Polarised but Hopeful: How Malaysia’s Gen Zs May Vote, and Why
This Long Read features the findings of a recent poll on the voter sentiments of Malaysia’s Gen Zs. A majority of Gen Zs hold low trust in the political actors that are running the country but are nonetheless still politically engaged. 79 per cent of them say that they will most likely turn out to vote in the coming election.
The Malaysian workforce is still recovering from a triple crisis in health, economics and politics. Where the young are concerned, they are paid less than their regional peers; one-third of them consider getting a house “seriously unaffordable”, and; only 16% find it easy to save.
The past few years have been a politically unstable period, triggered by the “Sheraton Move”, a large-scale party-hopping initiative undertaken by MPs horse-trading for a place in government. The federal government fell twice in two years, with each successive government surviving on a wafer-thin majority. Unprecedented challenges of Covid-19, supply-chain disruptions due to the Ukraine War and tensions between major superpowers only exacerbated the uncertainty youths are feeling about their future.
At the same time, Malaysian youths have never been as politically enfranchised as they are now. In the 15th General Election (GE15) to be held on 19 November 2022, all Malaysians who are 18-years-old and above are automatically eligible to vote. The six million voters aged below 30 who now make up 29% of the total electorate (~21 million) are sufficient to shake up the electoral situation.
To provide further details on this new group of voters, this article is divided into two parts:
- Will the youths vote?
Questions on knowledge, motivation, and sentiment are probed in Part 1.
- Who will the youths vote for?
Choices are dissected and traced to their origin(s) in Part 2.
In this article, only youths between the ages of 18 to 24 in 2022 are covered, this being the group that intersects the categories of first-time voter and Generation Z (Gen Z). A total of 45 questions were put to 805 respondents in a telephone survey conducted in September 2022.
Part 1: Not Fired Up but Still Ready to Go: Gen Zs’ Survey Turnout Levels
Contrary to popular belief, Gen Zs are aware and well-equipped to judge what politicians and the government are doing to address their concerns.
Chart 1: Gen Zs’ consumption frequency and medium of current affairs news
According to Chart 1, a majority of respondents (62%) kept abreast of political news at least a few times a week. In contrast, respondents who rarely read political news – monthly readers and non-readers – amounted to a minority 39% of total respondents. Though the rise in popularity of TikTok is prominent among youths, it was only the third most-used platform for current affairs (18%), with Facebook (29%) and Instagram (25%) still acting as primary platforms for political goings-on in Malaysia.
Clearly, the “Daily” and “Almost Daily” readers were those most interested in politics, reading about political news a few times a week is nevertheless considered sufficient for the making of informed political decisions such as voting.
When asked how they would score in an exam about politics, a majority (65%) scored themselves 50% or below, and 9% of them gave themselves the lowest quartile scores of 0% to 20% (Chart 2). At the same time, only 9% confidently rated themselves at the highest quartile of 80% to 100%.
Chart 2: Respondents’ self-assessed exam score on politics
To test this, the survey subsequently quizzed respondents on the current political landscape. Depending on the respondents’ location, the two-wrongs-one-right question pools were as follows:
Table 1: Quiz on basic political knowledge
All responses were designed to be current but not too recent, obvious but not simple, and nuanced but not subjective. The assumption was that only respondents who pay sufficient, albeit not complete, attention to politics could answer these questions with ease. In all instances, the correct response is “B”.
Chart 3: Gen Z’s political quiz results
Invariably, Gen Z respondents did well, with a clear majority selecting the right response and only approximately 20% picking the wrong one. Notably, certain nuances threw some respondents off. In West Malaysia, a small portion of Chinese and Malay respondents selected “C”, perhaps because they were more familiar, and thus more easily confused, with the non-Malay former Minister of Finance and his party background. A similar confusion was found in Sarawak where a few respondents selected “A”, wrongly assuming that Taib Mahmud was still the governing figurehead, perhaps due to his continued presence in a different capacity, as governor of the state.
Arguably, while respondents knew political facts, they still scored themselves lowly on the “political exam” (Chart 2) because they assumed that there was more about politics than they know.
Beyond knowledge on political facts, we wanted to also gauge how Gen Zs felt about political actors in general.
The survey asked three sets of questions to assess Gen Z’s political sentiment given the political instability in recent years. More generally, these questions were designed to gauge the level of (dis)trust Gen Zs have for political actors who were often seen as deprioritising public interest against private gains.
The questions were divided into three actors: Politicians, Government, and Political Parties. Every respondent was presented with two statements about these three actors, of which they were to pick the one that seemed closest to their beliefs (Table 2).
