Following the implementation of the Undi18 Amendment, an estimated 5.8 million new voters have been added to Malaysia’s electoral roll, increasing the total number of eligible voters by 40%. This is significant step forward for Malaysian democracy, and one that could not have taken place without the efforts of Undi18, a youth-led campaign that advocated for the Constitutional Amendment through continuous engagement, lobbying, digital campaigning and coordinated protests.
Undi18 (Translation: Vote18), a youth-led campaign in Malaysia, advocated for reducing the minimum voting age in Malaysia from 21 to 18 years old, in line with the minimum voting age of 18 in most other countries (both Western and in Southeast Asia). The current situation, combined with the steadily increasing proportion of young people among Malaysia’s population, was creating a tremendous barrier to the implementation of true democracy.
The Undi18 campaign was initiated by then-university students Tharma Pillai and Qyira Yusri in 2016, as a student movement, under the umbrella of the Malaysian Students’ Global Alliance. This gave Undi18 access to numerous student/youth organisations throughout Malaysia and around the world. The campaign argued that 18-year-olds are considered adults by law in Malaysia and should therefore have the right to vote.
In 2019, the Undi18 campaign achieved a historic triple Constitutional Amendment. This saw the minimum age, both for voting and for elected representatives, reduced and allowed for automatic voter registration in Malaysia. This was the first-ever Constitutional Amendment Bill in Malaysian history with unanimous votes in both the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament.
The Constitutional Amendment Bill became law on 10 September 2019. However, due to the technical challenges, full implementation was scheduled for July 2023.
In March 2021, the new government decided to postpone the implementation of the Constitutional Amendment Bill by a further 14 months without any clear justification. Undi18 led a coalition of youth organisations and youth wings of political parties to organise a series of popular protests against the postponement. It also initiated a lawsuit against the Prime Minister, the Election Commission and the Malaysian Federal Government. In September 2021, the High Court of Kuching decided in favour of Undi18, compelling the government to implement the Bill no later than 31 December 2021. Public pressure forced the government not to appeal the court order, and the Bill was implemented on 15 December 2021. One month later, once the voter rolls had been updated, 5.8 million new voters joined the Malaysian electoral system overnight, a 40% increase in the total number of voters in the country.
The campaign used a four-point advocacy approach: kickstart, communication, engagement, lobbying. This strategy sought to balance established advocacy tools such as lobbying and coalition building with newer approaches based on digital campaigning.
Undi18 was Malaysia’s first civil society organisation that began as a digital campaign. This primarily relied on social media to drive the messaging, using Twitter and Instagram as the main platforms as these were most popular with youth people. Online tools were also developed for supporters to automatically email their Members of Parliament, in order to pressure them on the Bill.
Undi18’s approach was aggressively multi-partisan, seeking to work with all sides of the political divide be they progressive or conservative political parties and coalitions.
This included outreach to conservative Islamic religious leaders for their support. This was an unusual strategy for progressive organisations, but proved effective in shifting public support in Undi18’s favour.
Working closely with progressive or reformist government Ministers to advocate for the cause within government was an effective strategy. It was important to stress that this initiative was first and foremost about youth empowerment and strengthening Malaysian democracy.
Finally, the campaign’s advocacy had to be fearless. Pushing through reforms with a hesitant or hostile public is challenging, yet it is vital to continuously engage and provide answers. Many members of the public who had initially opposed lowering of the voting age changed their minds as a result of this engagement. When facing harassment from the police during anti-government demonstrations in 2021, it was important to remain fearless and to keep pushing until the battle was won.