‘Malaysia is among the last few nations that allow only 21-year-olds to vote.
The others include Singapore, Samaoa, Soloman Islands, Lebanon, Tonga,
Tokelau, and Oman.’
If amendments to the laws are passed in Parliament to lower the voting age from 21 currently to 18, Malaysia is going to join most countries where the voting age has been set at 18. By the end of the last century, 18 had become the most common voting age. Lowering voting age to 18 was not included in the Pakatan Harapan manifesto prior to the last general election. However, last year, the Cabinet decided to lower the legal voting age.
If Parliament passed the amendment, it means more than 50 per cent of Malaysians would be eligible to vote in the next general election. In other words, we will have 3.8 million new voters, bringing the total number of eligible voters to 18.8 million if the GE is called in 2023.
Recently, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong was quoted as having said that it would be the most important historical development post-Merdeka, as those aged 18 and above would be eligible to choose the next government.
The change has serious repercussions and far reaching implications socially and politically. The youth are sure to be the determining factor in the next general election, and even in the Sarawak state election.
Why is 18 considered a mature age or coming of age for an individual? Why are young people regarded as adults at the age of 18? Under the Child Act 2001, one is still regarded as a child when one is under-18. To some, age is not a harbinger to maturity as there are many other factors that contribute to it. The question of maturity and rational thinking is not measured by age only.
Maturity is an attitude built by experience over the years. Borrowing words from an American businessman, poet, humanitarian, and religious leader, Samuel Ullman, “maturity is the ability to think, speak and act your feeling within the bounds of dignity. The measure of your maturity is how spiritual you become during the midst of your frustration”.
What is it that makes a person an adult? Does it mean that one is already mature when one stops sucking one’s thumb and knows how to take care of oneself? What are the criteria of maturity? Is it the ability to drive a car without supervision or get married without further consent? Maturity to some means when an individual takes full responsibility for his or her actions, mistakes, and misdeeds.
Obviously, it is not enough to just say that you are a mature adult when you stop sucking your thumb. To me, one key element of maturity is integrity, and responsibility for one’s actions. But to some, age is just an element of statistics.
To supporters of the amendment Bill, 18-year-olds are already adults. After all, they are already recognised as adults under Malaysian law, and they can marry without further consent. So, why restrict them from their rightful legal duty of determining the future of their country? Age is not necessarily reflective of a person’s maturity level. Therefore, political awareness or literacy is not limited in those under 21.
In my research, I found at least 170 countries that allow 18-year-olds to vote while we in Malaysia are still debating the lowering of the voting age to 18.
A number of countries including Argentina, Belgium, Bosnia, and Herzegovina allow even 16-year-olds to choose their political representatives. In 2011 Austria became the first country in the European Union (EU) to lower its voting age to 16 in an effort to correct the imbalance between its young and ageing citizens.
Brazil allowed 16-year-olds to vote as far back as 1988 in all elections, including its presidential elections. Bosnia and Herzegovina too allow 16-year-olds to vote on condition that they are employed. On March 5, 2018, the Maltese parliament unanimously voted in favour of lowering the official voting age from 18 to 16, thus making Malta the second state in the EU to do so.
Malaysia is among the last few nations that allow only 21-year-olds to vote. The others include Singapore, Samaoa, Soloman Islands, Lebanon, Tonga, Tokelau, and Oman. A few countries that allow 20-year-olds to choose their representatives are Bahrain, Cameron, Taiwan and Nauru.
Those who are not in favour of lowering the voting age regard the step taken by the government as worrisome. The general election should not be taken lightly, they argued. It is an important national political event that determines which political parties and leaders are going to rule the country.
So, is lowering the voting age a step in the right direction? Do we want to place the future of the nation mostly in the hands of people who are not politically mature? Ask lecturers in universities and other institutions of higher learning. They will tell you whether their students are aware of political and social developments in the country.
Should we let adults only to determine the future of the nations? Or should we leave it in the hands of those who have just completed their secondary education?
This is a serious business and to some we should not leave it in the hands of people who make decisions based on emotions and sentiments. This group of voters is considered as having low political literacy and don’t even know the doctrine of separation of powers, and the name of various ministries, let alone ministers.
We want somebody who understands political developments and current issues in the country and not a teenager who takes the task lightly. Remember, this social media generation is most likely to digest any information they read online without proper discrimination.
There is very high probability that they would make conclusions at the ballot box based on narratives on social media and the Internet as a whole rather than on their own original considerations.
Still, if Parliament passed the amendment, I hope serious attention is given to educating our young citizens about politics and democracy in Malaysia.
The government should introduce a school subject that educates teenagers about elections and voting systems to improve political awareness and literacy among them.
Associate Professor Dr Jeniri Amir is a lecturer and political analyst at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.