Table 2: Questions to gauge Gen Zs’ sentiments on key political actors
In Chart 4 below, a clear majority (averaging 63%) were not happy with what the politicians, government, and political parties were doing. The highest dissatisfaction was registered for politicians, with 64% feeling that they may do anything to win elections, even lie to the public. This deep distrust for Politicians may have stemmed from the large-scale party-hopping in 2020, largely seen as being due to a pursuit of personal gains, and for ministerial positions and riches. When it came to Government and Political Parties, 62% were both frustrated with how government works and disgusted with political parties today.
…a clear majority were not happy with what the politicians, government, and political parties were doing. The highest dissatisfaction was registered for politicians, with 64% feeling that they may do anything to win elections, even lie to the public.
Chart 4: Gen Zs’ sentiments on key political actors
However, there were nuances in the responses on Chart 4. Muslim Bumiputera in East Malaysia was the only ethnic group that registered a majority (52%) in a positive impression of politicians, whereas Chinese and Indian respondents showed the lowest positive responses (10% and 11% respectively) for the same question. Additionally, Chinese respondents also registered an unusually high “Unsure/Refused” (28%) on Political Parties, perhaps due to positive impressions for a few parties and disgust for the others. Overall, 52% Chinese respondents recorded disgust for political parties.
It is entirely possible that Gen Zs used the three political sentiment questions to vent their frustrations with the material conditions of low pay, unemployment, and high cost of living, and the broad political actors served as a good proxy for that frustration. They may have found people in power responsible, regardless of which actor they represented.
Notwithstanding these frustrations, Gen Zs still believe in the value of voting and are ready to vote when the election comes.
The literature on the subject suggests that the best method for assessing voter turnout for a cohort is by asking the Sunday question, in the form of “If the General Election is held this Sunday, how likely are you to vote?” This question is effective because it captures the most immediate voter sentiment and removes the logistics challenge, to some extent, by naming a weekend instead of a weekday. Our survey adopted that same question to ask.
Chart 5: Sunday turnout question
Respondents were asked to rate their turnout likelihood on a scale of 1 to 4 with 1 being “very unlikely” and 4 being “very likely”. Encouragingly, 79% of respondents said that they would likely vote in the next general election; 56% of these returned the top answer—“very likely”, implying a virtual certainty in voting participation. This is comparable to Malaysia’s highest turnout levels historically, and higher than recent turnout survey responses by the general Malaysian voter population, proving that Gen Zs are not more disengaged and uninformed than other age cohorts.
There are two potential drivers to the high turnout responses. One is political efficacy. Essentially, political efficacy questions are designed to see how empowered respondents feel about affecting the outcome. Disillusionment with the political situation or the election system like malapportionment and fraud may threaten this sense of efficacy. Surprisingly, Gen Z respondents turn out to be optimistic about the impact of their votes.
Table 3: Questions on voter efficacy
In three similar-themed questions (Table 3), Gen Z respondents appear convinced that their votes will make a difference to the outcome of the election and their lives.
Chart 6: Questions on political efficacy
According to Chart 6, 75% and 78% of Gen Zs believe that their votes will make a difference to how the country caters to youths and to who wins the elections, respectively. Notably, Chinese respondents appear to be the most disillusioned and pessimistic group, with only 63% (vs. 75% overall) and 69% (vs. 78% overall) sharing the optimism on the first two efficacy questions, respectively.
Additionally, 43% of respondents believe that their chosen party will win the election. This makes sense in this view would validate their sense of efficacy. Though 43% is lower than the responses in the previous two efficacy question, it still ranks highest among all responses. This makes voter efficacy a strong reason why Gen Zs appear ready to vote on polling day.
The second, and more persuasive reason for high turnout responses was the respondents’ sense of duty.
Chart 7: Voting as a duty
Every respondent, regardless of ethnicity, religion, income, education level, region and employment status, believes strongly that it is every Malaysian citizens’ duty to vote. Even among the most disillusioned and pessimistic group, the Chinese, 85% believe it is a duty to vote. While it is not clear where this sense of civic duty comes from, since this is not actively instilled at school, it seemed to be a decisive reason for all respondents.
A final caveat ought to be applied before we conclude this part. The actual turnout levels of Gen Zs need to be compared to the turnout responses in this survey, for fear that the respondents’ answers here may be prone to social desirability bias on their part in that they wish to be perceived as a good and participative citizen.
In summary, Gen Z respondents read about politics a few times a week and are knowledgeable about political facts. However, they score themselves lowly in a hypothetical “political exam”, either out of low confidence or an awareness that their knowledge is limited. Though Gen Zs are obviously disappointed with political actors today, they are not entirely disillusioned by the political process. Instead, they are hopeful that voting is powerful enough to make a difference, and the vast majority of them are ready to exercise this new enfranchisement come election day.
