Nazri Hashim, 29, came armed with questions Monday night. He’s married with a 2-year-old son. He and his wife together earn about $750 dollars a month, making it a struggle to handle day-to-day living costs.
“Food and just about everything has gotten much more expensive,” he told VOA, adding that gentrification is blocking his path to buying a home in Kampung Baru, the neighborhood in Kuala Lumpur where he grew up. “We can’t afford to buy a new house, because the pricing is unaffordable.”
Nazri, joined by several friends, sat down at a restaurant table with parliamentary candidate Johari Ghani, 58, from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party. He peppered Johari with questions about affordable housing and listened as Johari talked about plans for apartment buildings that would include market rate units, as well as apartments that would be affordable for lower income earners.
Conversations between Malaysia’s political candidates and young voters are common on the campaign trail for the Nov. 19 election.
“Their votes will be a big swing in this general election,” says Heikal Rosnan of the Bower Group Asia political consultancy. “[Candidates] have programs targeting young adults specifically. They go to coffee shops to talk with them. They go to where they congregate.”
The country’s major political coalitions also have rolled out numerous young candidates to try to appeal to young voters. Voters younger than 40 make up about 60% of Malaysia’s electorate.
“The under-40 is definitely going to determine who does well or who does poorly in this election,” says Ibrahim Suffian, program director of the Malaysia-based Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. This will be the first time 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds are eligible to vote in a national election in Malaysia.
“The young vote is so pivotal this time around [that] many parties are offering things in their platform, things that they think can appeal to younger people,” Suffian says. “Free education, work training, higher minimum wages, things like that.”
Chin Zin, 21, graduates from a university next year. He says given the current economy, his classmates are worried about their job prospects.
“I will say there will be a lot more graduates graduating than jobs opening,” Chin says. “There will be an oversupply of candidates and undersupply of open careers.”
Young voters who spoke with VOA also expressed concerns about corruption.
“We need clean government,” says Jim Tan, 26. “It’s embarrassing to have your former head of government in jail.”
The country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak went to prison in August to begin a 12-year sentence after losing his final appeal following a conviction on charges connected to a multibillion-dollar graft scandal. His political party, UNMO, is now led by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces 47 charges of bribery, money laundering and criminal breach of trust.
Additionally, there are significant opposition figures on trial, including former Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng from the Democratic Action Party, who is accused of corruption connected to a $1.5 billion undersea tunnel project, while Syed Saddiq of the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance faces four charges for corruption stemming from his time with a different political party.
“They all say they’re innocent, but these cases are so complicated that it’s hard to know who’s telling the truth,” Tan says. “Sometimes I wonder if all the voters can do is try to pick the lesser of the evils.”
Suffian, from the Merdeka Center, says the political coalitions are clearly targeting much of their messaging to appeal to younger voters.
“We found that 70% of young people do not trust politicians or political parties. They trust personalities more,” Suffian says. “So, a lot of these political parties are reorienting the image of their leaders to show them more as caring and forceful personalities that have real causes that they’re fighting for.”
Accountant Alison Chen, 31, says she has not yet decided who she’s going to vote for.
“I’m still trying to figure out which politicians truly care about the issues I care about the most: education, climate change, jobs that pay a decent wage, and which politicians only pretend to care,” she said.