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A recent crackdown on students involved with protest activities has highlighted anew the prevalence of young Malaysians in Reformasi activism. These youths are part of a long tradition of student protest that was slowed, but not stalled altogether, by enforcement of the Universities and University Colleges Act and related enactments in the 1970s. Today’s youths grew up in an independent Malaysia, products of the NEP and NDP, and schooled in a common language. Many have known no leader other than Mahathir. Frustrated with the status quo and taking the government’s ‘gifts’ for granted, a significant number of young Malaysians are now demanding political change. Moreover, their different experiences and priorities have led many youths to articulate a political perspective distinct from that of their elders, suggesting that the generation gap is growing. Malaysians reaching political maturity in the Reformasi era may develop a greater sense of entitlement to participate in things political, a more critical view of national leaders, an expectation of the availability of independent media, and – critically – a deeper awareness of the presence and programs of opposition parties and politically-engaged non-governmental organizations.
Demands for change are confined to no single race. For instance, in the recent tussle over where PAS stands on the Islamic state issue, it was younger party leaders who were reportedly more keen to stress an institutionally secular, inclusive program, contradicting the more sectarian goals of the established Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS) leadership. As for Chinese Malaysians, while initially, the under-30s were presumed to have substituted the community’s traditional oppositional consciousness and engagement for a focus on jobs and economic growth, many have been at the forefront of calls for reform. Leaders such as young, idealistic Tian Chua have helped inspire large numbers of Chinese university students and others to participate and to be more aggressive. Indeed, as the Suqiu proposals (which called for equity, tolerance, and socio-cultural rights on various dimensions) were propounded, younger Chinese activists purportedly preferred that the English translation be in the language of ‘demands’ rather than ‘appeals’. Their more temperate elders won out, but the distinction is revealing.
Still, the extent of protest among Malaysian youths should not be overstated, even if the regime’s harsh response seems to indicate that Mahathir is genuinely worried. The regime tends to make an example of errant students to deter others from speaking out – and such intimidation may be very effective on youths afraid of losing their places in the universities or ruining their career prospects. Like their elders, then, many Malaysian students and youths are afraid to take a stand, or simply prioritize the same developmental imperatives as the regime.
Armed with education and skills, but facing gloomy economic prospects, young Malaysians may grow increasingly disillusioned with the regime and become more concerned to find a promising alternative between now and the next general elections. The next wave of PAS leaders may very well promote moral, multi-religious governance even more than the current, deeply Islamist but consciously non-communal, cohort. The rising generation of Chinese and Indian leaders, too, may be less communal in outlook as an artifact of shared middle class status across races, common reliance on Bahasa Malaysia as a primary means of communication, and a more pragmatic outlook, as it appears that the divisions among Malays are more politically salient today than the inter-communal cleavages. Young though they are, the rising generation of Malaysians may embody a new and transformative political maturity and sense of agency that their elders cannot share.
WATCHPOINT: Postscript: The events of 11 September seem likely to be most critical to youth activism in Malaysia in two respects. First, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks could spur the spread of radical perspectives, especially anti-American sentiments in the case of what is seen to be a heavy handed US response. Second, the citation of Malaysia as a sometime host to terrorists may encourage the government's crackdown on dissident Islamic groups. Even before 11 September, the regime had made a series of arrests of purported militant Malaysian mujahiddin, among them the son of PAS leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat. As the regime's net widens, legitimated by a reasonably plausible threat of violence, Muslim student and youth groups could be challenged
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