Learning from the Top Gun
AS our 58-year-old PM struts his cool stuff to connect with young Malaysians, younger politicians are feeling the heat to be happening too.
Their age may be an advantage but our “junior” lawmakers also have to work hard to stay connected with young voters.
Umno Youth, for one, has been busy engaging young people in spite of its “low” public profile, shares its secretary Datuk Megat Firdouz Megat Junid, 41.
“One thing we found out there is that young people do not want a gap between them and the PM, on top of their concerns about employment, housing and cronyism,” Megat Firdouz says, highlighting that this is what Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is doing now – closing his gap with the young.
Refuting the flak hurled at them – that the PM now seems “younger” than his party’s youth branch – Megat Firdouz claims they are very much involved in “youth” activities.
“The results of the 2008 elections showed that the young were not contented with the Government, so we decided that we would cut down on the rhetoric and focus on real engagement with the youth. We have conducted various events and meet-the-people sessions with different groups including young professionals, as well as connect with young people on the social media network,” he says, adding job fairs, fan meets, cool games and concerts to the list.
Boosting the wing’s cool quotient is their head honcho, 35-year-old Khairy Jamaluddin, says Megat Firdouz.
“As you know, KJ’s Twitter has one of the highest number of followers among top Umno leaders.”
Ultimately, he says, they try to engage with everyone – young and old, women and men: “Not everyone has to do young and cool things. Just because there are young people who think Rempit is cool, it does not mean that Umno Youth needs to do it too.”
Another politician who is earning “Salute lah!” from young Malaysians is Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah for daring to speak his mind. He was one of a few in the ruling coalition to criticise the Government’s handling of the Bersih 2.0 rally.
While there are many criteria to be cool, Saifuddin believes the use of social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is essential in politics today.
“People consider a politician cool if they are easily accessible or approachable,” he says, relating a praise he got from one of his constituents for an idea of his.
“I had not talked about it anywhere but he told me he saw my tweet,” says Saifuddin who always has his Blackberry phone at hand to reply to emails and tweets on the go.
“If politicians are not into new media, they are considered to be out of touch,” he adds.
For him, US President Barack Obama is cool because of his ideas and how he relates to many people.
“He is also cool because he can play basketball, just like me,” he jokes.
Also high on the young’s popularity roll is Deputy Sports Minister Senator Gan Ping Sieu, 45.
Gan only laughs when told of his ratings with youth: “It is my portfolio, I guess. Not to say that my ministry and I are not constantly finding new ways to reach out to young people – we realise the old methods no longer work.”
It is important to understand how the landscape and culture of youth has changed, he stresses.
“Young people today are more vocal about their views. They want to be engaged and many can rationalise the issues when they hear different views and perspectives,” he says.
To connect effectively with young people, he says, it is crucial to not only understand their language but also the environment they grow up in.
“It is not just to tolerate them – we have to accept that this is how they are,” he opines.
Making a stand
A priority for Gan is not his image but his political stand.
“Like any other young person, I want to speak my mind and be heard, so I just voice out my views. I think that is enough.”
One thing we need to get away from is the feudalistic idea of the leader as a fatherly figure, he points out.
“We must remember they are human beings too – they have passion, interests, they like music, go to concerts and play sports.”
Ultimately, respect is the key.
“Young people want to be respected too. They can sense if you are sincere and genuine. More importantly, as a politician, you have to be consistent, you cannot change your stand all the time.”
While he has no qualms in following the hottest trends of young people to get close to them, he says he will not go all out just to please people.
“It’s not like staging a production. Those who know me will know what a regular guy I am – I like to go to the pub and read comics.”
Deputy Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Minister Chua Tee Yong, 31, agrees that being true to yourself is the best way to connect with young people.
“You cannot be pressured to do certain things just because it is trendy and popular with the young. If you push yourself into something that you don’t really believe in, it will show,” says the Labis MP, conceding that flash mob is one activity that he will not be organising any time soon.
“I know it is popular with the young but I don’t really understand it, ” he says with a laugh.
Chua feels that having the right image is important for politicians but believes in charting his own path instead of emulating older leaders.
Other than Facebook and Twitter, he tries to engage young people by getting them involved in the planning of events.
“They know what they like and what their friends like. Plus, usually if young people are involved, their friends will attend,” he says.
Chua keeps up-to-date with young people’s interests by chatting with them.
“I also look at surveys by the BN Youth Labs, Merdeka Centre and others. Now, it is important to engage young people, not because you want to win their votes, but because in almost every constituency, 30 to 40% of the communities comprise young people.”
His party, MCA, also gives priority to youth issues, he says: “One area we want to engage young people in is the welfare and concerns of university students.”
Chua cautions it is a mistake to think that young people are politically and socially apathetic.
“If you look around, you can see that there has been a growth of events and movements championing causes and issues. Maybe you need to strike a chord with them to get their interest. If what is proposed is not what they want, they will not be interested,” he opines.
The young political leaders on the other side of the fence are going the same route to appeal to youth.
Much fuss has been made about Lembah Pantai MP Nurul Izzah Anwar’s music performance but as the 31-year-old explains, she was just sharing her passion with her supporters.
A self-proclaimed avid music lover, Nurul Izzah who plays the guitar, did not hesitate when she was invited to perform at a fund raising event recently.
“When the opportunity presented itself, we thought why not. It certainly wasn’t due to a carefully planned image building exercise. I love music, therefore I performed that night,” she says.
