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"GENERATION M AND ITS ROLE IN DEMOCRATIC MALAYSIA"
Political Education Unit, Institute for Policy Research

 

Introduction

Bruce Tulgan, in his book Managing Generation X, described them as the "babybusters, the lost generation, 'slackers' with short attention spans and no work ethics, dropping out the rat race to live off of their parents and barely surviving in low-pay, low-status, short term 'mcjobs'".

In an address to his alma mater, Raffles Institution, Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong put a twist to the 'Generation' catchphrase and labeled the youth of Singapore as Generation M (for Merlion). Generation M grew up not knowing or understanding the trials and tribulations of early Singapore but benefiting from the sacrifices of their forefathers. He urged Generation M not to forsake their country for better opportunities everywhere but to stay and prepare for the challenges ahead.

We too have our own Generation M. Malaysia? No. Mahathir. Generation M has never known any other national leader in their lifetimes other than the current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

This paper seeks to examine who Generation M are and what role they have to play in democratic Malaysia. We will then visualize the scenario for Generation M and list down the obstacles faced by Generation M in participating actively in the Malaysian democracy. Finally we will propose some possible solutions than may be able to overcome these obstacles.

Definition of Terms

Anyone 35 years of age would have spent almost 20 years or almost the latter half of their lifetimes under Dr Mahathir. Those born in 1981 and later have truly lived under Dr Mahathir's shadow. If Generation M only remembers living under Dr Mahathir, then Generation M must surely be a generation of youths. Those above their 40s would surely have experienced the rule of Tun Razak and Tun Hussein Onn as they guided a young Malaysia to its modern status today.

The formal definition of youths in Malaysia are those under 40, but we feel that Generation M should be those under 35, taking it to be the middle age of an average lifespan of 70.

Purists may argue that some Gen Ms born before 1981 may have had the opportunity to live under Tun Hussein Onn, Tun Abdul Razak and even the great Tunku himself. However, no other national leader looms large in the memories of Gen M other than Dr. Mahathir himself. Generation M can only remember how Dr Mahathir alone as responsible for making Malaysia is what it is today. As children, they remember listening to Dr Mahathir outlining Vision 2020 in his working paper Malaysia : The Way Forward, as if no other leader had ever thought about what Malaysia should be.

The latest census figures of Malaysia show that out of a population of 22.712 million , 15.1 million (66.5% of the total) are under the age of 35. 35 years of youth covers a whole spectrum, from the infant unable to talk, to the student sitting for his SPM to the manager in a multinational firm, only just starting a young company.

We feel that Generation M is the generation that truly lived with the Prime Minster ever since his appointment in 1981. They were the generation that attended university when his British Top Universities program was launched. They were the generation that Proton Sagas when the national car was launched. They were the generation that applied for jobs when the public utilities were privatized. They were the generation that started up companies when the MSC was built.

From a mainly agricultural commodity-based economy, it was the privatization and industrialization programs of Dr Mahathir that transformed Malaysia into a modern country producing electronics and petroleum as its main export. Generation M grew into a generation of young professionals, hungry for modernity, having had a taste of the first world.

This is why we narrow our definition of Gen M to be professionals between 21 and 35 years of age. Being a professional does not necessarily mean Gen Ms have a degree, although that would normally be the case. A Gen M may qualify to be a professional through experience and some non-academic certification (ACCA in accountancy) or even through sheer diligence and hard work (as some entrepreneurs without formal schooling are known to be). However, a non-educated Gen M is the exception rather than the rule.

At the same time, Gen Ms do not share the experience of their elders. Economic prosperity has raised their standard of living. Outside political threat (such as the Communists and colonialists) are almost non-existent. The fears of an unstable, budding nation have been dealt with and Gen M are positioned to reap the rewards. Gen Ms straddle the relative freedom of youth and the heavy responsibilities of their elders.

