From Social Conversations To Constitutional Reforms

How Malaysian Youth Are Leveraging Digital For Impact


26 October 2021

6 minutes



Earlier this September, the Malaysian government had agreed to proceed with the implementation of UNDI18 (direct translation: VOTE18), a bill that lowers the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 years old across Malaysia by the end of 2021. Along with the enabling of automatic voter registration, the implementation of UNDI18 immediately gives democratic rights to more than 4 million voters. 

What originally started as a student movement in 2016 by two hopeful, young Malaysians lead to an official memorandum submitted in 2017 and thereon, gazetted into the law in 2019. However, the process is much easier read than done. UNDI18’s founders, Qyira Yusri and Tharma Pillai faced rejections and multiple failures as they did not have political connections or relations, nor did they have access to policymakers. 

The keystone to the movement happened in 2018 when former Malaysian Youth & Sports Minister, 29-year old Syed Saddiq came across UNDI18 on social media. Thereon, Syed helped carry the baton by lobbying more politicians, persistently attending as many events as possible to talk about the importance of youth empowerment while also constantly talking about UNDI18 online - whether in the form of video interviews with news outlets and e-platforms or live debates with secondary school students - the process is strategic and clear.

Syed Saddiq amasses 1.2 million followers on his Instagram and Twitter pages respectively, both of which he actively uses to produce short-form content (leveraging on Tik Tok trends and IG Reels) that is aimed to share more about the Malaysian political landscape in an easy, digestible way. Merging platform, power and responsibility, Syed’s strategy of utilising social media to break down the “fourth wall” separating Malaysian youth and the traditionalist “old man’s game” of politics is something to observe. 

In a study by the BBC, 80% of Malaysians are online and use the internet/ social media as key news sources and the percentage is expected to increase as we become even more digitally dependent. Like Syed, both Qyira and Tharma recognise the importance of having social presence especially as countries became mobile-impended globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When the pandemic hit Malaysia, many government services, including parliament, shut down or took a halt as they were not prepared to convene digitally. According to experts within the tech field, Malaysia has always culturally approached citizen engagement rather traditionally (house-to-house visits, public “ceramahs” and on-ground rallies). Digital campaigning and management did go hand in hand, but at a more basic level without fully utilizing its capacity. 

Critically, the importance is readiness. As we look towards an era where digital becomes even more vital, organisations (both government and non-government affiliates) must equip themselves better in managing, handling, and coordinating online. In that essence, both risk and mitigation must be taken into account.

Despite this being an ongoing setback, the country’s digital limitations were systematically leveraged by the Malaysian youth by deploying bigger and louder social movements in the fight for democratic rights.

In July, #LAWAN was born - a fully online movement led and participated by Malaysian youth. This follows after the formation of two other significant social movements: the #BenderaHitam (translation: Black Flag) - to express frustration towards mishandlings of the pandemic and #BenderaPutih (translation: White Flag) - a people-for-people movement aimed to help B40 Malaysians in need. The #BenderaPutih ball rolled even further when a group of students created an app, Sambal SOS to centralise communications where users can ask for and receive help systematically.

What would be typically perceived as nothing more but “online noise”, it’s imperative to note that #LAWAN, #BenderaPutih, and #BenderaHitam were all social movements completely conceived, planned, and coordinated digitally by the Malaysian youth in their bid of making change while disrupting the diaspora of reported news altogether. 

The digital arena has globally proven its ability to hold and transform actual movements that can create significant change in developing democracy. Political activism has grown significantly alongside the speed at which digital media expands, shaping diverse forms of political participation and mobilizing large-scale social protests around the world - think Hong Kong’s 2019 umbrella movement as a primary example. 

#LAWAN became a constantly trending topic in the Malaysian digital sphere, amassing more than 70,000 mentions on Twitter leading up to its on-ground protest attended by nearly 1,000 citizens in the city center despite ongoing movement restrictions due to the pandemic. International news platforms like Al Jazeera, The Associated Press, and Human Rights Watch were quick to pick up on it as well.

Like UNDI18, there is a heightened awareness in contracting support and movement online, especially in a time when movement control orders and sedition acts are in place. The notion that “young people don’t have a place in politics” continues to be challenged locally, especially as Malaysians learn more about the political landscape in other countries globally. 

As online discourse turns into social movements and thereon grows into fully conceptualised campaigns, it is clear that digital as an exponentially vast medium is beyond just a table to express social issues in Malaysia. Continuously evolving digital tools and strategies paired with the innate hunger for change could very well be the next lynchpin in the youth leading Malaysia’s political shift and a “digitally shaping” a new idea of Malaysian citizens and society. 


Want to learn more about digital impact? Schedule a chat with us today, we’ll be happy to discuss further on how to leverage the momentum.

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