Part 2: Rebels at Home: Voting Choice and Parental Influence
In this survey, we also asked the question on would be on everyone’s minds: Who will the youths vote for? Similar to other party choice questions, the number of respondents who choose “Unsure/Refused/Don’t Know” will naturally be higher than other questions, due to privacy and fear. However, that also means that respondents who return a positive answer would likely have done so honestly, thus giving us directional clues of the political sentiment of the overall Gen Z population.
As a caveat, the list of options we provided was not comprehensive enough to cover the many political parties in East Malaysia, thus leaving an East Malaysian analysis incomplete. Further studies focused specifically on East Malaysian political sentiments is greatly encouraged.
Chart 8: Gen Z’s voting choice
As expected, Chart 8 shows that 42.9% of the respondents answered Unsure/Refused/Don’t Know. It is not possible to clearly ascertain how many of these were genuinely uncertain about who to vote for, or whether they were simply preferring to keep their party choice a secret.
Beyond that, the party choices of Gen Z respondents seemed split between BN, PN, PH, and the new youth party, MUDA. BN leads the group with 19% of support, followed by PH (11%), PN (11%), and lastly MUDA (9%). The support level for Pejuang is too low to warrant any serious discussion here. The last party, Parti Kekuatan Semenanjung, is a fake party inserted into the option list as a secondary test of knowledge and respondent honesty. Almost no respondent picked that choice, indicating that most Gen Zs are knowledgeable enough to know it was a decoy and that they answered the other questions faithfully.
Since PH has agreed to enter into an electoral pact with MUDA, it seems sensible at the time of writing to merge their support levels into one. One obvious limitation of this exercise is that we could not ascertain the vote dissipation from this PH+MUDA merger, i.e., a PH supporter refusing to vote for MUDA in a MUDA-assigned seat, and vice versa, which may reduce the overall PH+MUDA support level.
A revised breakdown of support by party is shown on the right of Chart 8. PH+MUDA, with 20.5% support, is now the leader of the race, with PN a distant third.
However, it is essential to ask if the support for each party is stable or whether they are susceptible to swings. This is why the survey asked a follow-up question:
If you were given a second vote, which party will be your second choice?
For this question, respondents were allowed to select the same party as their first choice. Although theoretically it did not matter which party the respondents’ second choice was in a first-past-the-post system where voters only get one choice each, it could help establish the level of loyalty that Gen Z respondents have for their chosen party. In other words, respondents with a second choice different from the first are potential swing voters.
Table 4: First-Choice and Second-Choice Parties: Support Base and Potential Swing Votes
Note: Bolded numbers represent core supporter base; italicised numbers represent the potential swing vote; respondents who answered “Others/Unspecified” as their first choice and answered the same for second-choice are excluded from this analysis.
Table 4 shows each coalition’s support base and the potential swing votes. PN has the most stable core support (50.6%), followed by PH+MUDA (40.3%) and BN (31.2%). Thus, half of PN’s supporters will not switch to another party, while only approximately one-third of BN supporters will stick around.
It is surprising that BN has the lowest core supporter base among Gen Zs; it is after all the oldest and most experienced coalition, with the largest party membership. Its swing voters to PN (32.5%) exceed its own support base; its swing voters to PH+MUDA is also high (25.3%). This puts the BN coalition at unexpected levels of vulnerability in this voter cohort.
It is surprising that BN has the lowest core supporter base among Gen Zs; it is after all the oldest and most experienced coalition, with the largest party membership.
On the other hand, PN’s core voters is led by loyal PAS supporters who continue their parents’ legacy of strong attachment and affinity to the Islamic party even though it is now in coalition with Bersatu. Interestingly, a PN swing voter will almost certainly choose to support a similarly minded coalition, i.e. BN (33.7%), and will only consider PH only under exceptional circumstances (5.6%).
Lastly, for PH+MUDA, its main risk factor among swing voters is whether they will vote at all. A substantial portion of its swing voters (27.1%) are still undecided. This lends credence to the claim that PH+MUDA’s supporters are most inclined to not vote, making low turnout, and not BN or PN, the coalition’s main enemy.
Taking this into account, a clearer breakdown of support is shown in Chart 9.
Chart 9: Gen Z’s voting choice (accounting for core and potential swing voters)
If we compare only the core supporters, the race is tight among the three competing coalitions. While PH+MUDA can take comfort in knowing they have the largest core supporter base, the election outcome is likely to be decided by the swing voters, as in every other election. While BN and PN’s biggest risks lie in vote swinging between each other, PH+MUDA’s turnout risks may relegate it to second or third place, denying them a victory that would otherwise be theirs. However, if PH+MUDA succeeds in mobilising its supporters, the coalition will likely emerge the winner in the Gen Z pool.
