The rise of youth power in SE Asia and the future of free trade

Anbound Malaysia

If there is a word to describe the multitude of public protests around the world in 2019, it will be “youth”.

Indonesian riot police containing a youth protest in Jayapura AFP

If there is a word to describe the multitude of public protests around the world in 2019, it will be “youth”. Be it Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia, Peru or Spain (the list goes on), large segments of the youth population took to the streets for myriad 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 status as beneficial to the elites instead of themselves.

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While free trade used to be understood as a matter of pride and regarded 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 benefits from the existing free-trade regimes, our youth counterparts in the developed world have been staging anti-globalisation movements as early as in 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 pay serious attention because they are 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 ages of 17 and 35 made up nearly half of eligible voters in the country. As noted by Gabriele 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 the youth empowerment in the political affairs of the country. It was also the Indonesian youths who took to the streets in almost every province, against the Joko Widowo administration’s attempts to pass several bills criminalising sex before marriage, the weakening of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the banning of 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 issue of endemic corruption among the politicians had been the main driver for young voters in determining their choices for their representatives. 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 will become  an even more significant electoral force in deciding the next president in 2022.

In Thailand, the youth power was again highlighted by the rise of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party (FFP), led by  young billionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Marking a first in Thai election history, the new party briefly became the third force in the country’s politics, ending the long-standing bipartisan division. And when the FFP was banned from Thai politics in mid-December, thousands (mostly youths) rallied on Bangkok’s streets, while others also expressed their support for the political party via social media platforms. With Thanathorn declaring the rally as the start
of the wider democratic movement against the military junta government, more
developments are expected
in the coming months in
Thai politics.

Cambodia and Myanmar, youth power is relatively reserved but very much alive. 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 high numbers of youths who supported the #CleanFingers online campaign (initiated by the banned opposition party, 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.

For Myanmar, the reservation is much less pronounced than in Cambodia. With almost 4.8 million youth voters aged 18 to 22, they are the group that must be won over in the coming 2020 general election. 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 go viral among the online community. With the right contexts and timing, there is no question that political activism among Myanmar youths would be stirred up by the social media.

Finally, Malaysia is the latest to join the fray following the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s lowering of national voting age to 18.  It is expected that Malaysia will see 34.4% of youth voters added to the electoral roll; a phenomenon expected to change the country’s political landscape. It means that higher education, high-income  job opportunities, housing affordability, cost of living and transportation will be key in securing the support of Malaysian youths, whether by the ruling PH or the Muafakat Nasional or any other aspiring political parties.

All these factors showcase that the rise of youth power is going to be evermore 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 current free -trade positivity. As articulated by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in July 2018, it is of vital importance for the national governments to remove barriers to 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. Political elites in the region must ensure that its youths are reaping the benefits of free trade as one of the participants , or  the region may witness 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 the corporate players in China-Asean cooperation. For any feedback, please contact:

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