Political parties and coalitions campaigning in Malaysia’s general election will do better if they take note of the concerns of Gen Z voters.
Malaysia has finally entered campaign season, with party flags on every street. This year, political parties and candidates are zeroing in on a new “market” — youth voters as young as 18. Out of the 6 million under-30 eligible voters in Malaysia this year, more than half of them (approximately 3.5 million) are coming from a different generation — Generation Z (colloquially called zoomers). Cursorily, we know that Gen Zs are digital natives who entered the workforce during a recession induced by Covid-19. They are dubbed “entitled” at work as the previous generation’s preferences have become their expectations.
Beyond this, however, little else is known about Gen Zs, especially their political views. In September 2022, a computer-assisted telephone survey by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute was conducted among 805 respondents to gauge the political values, attitudes, and preferences of youths. This article presents a selection of the findings.
The most important value Gen Zs hold is that corruption should not be part of government under any circumstances. Of the 805 respondents, 91 per cent said corruption is never justifiable, even if the people’s welfare is taken care of (Figure 1). Only 9 per cent thought otherwise.
This could be partly explained by how corruption has become the dominant political discussion between the major parties, with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) trials featuring as a regular fixture in the daily news since 2018. The high-profile charges against and eventual jailing of former prime minister Najib Razak also reminded Gen Zs of the negative effects of corruption. As long as Barisan Nasional (BN) is still led by leaders who are troubled with criminal cases, Gen Zs will likely exhibit continued hesitance in supporting the coalition outright.
On a related issue, 64 per cent of Gen Zs thought that politicians are dishonest and would do anything to win elections. The large-scale party-hopping and horse-trading for cabinet positions in the past two years have strengthened such perceptions.
When asking which policy matters most to Gen Zs, the survey questions were designed to avoid a situation where respondents state the truistic “economy” as their answer, and then list down every policy as though we live in a utopian world. We asked respondents to list an issue of most concern without any choice list or keyword prompt; then, we asked respondents to role-play as the government in distributing an RM100 budget between the most popular policy areas among youths: Education, healthcare, jobs, housing, and climate change. This method allowed us to know not only what mattered to Gen Zs, but also by how much and what reasonable compromises they could tolerate.
On the first subjective question, 40 per cent of Gen Zs stated an economic issue, referring broadly to jobs, the high cost of living, and an unfavourable economic outlook as the top three concerns.
When we introduced the RM100 budget and five closed-ended policy areas, the answer became more illuminating. Education ranked first (Figure 2), with an average spend of RM28, followed by healthcare (average spend of RM22). Jobs and housing ranked equally at RM18 spend, whereas climate change was the lowest-ranked policy with only RM14 of the total spend.
This exercise gave us a more nuanced view of the issues. Given their relative proximity to their schooling and university days, education ranked highest. Given the infrequency of education being featured in parties’ manifestos and primary policy conversations, promises like subsidising or forgiving the national higher education loan scheme (PTPTN) are likely to be popular.
While climate change ranked last, it should not be taken to mean that Gen Zs do not care about the environment. They had assigned it as a lower priority relative to other more pressing needs.
Considering the subjective and RM100 questions together, the only economic concern that is actionable as a policy area is the cost of living, whereas jobs did not rank higher than education and healthcare after all. Thus, the top three areas that Gen Zs want a government to address would be the cost of living, education, and healthcare.
At present, only PH and MUDA (which was formed in 2020 to address the needs of younger voters) have issued manifestos and addressed the three primary policy areas extensively. Among others, PH offered cash transfers, a reduction in PTPTN loans and increased healthcare allocation to 5 per cent of the budget. MUDA offered targeted subsidies, digitalisation of schools, and improving education for the vulnerable. Whether these offers would provide an uplift in youths’ support highly depends on how the parties flag them up during campaigns. As things stand, PH and MUDA would have an electoral advantage if BN and Perikatan Nasional do not respond with better offers.
Gen Zs were also asked to consider their preferred composition of leaders in the cabinet, specifically on age and experience. In 2018, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad became the oldest leader in the world at age 92. Major parties and coalitions were then (and still) led by politicians above 70 years old.
Gen Zs were asked if they thought young people ought to be given a chance to govern even without prior government experience. Surprisingly, Gen Zs were pragmatic. Only 41 per cent of respondents believed that Malaysians should take a chance on a young leader without prior government experience (Figure 3). The majority of Gen Zs thought that prior government experience was more important for the sake of the country’s stability.
This means that even though Gen Zs were frustrated with older leaders governing the country without passing the baton, they still acknowledged the importance of prior experience and stability.
So, what do Gen Zs’ want? Like the overall population, their ideal government is not utopian or demanding. They want to see a corruption-free government that prioritises cost of living, education, and healthcare, besides having a healthy mix of the experienced and the young.
Since former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad declared that the manifesto was not a “bible” in 2018, there had been an emphasis on parties making more realistic promises. However, without breaking key policy promises into bite-sized campaigning content, manifestos are unlikely to serve a purpose beyond proving a readiness to govern. For parties who intend to use policies to persuade Gen Zs, the survey findings revealed the most pertinent areas to start.
James Chai is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and a columnist for MalaysiaKini and Sin Chew Daily.