How many of them are there? From the 15 million youths (under 35) of Malaysia, calculations show that three million qualify as Gen Ms. Being professionals Gen Ms are involved in either production and manufacturing jobs which use medium to high-technology (e.g. electronics, industrial products, fiber optics), or service sector jobs which require relatively higher skill and expertise (e.g. doctors, lawyers, investment and finance, journalism) By sector, 34% would be in manufacturing, 30% in services and 27% in government. Their numbers of three million represent 30% of the 9.3 million employable in the country.

In terms of distribution, Gen Ms work in major urban areas (almost 1 million ), the largest being Klang Valley and Penang. The rest work on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and major cities in Sabah and Sarawak (e.g. Kuching, Sandakan).

Democracy - it is easy to take it for granted that we never clearly comprehend the meaning. What is democracy, really? Democracy does not consist of a single, unique set of institutions that are universally applicable. The specific form that democracy takes in a country is largely determined by prevailing political, social and economic circumstances, and it is greatly influenced by historical, traditional and cultural factors.

It would be impossible to define it in a short sentence, but we can begin to derive its meaning from the etymological perspective : democracy is derived from the Greek words 'demos' meaning people and 'kratos' meaning power.

According to Lord Linsay, democracy is 'government by discussion' . Lincoln defined it as a 'government by the people of the people, for the people'. Others see it as 'the fact that individual members of any group recognize themselves and each other as a group, which faces group problems, and that they consciously act together as a group to solve these problems' .

The extreme form of democracy is direct democracy, in which every able member votes and decides on all issues. This is however time consuming and impossible to execute in a country with a large population. This is why most democracies today have evolved to representative democracy, where the people elect representatives to decide matters on their behalf.

Representative democracy is the balancing the rule of authority by the rule of the people. The people may have delegated their right to decide to their representatives, but ultimately they choose who their representatives are. Ideally, it would also allow the people to decide how they want their representatives to rule.

Because democracy entails making choices, there must be freedom to make those choices. Inherent in any democracy is the protection of these basic freedoms which will serve to create a healthy functioning democracy. For this reason, most democracies are based on a written constitution or supreme law of the land. It is in this constitution where the protection of these basic rights and freedom are defined and the limitations of government defined. Among the rights usually defined in a constitution are :

· the right to liberty
· the right to choose a religion
· the rights of property
· the right of citizens to express themselves on political matters, defined broadly, without the risk of state punishment
· the right to seek out alternative sources of information, such as the news media, and such sources are protected by law
· the right to form independent associations and organisations, including independent political parties and interest groups

In Malaysia, these rights are enshrined in Part II of the Constitution. The constitution also broadly defines the executive, the legislative and the judicial bodies of government and relations between the federal government and the states. However, nowhere in the constitution is the word democracy defined. We can only conclude that Malaysia is a democracy because of the systems in place, as defined by the rights protected by the constitution, the procedures in how people can choose their governments and how these governments should rule.

Therefore, in the Malaysian framework democracy in Malaysia is governed by the Constitution being the Supreme Law of the land and from it we derive the powers of government. Democratic Malaysia is able to exercise their choice of government every five years when a general election is held.

Scenario

Generation M is a new breed of youth. Modernization, industrialization, knowledge-economy, productivity have been the catchphrases of Generation M. Prime Minister has spent the twenty years of his life telling Gen M to work hard, work smart, be a success and prove to others that Malaysia too can stand as a developing nation.

During the time of Dr. Mahathir. Malaysia's long term plans (Fifth right up until currently the Eighth Malaysia Plan), much stress has been made in moving Malaysia away from an agricultural based society to an industrial one. Under Dr Mahathir's policies, Malaysia agricultural output has increased from 16,185 million ringgit in 1987 to 18,154 million ringgit in 2000. However manufacturing rose from 16,085 million ringgit in 1987 to 69,897 million ringgit in 2000. The services sector grew from 36,735 million ringgit in 1987 to 109,733 million ringgit in 2000. During Dr Mahathir's tenure, the government focused on economic performance as a measure of success.

What are the consequences? For Generation M, the most obvious and perhaps simplistic observation is that Gen M is much more concerned with their own pursuit of wealth and economic well being, as well as the social standing they derive from it. It would not be inaccurate to say that a lot fo Gen Ms strive for the same four Cs as Gen X : car, credit card, condominium and career. After all, isn't that how they defined success?