When asked the top reason for choosing one party over the other, a majority of respondents (53%) say it is because they like the chosen party’s ideas and/or policies (Chart 10). Since a political party’s proposed policies are not always visible or clear, this answer can best be taken only to mean that respondents preferred, in a broad sense, the ideas that the chosen party represents i.e., PAS represented Islamic politics, PH a multiracial future, and MUDA a youth-led multiracial offer.
Chart 10: Top reason for voting a party/coalition
The second and third most popular reasons were “Others are worse” (14%) and “Candidate” (11%). An unexpected racial split is found in these two answers, where the second choice for non-Muslim minorities, i.e., the Chinese, Indian, and Non-Muslim Bumiputera respondents, is “Candidate”, in contrast to the Muslim population’s “Others are worse” second-choice. This could be explained by the possibility of Muslim respondents believing that non-Malay or multiracial parties are detrimental to the country, and thus, they have to make do between the choices of BN and PN.
For Gen Z respondents, it matters less which coalition or party they vote for, as these answers record only 6% and 5% respectively. In other words, it does not matter to them which party makes up PN other than PAS and Bersatu; as long as the coalition represents an Islam- and Bumiputera-centred vision, that is sufficient.
Another explanation for the respondents’ political choices emerged: Parental influence.
Before the question about the respondents’ party of first and second choice, we asked a question of what the respondents’ parents voted for in the last general election (GE14). Granted, there were limitations to this question as the parties and coalitions were different then compared to GE15. To this, we made reasonable inferences. For instance, a PN supporter now would be considered following the parents’ choice if the parents had voted for Bersatu or PAS in GE14. Similarly, a MUDA supporter now would still be considered following the parents’ choice if the parents voted for PH in GE14. Besides this, there was also the limitation on the respondents’ ability to recall their parents’ voting choices accurately.
Nonetheless, we accepted the respondents’ answers since the purpose of the question is to gauge the difference in choices between the respondents and the parents, if any, rather than the accuracy of the respondents’ recall.
The results are fascinating. 61% of respondents follow their parents’ choices, classified as “compliance”, whereas 39% of respondents are willing to go the other way, termed “rebellion” (left of Chart 11). Generally, parental influence remains a dominant force in a child’s thinking, and their concept of politics is also not spared.
Chart 11: Rebels at Home: Gen Zs’ voting choices vs parents’
Although compliance is strongest in BN households, contributing 27%, the rebellion is also the strongest, (18%). PH’s households appear most stable, with high compliance (20%), and relatively low rebellion (10%).
The right side of Chart 11 breaks down each party’s Gen Z supporters’ first-choice into whether this is the same or different from their parents’ choice. Unsurprisingly, MUDA is found to be the hothouse for rebels, where more than half (54%) of supporters depart from their parents’ non-PH choice in GE14. Politically, this makes sense as MUDA is a new option catering directly to the youth after years of elite politics focused primarily on aged politicians fighting for positions. This makes MUDA a good destination for anyone wanting change from their parents’ generation. Following this pattern at far second is PN, where 21% of supporters divert from their parents’ choice.
Under both instances (MUDA and PN), most of the rebels have BN-supporting parents, implying that the biggest generational shifts are happening in BN households where the children choose ideologically more distant options: PN (conservative) or MUDA (progressive).
Through hidden parental influence and a broad conception of what a party or coalition represents, Gen Zs’ votes are split between the three major coalitions, with a substantial portion ready to swing. PH+MUDA seems to have a slight edge over the other coalitions but remains burdened by the low-turnout tendency of its swing voters who may decide to stay in on polling day. At 39%, youths who want to vote differently from their parents remain substantial, and this fight for the future is likely going to be carried out fiercely at the ideological opposites of Malaysian society.
Youths have been given the vote at a unique time. Elections are getting more competitive than ever; GE15 will only be the second election where nationwide multi-cornered contests, with at least three competitors each, are held, and this will likely persist in elections to come.
Secondly, politics is reaching an inflection point where BN’s dominance is no longer the norm. The survey also shows that nearly half of youths are ready to depart from their parents’ chosen party, signifying an ongoing detachment from the past. Lastly, the move away from BN in search of more conservative (PN) or progressive (PH+MUDA) choices may lay the ground for an ideological battle in the future.
This context likely elevates the value and meaning of a youth vote. Not only will a voting youth determine who wins an election, but also how the future will be shaped.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2022/106 published on 2 November 2022. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.