A woman rides a bicycle in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sept. 27.

A youth-led movement against Malaysia’s race-based politics

As in other Muslim nations, many young people in this Southeast Asian nation see official discrimination for or against groups as a source of corruption and a denial of individual rights.

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, protesters also shared a second demand: End political favoritism along ethnic or religious lines that aids corruption. Now partly because of the pandemic, young people in another Muslim country, Malaysia, are on a similar march.

In late July, young Malaysians took to the streets to protest the government’s poor handling of the pandemic in the Southeast Asian nation. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was forced to resign. Then in September, his replacement, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, made a key concession to activists. He ended government efforts to block a 2019 law that was supposed to lower the voting age. Now 18- to 20-year-olds will soon be able to cast ballots, giving greater influence to young people in reshaping Malaysia’s democracy.

That influence could end up challenging the country’s race-based politics. For decades, the government has granted economic favors to the country’s majority Malay ethnic group, which is largely Muslim. That resulted in official discrimination against ethnic minorities, notably Chinese and Tamil. Last year, a youth-led political movement sprang up to end such discrimination and create inclusive politics.

“Young people are not susceptible to racial politics,” said the movement’s founder, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul, a former lawmaker and government sports minister who is 28 years old. “They are more concerned about 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 the Malay language.

A new spirit of civic equality has emerged in Malaysia, much like that in other Muslim countries divided by ethnicity or religion. With access to social media, young people are able to bypass government-controlled news and read about their shared 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 youth. The virtual meeting drew more than 200,000 viewers. They saw a potential for a new Malaysia, one that treats all citizens as individuals, endowed with the same dignity and freedom of conscience, and with equal moral standing.

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