However, another side effect of Dr Mahathir's modernization is policies is that in educating Gen M, they are now more exposed to ideas concerning governance, democracy and rule of law. In the framework of Malaysia Inc., these would probably be viewed as having no commercial advantage but something picked up on the side.

Gen Ms have also had the opportunity to learn about other cultures, other systems, and other people. The world did not consist of Malaysia only. When Gen Ms studied overseas and met with British, American, Jordanian, Arab, Korean and Japanese people, they came to understand from these peoples and culture that economic success was not the single definition of success. A lot of Gen Ms, during the student days attended regional and international conferences in other ASEAN nations. Gen M discovered that other nations also valued more humanistic ideas, especially concerning religion and democracy, not just economic progress. The world did not necessarily had to be viewed in terms of dollars and cents.

Still, such exposure was not sufficient for Generation M to consider democracy very seriously. After all, didn't Dr Mahathir warn them of Westerners trying to push their own brand of democracy onto Malaysia? For most of their years growing up and studying, Gen M focused on developing their economic skills. Most of them dreamed of making it rich and following in the footsteps of tycoons like Tan Sri Halim Saad, Tan Sri Ting Pek Khiing and Tan Sri Tajudin Ramli.

However, as long as there was economic prosperity, there was no need to question how Dr Mahathir ran the country. The currency crisis of 1997 and 1998 and the political events in 1998 and 1999 suddenly brought issues such as corporate governance and corruption to the surface and in sharp focus. While Malaysia has had its share of political crises before, this time the crises were more far-reaching and involved everyone.

Deep within their hearts, people questioned the wisdom of some of Dr Mahathir's policies. Some wondered whether the steps taken by Dr Mahathir to save Malaysian Airlines System and Konsortium Perkaplan were really in the best interests of the nation. The sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim jolted everyone into considering the near-limitless power of the executive in Malaysia.

Did this create a revolution among Generation M? Where they prepared to take to the streets to exercise their right to free speech and express their dissatisfaction? Perhaps not. Generation M remain skeptical and doubtful about politics and democracy.

Some did join politics, but most stand on the other end of the spectrum by not involving themselves even a bit, regarding politics as a dirty word. Generation M as a whole has expressed little interest in it. To them, politics is something only for insincere and opportunistic politicians.

Generation M feel that they are functionless in a democratic Malaysia. Some take an equally opportunistic view in politics, using it to build business networks and enhance their pursuit for money by associating themselves with politicians who are favored by the government leadership.

Democracy involves participation, and participation in elections, not necessarily as candidates, but also as voters themselves, is important for a democratic nation to work. Is Generation M participating in democratic Malaysia? Or do they feel that they, like other youth around the world need not participate?

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, a study on voter turnout was conducted in 15 West European countries1. It found that the largest voters were from the ages of 50-59, while the ages 18-29 recorded the lowest turnout. It rose slowly for 30-39 year-olds, and the trend continued in for voters between the ages of 40 and 49. While the average turnout for all the voters are 88.6 %, the youngest group of 18-29 only recorded a turnout of 80.9 %.

Comparatively speaking, Gen M may also show some apathy towards voting, but that is not the whole story. In Europe, there are fewer obstacles for the young to take part in democracy. There are fewer limitations on free speech, fewer obstacles to freedom of assembly. In essence, these rights are protected. In Malaysia, the situation is more restrictive, as will be discussed later. To be fair, during the recent 1999 General Elections, 680,000 newly-registered voters (most who were from Generation M) were denied the right to vote.

That is not to say that no one views Gen M as important. Generation M is educated, has a higher social standing in society (most are urban middle class) and are generally well respected and looked up to by everyone, because of their competency and knowledge. And they can vote. Who better to win support from?

Among the initiatives by the ruling coalition to garner support from the young professionals of the country, include launching specific youth oriented movements within their parties, such as the recent launching of Puteri UMNO. While most of the committee members are indeed a representation of Generation M (young female professionals), they (including the lawyer chairperson) were all overshadowed by a certain popular actress and singer who joined the committee.

