The rise of youth power and the future of free trade

More than half of the Southeast Asian population is under the age of 30

If there is a word to describe the multitude of public protests around the world in 2019, it will be the word “youth”. Be it Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong, France, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, Peru, Iraq or Spain (the list goes on), large segments of the youth population went to the streets for a myriad of reasons against respective ruling governments. One of them would be the unequal distribution of wealth that drastically divided the haves and have-nots with the latter seeing the current economic development as beneficial to the elites instead of themselves.

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While free trade used to be understood and even regarded with pride as the great vehicle to economic growth and progress in the past, such a perception is becoming less relevant among the youth generation in the developed world today. Reaping inadequate and certainly not life-changing benefits from the existing free trade regimes, our youth counterparts in the developed world have been staging anti-globalisation movements as early as the 1990s. The Seattle and Genoa protests in 1991 and 2001 were but two events that saw anti-globalisation movements spearheaded by different groups in the developed world (in cooperation with certain groups in the South).

In Southeast Asia, however, such anti-globalisation sentiment was much less significant in the 1990s with member countries openly embracing free trade for their own economic growth and progress until today. That said, it is unrealistic to assume such positivity will continue unabated considering the rise of youth power in the region that produces repercussions that no one is able to predict. With more than half of the Southeast Asian population under the age of 30, political and economic elites of this region should really pay serious attention to such a phenomenon because it is entirely capable of shaking the long-standing free trade positivity adhered to by those in power.

Among all Southeast Asian countries, youth power has been featured prominently in the case of Indonesia. From the last combined elections (presidential, regional and legislative) in April 2019, those between the age of 17 and 35 made up nearly half of eligible voters in the country. As noted by Gabriel Natalia Siahaan, the youth factor had been obviously shown in the campaigns of various political parties aspiring to win the elections, especially for the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), which called for the removal of the oligarchs and for youth empowerment in the political affairs of the country. On a relatively extreme front, it was also the Indonesian youths who took to the streets in almost every province in the country, against the administration of Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, against his attempts to pass several bills criminalising sex before marriage, the weakening of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and banning any insult against the head of state.

Similarly, the last Filipino general election in May 2019 also saw the youths participating actively as first-time voters in the country. Among all issues, the allegations of endemic corruption among the politicians had been the main driver for young voters in determining their choices for senators, members of representatives, governors and so forth. Making up more than one-third of the overall voters in the Philippines, these youth voters had shown their critical political demand in the last general election and would become an even more significant electoral force in deciding the next president in 2022.

In Thailand, the youth power was again featured by the rise of the Future Forward Party (FFP) led by the young billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. For the first time in Thai election history the new party became the third force in the country’s politics, ending the long-standing bipartisan division between the political parties associated with the Yellow and Red Shirt movements. And when the FFP was banned from Thai politics in mid-December, thousands (mostly youths) rallied on the streets in Bangkok while others also expressed their support for the political party via social media platforms. With Thanathorn declaring the rally as the “beginning” of the wider democratic movement against the military junta government, more developments will be expected in the coming months in the Thai political landscape.

In Cambodia and Myanmar, youth power is relatively reserved but very much alive in their domestic political fronts. From the last Cambodian general election (July 2018) that featured Hun Sen’s political party as the sole running party in the election, the youths (46 percent of the eligible voters) had turned to social media to express their protest against the ruling party. Instead of voting, there were substantial numbers of youths who supported the #CleanFingers online campaign (initiated by the banned opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party [CNRP]), by opting not to vote during the election. In particular, the #CleanFingers campaign on Facebook drew huge support among netizens with some even openly criticising the ruling government without trepidation.

For Myanmar, the reservation is much less pronounced than in Cambodia. With as much as 4.8 million youth voters aged 18 to 22, they became the targeted group of an electorate that has to be won over by political parties in the coming general election 2020. But, unlike Cambodia, there is ambiguous political activism as displayed by the Myanmar youths, with many focusing on the fruits of economic development in recent years. Having said that, the fact that Myanmar youths (like other Southeast Asian youths) are active social media users, would mean that any politically-related information or news spread via various platforms has the potential to become viral among online netizens. Provided with the right contexts and timing, there is no question that political activism among Myanmar youths would be stirred up by social media.

Finally, Malaysia is the latest to join the foray following the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s lowering of national voting age to 18 years old. With the bill passed on such a policy, it is expected that Malaysia will see 34.4 percent of youth voters entering the electoral roll – a phenomenon that is slated to change the political landscape of the country. By that, it means higher education, high-income job opportunities, housing affordability, cost of living and transportation will become the yardsticks in securing the support of Malaysian youths, whether by the ruling PH or the Muafakat Nasional or any aspiring political parties looking to establish the third force in the political front.

By all means, all these developments only showcase that the rise of youth power is going to be more and more evident in the Southeast Asian region. In the event that free trade’s benefits are not translated to the youths, the rise of youth power will evolve into a colossal force that is bound to end the free trade positivity as practised by the political elites in the region. As articulated by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in July 2018, it is of paramount importance for the national governments to remove the multiple barriers – expensive higher education, low-paid or unpaid entry jobs, inadequate training and lack of funds for entrepreneurship – that impede the youths from taking advantage of various free-trade deals. Therefore, it is up to the political elites in the Southeast Asian countries to ensure that their youths are reaping the benefits of free trade as one of the participants or else the region may witness a similar anti-globalisation wave as seen in the developed world.

Anbound Malaysia is part of Anbound China, a leading independent think tank based in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm working with corporate players for China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact:

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