The wisdom of our age has it that young adults are more likely than not to vote against Barisan Nasional. A survey carried out by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research backs this up. In a report it published on May 3, the poll agency found out that Malaysians in their twenties and thirties preferred Pakatan Rakyat to BN by a significant margin. In contrast, support for BN was the strongest among those aged 50 or older. In a country where the median age is younger than 30 years old, that offers some hints about the political future of the country.
While that is so, nothing guarantees that wisdom will last for too long.
The generational divergence Malaysia is witnessing now has a lot to do with the political turmoil of the late 1990s. The sacking of Anwar Ibrahim as the deputy prime minister and the subsequent events that followed made a lasting impression on the minds of these young Malaysians who then were still in school, in university or new to the labor market. Whether it was about Anwar or about a larger sense of justice — that something was extremely wrong — they were moved by the event.
These Malaysians are also the largest age cohorts that Malaysia has ever seen yet. It is not merely a coincident that BN comes under intense political pressure exactly when these generations are maturing and exercising their political muscles.
Each generation has an episode which defines their political belief and partly, their worldview. Those above 50 years old now remember the old Umno and hold dearly onto those nostalgias. Future young Malaysians, those in their teenage years and even younger, will no doubt have their very own episode.
Unlike the others however, these new young Malaysians have their book wide opened and its pages unwritten yet. There has not been any big wake-me-up moment for them so far.
One thing is certain though. Time has the power to make society forget the past. The old old generation will disappear into the background, hopefully bringing with them the ghost of May 13, among others. The old new generation — the young adults of today — will have their political views at the new bedrock of Malaysian society. The new new generations will challenge the prevailing views, as youth always do all around the world.
These new young Malaysians will not remember the events of 1998 because they will never experience it. It is much like how young adults today do not remember the events of 1988 when the old Umno was disbanded and the judiciary came under assault by the Mahathir administration. It is the exact reason why many young Malaysians today are not swayed by May 13 and scaremongering opportunists who fuel their sad career on racist politics.
History books alone are insufficient to influence a whole generation so comprehensively. No matter how moving words in the archives can be, reading them in a dark library room up in the stacks or deep in the basement is a passive, cold action. Words of history may work for a minority with true appreciation of history who read heavily but for the majority, they have to be in the dizzying mist of action before the essence of the era seeps into his or her being.
So the new new generation will forget. Society will forget. Slowly but surely, the what-we-call Reformasi era will take a bow, come down off the stage and be relegated to the pages of history.
That may be a comfort to BN. It is a second chance for them in what seems to be a contest between BN the rock and PR the water.
Nevertheless, BN will have to suffer the demographics and the momentum of time for now.