Slowly, Generation M must realize that material progress, without progress in governance, politics and democracy, is meaningless, and unsustainable in the long run. In the short run, in countries like Singapore, we can slowly hear voices calling for more freedom. Thus our Prime Minister's undying vision of a modern, wealthy and suave younger generation will also lead to calls for a more democratic Malaysia. We have seen that gradually, more and more young professionals are no longer satisfied working in the world's tallest buildings, or watching world class sporting events, if their demands in an opening up of our political system takes continue to go unheeded.

However these voices have for so long been restrained. It is difficult to say how many of Gen M actually believe that there is need for more democracy in Malaysia. Much more difficult to see is how many actually believe that they have a bigger role to play. Most are not willing to come forward for fear of losing their comfortable economic position that they have derived from Dr Mahathir.

Problems

As mentioned in the scenario, several obstacles stand in the way of Generation M from participating fully in democratic Malaysia. These problems can be divided into several categories.

1. Social

2. Economic

3. Legal environment

Suggested Solutions

So what are the suggested solutions that can be proposed so that Generation M will have a better role to play in democratic Malaysia? What can be done to give Generation M this opportunity? Some possible solutions :

1. Provide a platform for Generation M
Most platforms are nothing more than stepping stones for aspiring politicians. Generation M is probably seeking a platform which is non-partisan and will enable them to air their views without fear or favour. Later on, such a platform could be taken seriously as a platform for Generation M's political conscience.

2. Design programs to enable participation between Generation M and the politicians.
This does not mean more talks and workshops. Generation M will not find such programs interesting. Rather what's more important is something which will expand their creativity. One such program could be to shadow the MPs in their constituencies. Gen Ms can begin to appreciate what it means to be a 'wakil rakyat' (people's representative), rather than simply discussing it.

3. Set up target groups
It has always been the practice of proselytizers to approach potential followers a group at a time. Some even go door-to-door. While it need not necessarily be that extreme, Generation Ms should be targetted on a more personal basis, rather than broadly as a group. Each group facilitator should organize social-based activities first to get to know them and from there proceed to gain trust. Later on, the target group will be more receptive to ideas.

These are just some of the solutions thought to be useful in approaching Generation M. It is obviously difficult to think up of the more effective solutions because Generation M is not receptive to the standard approaches like forums, speeches and literary material - all these seem cliched and jaded to them. Fresh approaches are needed.

Conclusion

It seems that Generation M are a disaffected lot. Throughout most of their young lives, they have been told to study hard and work hard for the good of the nation, and leave the thinking to the leaders. However, recent events show that the leadership of the country leaves much to be desired.

However much Dr Mahathir has done a lot for the country, Generation M feel that they cannot trust him anymore. Generation M has to sit and think about what are the values that are really important. They have to think if whether Malaysia is really the democratic country it is, or whether or not there can be improvements. It is easy for Generation M to feel that their economic security is paramount. However, it may be worth noting that economic security does not last long in the absence of proper democratic spirit and participation. If there are no objections, what incentive do the country's leaders have to institute reforms and bring up the standard of freedom in this country?

Generation M have to play a bigger role in democratic Malaysia than they do now. The road is not going to be easy, and the solutions are not going to be clear. Participation may not be necessarily drastic. It doesn't necessarily mean taking to the streets to demonstrate. At the very least, there needs to be a certain level of political education so that Generation M can understand their rights and what it means to have them and why they are so important.

On a larger scale, some from Generation M will have to take up the mantle of leadership. After all Generation M will not stay young forever, and soon it will be their turn to be leaders. However, they must ask, do they wish to inherit a country that is so broken and dysfunctional that they must suffer the consequences in their later years? At the rate of change in the country, there is a high possibility that more problems will surface in the country and the damage will be more difficult to correct.

That is why leaders from Generation M must involve themselves more in the development of the country so that when the time comes, they are sufficiently prepared to weather bigger challenges.