In September of this year, Undi18 succeeded in a legal challenge when the Kuching High Court ordered the Malaysian government and Election Commission (EC) to implement Undi18 by 31 December 2021, thereby reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 while also enabling automatic voter registration, latest by the end of the year. The move will result in an additional 7 million voters entering the system, of which 1.3 million are aged between 18 to 20, in time for the next general elections expected to be held next year.
It was a journey that began in 2016 and while the bill was passed unanimously by both houses – Dewan Negara and Dewan Rakyat – under the Pakatan Harapan government, an attempt to delay its implementation when the Perikatan Nasional government assumed power following the Sheraton Move in March 2020.
Undi18 responded to the decision head-on, organising several mass movements to pressure the government by getting young people to speak out while also mounting a judicial review to challenge the government’s decision. When the decision by the Kuching High Court came in along with the government’s decision not to appeal, a “victory” was claimed for the organisation.
Tharma, who co-founded Undi18 together with Qyira Yusri, had already learnt about the impact of activism through his family – his aunt, the late Dr. Selva Vathany Pillai had exposed the mismanagement of a hospital for the indigenous community. But it was while he was a student in the US in 2016 that Tharma observed an interesting development in politics, that young people were intent on having their voices heard.
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU AND YOUR ORGANISATION TO EMBARK ON THE UNDI 18 CAMPAIGN?
Big things were happening around the world. Young people were reacting to elections and politics and feeling like they have a stake in the game, like their voices and opinions matter. They had a sense of responsibility. I thought this was something magical that was happening and wanted to replicate that in Malaysia.
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO INSPIRE IN THE YOUNGER GENERATION WITH YOUR WORK AND UNDI 18’S VICTORY?
We succeeded on both fronts. It changed the public narrative and because of the public backlash, the government had to backtrack with key politicians saying it is time to reconsider this and adhere to the timeline. Just because you are a young person doesn’t mean that you cannot create mass change and you cannot engage the public as a whole.
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP NOW THAT UNDI18 HAS ACHIEVED ITS GOAL OF LOWERING THE VOTING AGE?
We realised that the work is not done till it is done. What we learnt over the past year is that just because a bill has been passed in Parliament, even a bill that is as monumental and historic as the Undi 18 bill, which got 100% votes both in Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara for constitutional amendment, the first time in history. Even in that context, we had a government that said it was going to postpone it. We have to explain this to the public. So really the work has just begun.
Tharma dons a sweater, jacket and trousers by Salvatore Ferragamo