Malaysians will vote in a tightly contested general election on Saturday, after two weeks of fierce campaigning in which politicians have sought to woo millions of young voters by embracing Instagram and TikTok trends.
Saturday’s election is the first since constitutional changes lowered the voting age to 18 and automatically registered voters, meaning there are 6 million more voters than at the previous election in 2018. It is believed to be the first time people under 40 make up the majority of the electorate.
More than 9,000 polling centres will open for 10 hours on Saturday but there is concern about voter turnout. On top of widespread flooding and forecasts of further rain, many voters are weary after years of political infighting. The government that won power in 2018 collapsed in less than two years, and the country has had three different prime ministers in four years.
The current prime minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, of the UMNO party, called the snap election in October in an attempt to strengthen his Barisan Nasional (National Front) alliance. He is up against two other coalitions vying to form a government: Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), led by the reformist opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, and Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance), led by the former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
UMNO had dominated Malaysian politics for decades, before it was ousted in the 2018 elections – a result driven by popular anger over the multibillion-dollar 1MDB financial scandal. Najib Razak, a former prime minister, was imprisoned recently for 12 years on charges related to 1MDB.
Analysts say it is unlikely there will be a clear majority – which requires a minimum 112 of 222 parliamentary seats – after Saturday’s vote. “The question will be which coalition will have the bigger number of seats with a strong negotiating position,” said Dr Azmil Tayeb, a political analyst.
A new battleground
In the battle to win over first-time voters, politicians have embraced social media, with TikTok emerging as a new battleground in the race to secure youth votes. There are now 1.4 million 18- to 21-year-olds who are newly eligible to vote, out of a total voting population of 21.1 million.
Muhyiddin Yassin, 75, the chair of Perikatan Nasional (PN), is among those to have tapped into TikTok trends during campaigning. In one video that has been liked hundreds of thousands of times, he swipes away the logos of rival political coalitions to the strains of the song Swipe by the Singaporean hip-hop artist Alyph.
Syed Saddiq, who became Malaysia’s youngest minister after the 2018 elections, is especially active on social media, posting clips of campaign speeches, pleas for young people to vote – as well as clips of his two cats. In one video, he does 60 seconds of press-ups (the time it takes to register for postal voting) to persuade people how quick the process is.
Divya Latha Ramesh, 23, a student and first-time voter, said that in the run-up to the election her social media feeds had been saturated with politics. “Recently all my fyp [For You page] recommendations are about politics,” she said. “Social media is a huge platform to attract young voters’ attention.”
Divya Latha wants a government that will bring about a more equal society, reduce poverty and put an end to affirmative action policies that have for decades benefited the Malay majority over ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities in areas such as education.
“I hope for a government that cares about its own people regardless of their race, age and skin colour,” she said.
Raja Nur Arissa, 21, also voting for the first time, said while she had some friends who supported UMNO, young people were more likely to be conscious of the 1MDB scandal. “There are not many from the younger generation that still support [Najib],” she said.
Arissa, a student and a social media influencer, said she wanted a government that cared about human rights, and that would take weather-related disasters seriously. Some of her friends were affected during recent flooding, not once but twice, due to failures of the government warning system, she said.
She hopes that, soon, younger leaders could also emerge. “Although they say experience makes a great leader, we should also give a chance to the younger ones to prove that the next generation can be better. Many youth now are struggling to make a living.”
Azmil, the analyst, said that on social media the three major coalitions had focused on promising stability and economic prosperity. “Especially for young people’s jobs, high cost of living, student debt, access to education, these are the typical promises. It resonates a bit more now as we have a global recession.”
On the brink of power
Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister, has drawn huge turnouts at his events, according to Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research (NASR). But he said the atmosphere was more subdued than in 2018, when Anwar’s coalition benefited from huge public anger over the 1MDB scandal.
Anwar has promised reforms such as limiting the prime minister’s term to 10 years, and making assistance needs-based rather that race-based. He has been on the brink of power several times during his turbulent political career . It was Anwar’s reformist coalition – an unlikely alliance formed with his former rival Mahathir Mohamad – that defeated Barisan Nasional in 2018. Mahathir had promised Anwar he would succeed him as prime minister, but he resigned from office before the promise could be fulfilled.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, a political analyst and a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said loyalty among UMNO voters should not be underestimated this year. “I think a party such as UMNO has the ability, an uncanny ability, to mobilise their voters to still come out to vote, therefore flooding would benefit UMNO,” said Ei Sun.