: “Change We Can”. And the rest is history, as they say. Thousands upon thousands of youth volunteers and part-time staff were mobilised, emerging in social phenomenon such as “Obamagirl”, a young 21-year old leading the entire Obama campaign in his home state of Chicago, American-born Chinese (ABCs) and Vietnamese flocking to his service centres. Citizens across the globe contributed to his fund, USD10 or so right from their pockets.


I am not saying that Malaysia is in any way comparable to the United States of America. Neither am I claiming that our youth behave in the exact same manner, nor should we be emulating the patterns that followed there. What I am saying, however, is this:

  1. It is important to know what is making our millennial generation tick in order to transmit a message (political or otherwise) to our Malaysian youth.
  2. It is then necessary to take this message in the manner that is most viral and one that captures the imagination of our young to motivate them towards social action.

Malaysians are a social bunch, which stems from our communal nature. This spurs us towards group meetings at the mamak stalls. In fact, we love conferences as a result! Think of the number of forums and events that exist practically daily (and nightly). As of March 2009, there were more than 1 million active users of Facebook[2], with the most active users being between the ages of 18 and 25, followed by that of 26-34. More astoundingly, Malaysia has the highest number of Facebook users in Southeast Asia. Conclusion: we love to talk and get people to listen to us. Youth with Internet access increased from 57% in 2007 to 70% in 2008[3].

What does all this have to do with anything? A lot!

You and I belong to a generation of Malaysians that – perhaps not necessarily very optmistic – are desperately yearning for something more, something greater, something better, for our nation. Put aside whether or not some of us are actually doing anything about it; our generation either by complaining about the situation, or lamenting about it to our friends, honestly believes there is something seriously wrong with the system. Recognition (even a vague suspicion of it) that things ‘have to change’ has been established over the past three years, thanks to the rise of significant political movements such as BERSIH, HINDRAF and the Anti-ISA Movement (Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA, GMI), and the tidal wave of March 8th 2008, Malaysia’s 12th General Elections.

I have established two very crucial factors that contributed to the beginnings of the mass social movement in the United States, that have begun to bubble amongst the young in Malaysia: incredible aptitude for Web 2.0-based technologies (like Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Friendster, Facebook), as well as the awakening of the mind through recent political activities, although not quite chipping at the main block of the iceberg yet. The next elections will be the crucial one.

Facts and Figures

Some statistics to give you an idea of how the youth in Malaysia are behaving and thinking, although these were taken in 2008.

  1. Only 64% say their votes make a difference in influencing the government, compared to 80% a year before.
  2. 36% say they can make a difference in solving problems in their community, falling 3% from a year before with 39%.
  3. 44% are still unregistered voters. Some characteristics of the unregistered voters:
    1. Youngest group, unmarried, 22% of eligible urban youth not registered
    2. Reason not registered because they are busy (49%) or have indifferent views towards politics (27%)
    3. Not involved in organisations
    4. Would prefer a multiracial party (84%) vs. a single race party (18%).
    5. While 53% of this group thinks UUCA is necessary.

The National Youth Survey done showed that the youth of today want multiracial parties that can manage the economy well, fight corruption and take the time to listen to them and bring development to the community grassroots. They seem to have very strong convictions on the problems of Malaysia, but still do not subscribe to the self-efficacy of changing things themselves. In fact, self-efficacy predictions have declined, which means youth are a more dismal lot after than before the elections.

This may paint an unenthusiastic picture, but the truth is, our conditions are ‘right’ to encourage greater public participation. All we as protagonists need to do is to engage them on the spot. When I sent out an “Ideas, anyone?” call on Twitter yesterday to ask for points for today, it was rather apt that the two responses I got were: One, on technology and gadgets. Two, on seeking purpose in life and fulfilment.


The question I will therefore ask to you as youth leaders, and to the other youth of Malaysia, is this: “Are you leading an extraordinary life?” This generation is one that seeks answers to these questions: What am I doing with my life? Is this the right vocation for me? Is there something else I should be doing that better suits me? Do I find fulfilment in my job? We seek fulfilment in all we do. And this is the key in capturing the imagination of youth in Malaysia.

What are the components of a ‘fulfilling life’ according to the definition of a Malaysian youth? It is not clear based on the survey, but we know what is ideal for them in the big picture, a multiracial and inclusivist country being one of them.

How do we empower our young? We give them a vision, an alternative possibility to the world in which they live today. We speak a language of power, justice, and truth that matches the desires of their hearts so precisely that there is no choice but to be attracted to it. We remind them that without their individual contribution, they cannot take even that baby step towards the ideal country they all seem to desire. We do it in the way they are most familiar with: the Internet.

Only when we do so can we begin talking about the finetuning of its mechanics, including voter registration, community and neighbourhood participation, political participation, lobbying, writing and speaking boldly, financial support, and so on.

I would like to dedicate today’s speech to the late Teoh Beng Hock, whose case I am very much attached to. The issues in Malaysia are all about justice – economic justice, social justice – and speaking up for the downtrodden, the powerless and voiceless (literally) political aide. There have been more than 1,800 deaths in custody in 6 years up to 2009, many of them unnamed. In the past week I’ve attended two human rights events, one by SUARAM and one by the KLSCAH Civil Society Committee, where I observed decades of civil society activists standing up against issues of oppression. My answer is this: an extraordinary life is an ordinary person taking that bold step to say, I will count for something.

It will be the duty of those left in our generation to work steadily at this vision of a Malaysia we hanger after so desperately: one that is multiracial, progressive, diverse, clean, democratic, an equal society.

A popular poem by a German Pastor Martin Niemoller about the inactivity of German intellectuals during the Nazi rise for power captures the sentiment I have.

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

[1] Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & The Future of American Politics”, 2008, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey.

[2] Justin Smith, “Facebook Crosses 2 Million Users in Belgium, Sweden, Denmark; 1 Million in Egypt, Malaysia”, March 2nd 2009, Inside Facebook.

[3] National Youth Survey, 13th Nov – 9th Dec 2008, Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research and The Asia Foundation, Kuala Lumpur.

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