Youth-led movement against Malaysian racial politics

Two years ago, just before the pandemic, a wave of youth-led protests hit several Muslim countries, from Sudan to Lebanon to Iraq. While the main goal was democratic reform, the protesters also shared a second demand: to end political patronage along ethnic or religious lines that fosters corruption. Now in part because of the pandemic, young people in another Muslim country, Malaysia, are following a similar march.

At the end of July, young Malaysians took to the streets to protest against the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic in the Southeast Asian country. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was forced to resign. Then in September, his replacement, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, made a key concession to activists. He halted government efforts to block a 2019 law that was supposed to lower the voting age. Now, young people between the ages of 18 and 20 will soon be able to vote, which will give more influence to young people in the overhaul of Malaysian democracy.

This influence could end up calling into question the racial politics of the country. For decades, the government has bestowed economic favors on the country’s majority Malay ethnic group, which is largely Muslim. This has resulted in official discrimination against ethnic minorities, especially Chinese and Tamil. Last year, a youth-led political movement emerged to end this discrimination and create inclusive politics.

“Young people are not sensitive to racial politics,” said movement founder Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul, a 28-year-old former lawmaker and government minister of sports. “They are more concerned with influencing their actual policies.” He hopes to register the movement as an official political party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, or MUDA, which means young in Malay.

A new spirit of civic equality has emerged in Malaysia, much like in other Muslim countries divided by ethnicity or religion. With access to social media, young people can bypass government-controlled information and learn about their common interests.

In July last year, 222 young Malaysians held a two-day “digital parliament” reflecting the real parliament to discuss and “pass” new laws affecting young people. The virtual meeting attracted over 200,000 viewers. They saw the potential for a new Malaysia, which would treat all citizens as individuals, with equal dignity and freedom of conscience, and equal moral status.

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