A Malaysian youth wears a Guy Fawkes mask and jester's hat during a rally to celebrate the country's Independence Day in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
A Malaysian youth wears a Guy Fawkes mask and jester's hat during a rally to celebrate the country's Independence Day in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

In an election featuring many age-old familiar faces, an increasingly engaged but alienated younger generation of Malaysian voters is committing to #UndiRosak, a social media sparked campaign that advocates spoiling ballots rather than voting for the candidates on offer.

The youth vote is a key swing constituency, and both sides of Malaysia’s political divide are vying to win its hearts and minds ahead of what is expected to be a tight electoral race later this year. With many young voters plan to spoil rather than cast their ballots, the no-vote campaign could swing the result in unexpected ways.

While a precise election date has not yet been announced, pundits believe they will be held sometime between the Lunar New Year in mid-February and the beginning of Ramadan in May. Prime Minister Najib Razak, head of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Barisan Nastional coalition, must call the vote by August.

The Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition has stepped up its campaign since former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 92, was named its lead candidate in January. He will be joined by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the coalition’s deputy and wife of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who may be released before the polls but will be ineligible to run.

Mahathir’s 22-year tenure as national leader was marred by accusations of corruption and cronyism which culminated in the 1997-98 financial collapse. Najib’s rule, viewed by many as a continuation of Mahathir’s old UMNO order, has been darkly overshadowed by the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) money-laundering scandal.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur on March 22, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

That’s prompted many young Malaysian voters to ask what is the difference between voting for Mahathir or Najib? Enter the #UndiRosak campaign, which urges voters to spoil their vote in protest against both candidates and coalitions.

WATAN, a youth-led organization advocating engagement with mainstream politics, and local pollster Merdeka Center, recently polled sentiment among youth voters. The poll found the economy and job market were their top concerns. Tellingly, it also found youth voters overwhelmingly believe politicians take no interest in their aspirations or concerns.

Until recently neither coalition made concerted efforts to engage youth constituencies, opting instead to focus primarily on older generations from racial minority groups.

While it is unclear how many young voters will actually spoil their vote on polling day, a debate over the campaign has gone viral on social media, with Twitter users in particular taking to the platform to encourage other young Malaysians to take part.

The potential protest vote has infuriated many in the political class, with opposition politician Hasanuddin Mohd Yunus even suggesting that campaigners should be investigated by police and the Electoral Commission.

Ex-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during an anti-kleptocracy rally in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia October 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Activist Maryam Lee, the campaign’s founder, first made her case in an op-ed published by the local Malay Mail Online in October. In that piece, she argued that a spoiled vote is the only choice for young voters who have been mostly ignored in the pre-campaign discourse.

Three months later, Lee says she is further convinced of the need for a silent protest against voters’ limited electoral choice.

Lee participated in the UndiRosak forum on January 25 in Kuala Lumpur, which prompted the #UndiRosak hashtag to trend on Twitter and sparked a heated debate on both sides of the political spectrum that has inundated the internet.

“I am big on conversation,” she says. “At the forum, I applauded #UndiRosak for igniting a much-needed debate over the meaning of participatory democracy, citizenship and political consciousness.”

Lee points to Mahathir’s re-emergence as the prompt for much of the unrest among millennial and so-called ‘Gen Z’ voters, all of whom were children or not born yet during his authoritarian tenure spanning 1981 to 2003.

A Malaysian religious student is seen inside the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on May 20, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/ Muhammad Shahrizal

“The reason why the youth were upset about Mahathir was not just because of him, but the politics and legacy that he brings,” Lee says. “Crony capitalism and patronage [are] the biggest currency of corruption in Malaysia – Mahathir was and is still a big source of that problem,” she contends.

Masjaliza Hamzah, executive director at WATAN, says there is no guarantee the campaign’s point will register even with a high number of spoilt ballots, as there could be various reasons for mismarked ballots besides the no-vote campaign.

“It is not the clearest way to tell the political class how unhappy voters are with their options. Even if there is a significant number of spoiled ballots in the election, in Malaysia’s first-post-the-post system, the winner will go through even if just by a whisker,” Hamzah says.

But that hasn’t stopped a vicious campaign to silence #UndiRosak proponents, both online and in the mainstream press.

Following the forum, political commentators and pundits penned vitriolic columns against the campaign, with some even suggesting Lee seek mental health treatment. That eventually gave way to targeted harassment from online trolls, many of whom Lee says are supporters of the two coalitions.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) talks to youngsters after launching the “Voices of My Generation” youth program in Kuala Lumpur. Young Malaysians are a crucial, potentially decisive, source of support in national elections. Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

The reproach from opposition Pakatan Harapan supporters has been particularly harsh. Analysis shows the coalition stands little chance of winning the election unless it receives widespread support among voters under 40. The coalition’s team has recently tried to reach out via a youth forum and targeted campaigning over social media.

Najib and UMNO members have also stepped up their social media efforts with the launch of a new website that aims to appeal to younger generation voters. The move comes after acknowledging the party has scrambled to keep up with the opposition’s digital campaigning.

Those efforts may or may not connect. The Election Commission (EC) revealed in September that 3.8 million Malaysians over the age of 21 still haven’t registered to vote. The vast majority of unregistered eligible voters are young people, EC statistics show.

For the #UndiRosak campaign’s supporters, the criticism underscores a widening generational gap that won’t likely be addressed at the ballot box.

“The people of my parents’ generation seem to be very concerned about the political apathy of the youth, but they continue to refuse to understand why that happens,” Lee said. “If they really understood it, they would have to admit their own mistakes.”

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