Time to blood our young leaders

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

May 26 — Literature fans still argue over whether Shaw or Wilde coined the phrase “youth is wasted on the young.” Meanwhile in Malaysia, a century later, youths are thoroughly wasted — when it comes to nation-building. Obviously, nation-building is a euphemism for politics. And there is no argument Shaw always had more to say about politics than Wilde.

But yes, to Malaysia and its politics. And how as a wine it is too aged for its own good.

The spike of younger votes thanks to Undi18 forces all parties to claim youthful vigour and outlook. Unfortunately, the promise to drop age averages of politicians is played fast and loose by senior politicians. Simply put, they lie. They use selective examples to hide the tokenism.

They do so for the same reason others caution me when highlighting youth. When older people want to drop age averages drastically, they inevitably argue against their own self-interest.

More youth politicians translate to older ones shown the door, in a roundabout way.

Which is why, the established order entertains every possible chit-chat about youth and wax lyrically about the beauty of rejuvenation, and when the time to name candidates arrives turns archaic.

Deaf to change.

Is this to infer this column is anti-old? Certainly not. It does however acknowledge the average age for politicians is skewed to stone age than stoned. The inordinate age bias in Malaysia jars when compared to all the countries we look up to.

Which has a cost. The failure to harness the energy of youth more so in a middle-aged country in a period of uncertainty will eventually bite Malaysia. In time.

They leave once

Increasingly, the young do not wait for their turn. Explanations are numerous.

The now generation likes to get on with life before it bores them. Or feel energy like electricity needs to be routed not grounded. Or they watched too much telly before their fifth birthday.

Whichever the interpretation, young talent does not lounge in empty expectation rooms in this era.

If the political door is shut to them in their twenties when they are filled with idealism, it is highly unlikely they’d return later in their forties.

Their talent is gobbled up by the private sector and other global opportunities.

The waiting sort of languished in the youth wing ranks, resigned to organise futsal competitions and makeover sessions. By design made of either blue bloods certain to be promoted or the mediocre on standby for posts and election seats as a reward rather than a chance to serve.

Both types institutionalise power away from the disenfranchised and turn into petty warlords.

Which is why those available for selection from the various parties are embarrassingly weak. They are not the best of their generation, but they are the ones on display for notice.

In a time when all industries speak of how foolish it is to wait for young talent and hunt mercilessly for them, the one industry which determines the future of all other industries seems wilfully indifferent.

Blaze of glory

The sentiment for the richer vein of youth is non-partisan. If the country’s earlier years are navigated, it unearths very different attitudes previously.

Razak Hussein was instrumental in his thirties and forties. So was Ismail Rahman as deputy prime minister. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah set up Petronas in his thirties. Lim Chong Eu was 39 when he unseated Tan Cheng Lock as MCA president. Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore chief minister at 36.

They benefitted in that youthful insurrections were welcome in their parties and systems.

Until Mahathir Mohamad entered the stage. His administration eventually — confronted by repeated leadership challenges — relied on warlords rather than ideas which altered our age dynamics.

Shockingly, Mahathir was a beneficiary of faith in the young. He was Kedah Umno chairman and MP before turning 40 during the Rahman administration.

That early start set in motion his quick rise later.

Still in his fifties, as PM of the early Eighties, he unravelled the Look East Policy, Buy British Last Policy, the national automotive project via Proton saga, privatised government services (TM and TNB), cut civil servant salaries, initiated the North-South Highway and moved us half an hour quicker in 1982.

Older Mahathir was far different when he initially retired as a 78-year-old, his latter catalogue in the 1990s included a waste of resources like an empty administrative capital, twin towers and brazen bailouts. The one that left office the second time in 2020 was unrecognisable.

He is a curiosity.

At once he is proof of evidence for both contentions, that youth matters and the wisdom of age does not automatically generate brave new ideas.

Philosopher kings

Plato felt leadership was too critical to be left in the hands of the inexperienced. Knowledge of many areas is necessary, which leaders can only accumulate over years.

Fair points but the rate of learning and exposure have altered much in the two thousand and four hundred years between.

Further, the argument is not about the exclusion of older politicians but to improve the national mix by inclusion of youths. This is about blooding our young in sooner and in real terms, as equals.

Not to forget, Plato’s vision of democracy was also elitist and less participatory.

Prevailing politics is about perception as much as ideas. To move the masses, just like music, playful and pop tunes climb the charts quicker. By virtue of being more youthful.

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant screeching “Whole Lotta Love” as a young rocker caught the imagination of a generation as opposed to his mature present, crooning “Can’t Let Go” with Allison Krauss.

Modern politics requires wider appeal even if shallower on policy depth, and in the next Malaysian election, the party to embrace this ethos completely is likelier to pull ahead.

President Emmanuel Macron of France is in his forties but perhaps he is an exception rather than the norm. His independence at a time of disillusionment with partisan politics propelled him upwards in record time.

There is a more relevant example closer to home.

The new Australian PM Anthony Albanese. Not that 59-year-old him who is presently prime minister but the one who became an MP at 33. That being roped in earlier aided in his orderly rise to serve better later.

Malaysia needs the zest of youth in its politics. There are few things clearer and more pressing presently. Unfortunately, the choice is in the hands of old men who run these parties.

Perhaps they can summon their wisdom to know the time is ripe. Before it gets all too rotten to save Malaysian politics, for the old, new and everyone in-between.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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