Nurul defines a cool politician as one who walks the talk. She points out that politics is a business of governing, so being cool only creates a temporary buzz.
“There’s a fine line between being ‘pretentious’ and cool; a principled, and consistent politician is cool as long as the person has his or her feet firmly planted on the ground,” she says.
Seri Setia PKR assemblyman Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, 29, agrees that a politician should not create a persona but rather show his or her true self to the electorate.
“Young people now are more aware and critical, and they are very wary of fakeness. They will know if you go to a rap concert and act a certain way but act in another way when you go to a Dangdut concert. If they feel that you are not genuine, you will lose credibility.”
Key to engaging young people, he opines, is to listen to them, not just talk at them.
“Young people are not that superficial,” he notes, highlighting the Universities and University Colleges Act and quality of life as the two main grouses for most youth.
He admits that after he won in the last election, he initially felt the pressure to behave “older” but soon realised that he has to be comfortable in his own skin.
For Nik Nazmi, this also means being a footie who loves books and the latest gadgets.
“I like books, so I always write about books and reading on Twitter and Facebook. I’m also a big Liverpool fan and always tweet about them.”
Commending the PM’s attempts to connect with young people, Petaling Jaya Utara MP Tony Pua, 39, however, argues that engaging young people is about knowing their dreams and aspirations and what they want for the country.
“Your views and dreams need to be in sync with the young people,” he says.
Many want a democratic and progressive country where everyone has opportunities for growth and they want to see it tangibly in the policies of the country. To Pua, the best way to engage young people is to get them engaged in the nation’s affairs.
To do this you need to have an open and progressive education system, he says.
“We need to encourage students to get involved in ‘political’ activities instead of legally barring them.”
He too believes that what is more important for politicians are what they say, do and deliver, instead of the image they project.
When he is invited to any youth event, he says, there is one thing he’ll be sure to avoid – sing pop songs.
“I think I’ll scare them away. I’ll try to share my personal experiences as a young politician, though. Hopefully, this will make them see that they can do it too; how they are relevant and can make changes to society.”
Pua is one of the young professionals who joined DAP’s frontline after it started its reinvigoration process in the mid 2000.
“If you look at the representatives in Parliament, you’ll see we have the lowest age group. In our central executive committee, 40% are below the age of 40,” he says.
Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong, 34, agrees that DAP has worked hard to discard its old and staid image. In addition to opening up the party to younger people, it launched a more colourful and commercial image in the recent Sarawak elections.
“We used videos, stuffed toys (mascot Ubah) and songs. On the last day of the campaign, we tried to make our rally look like a rock concert,” says Liew.
Lauding the PM for targeting the right demographic, he nonetheless feels that the cool campaign needs to be backed by concrete reforms.
If you look at Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia campaign, he says, it worked because it re-branded Britain to the world.
“Cool Britannia captured the imagination of the young because it gave Britain a modern image and shifted its role in the contemporary world. Blair also had credibility because he reformed his Labour Party to take it into the 21st century.”
This is what many young Malaysians want, he says – a contemporary, global identity for Malaysia.
“No matter how cool a politician is, you will only gain credibility if you make real changes and deliver your promises,” he notes.
Subang Jaya assemblyman Hannah Yeoh, concurs.
“You are either cool or not. You cannot be a wannabe because people can spot that easily.”
When you talk about rebranding, no matter how much you change the look or form, it is the substance of the product that is important, says Yeoh.
“Young people these days are smart and have access to information. If your words are consistently incongruent to your actions, young people can see that and to them, it is just so not cool.”
The young are the people who are quickly disillusioned by the state of our country, she adds.
“I’m talking about those my age – in their mid-20s and 30s. Those who have migrated elsewhere want to see real reforms before returning home to Malaysia.”
Another new-school DAP politician, Yeoh shares that her principle is to always be true to herself as a young person and ordinary citizen.
“Whatever decision I make, I always think of what I would want as an ordinary Malaysian – what I think my idea of a state assemblyman would do. I set a standard for myself instead of looking at others.”
As a young woman in politics, however, there are many challenges, she admits.
“Some residents who are more senior than me say ‘I have a daughter your age’ when they first meet me, immediately imposing an expectation that I listen to them.” She also has to contend with interest in her looks.
“Sometimes they comment on my hair and my clothes. Now that I am a mother, there have been many comments on my post-natal figure, especially from men who say – ‘oh, so fat already’ – ” she laughs.
Perhaps, PAS Youth leader Nasruddin Hassan Tantawi faces the biggest challenge in engaging young people.
Admitting that their approach is different from their political counterparts, Nasruddin feels that PAS Youth have been greatly misunderstood.
“Many people call us a Pak Lebai and Surau group. We are not anti-youth or anti-entertainment,” he says, highlighting that contrary to popular belief, PAS has organised various fun activities for the young.
“Our motto is Orang Muda Geng Kita (The young is our gang). We have no problem with any activities as long as they are not against Islamic principles. We have organised a jamboree with Mat Motor as well as dialogues and discussions on issues that concern the young such as unemployment, cost of living, PTPTN student loans and others. Recently, we held a concert featuring a few local musicians including rockers like Ito and Mel from Wings.”
One thing that they would like to discuss with young Malaysians, especially the non-Muslims, is the hudud law, he says.
“We want to explain what it entails as well as how it will not affect the non-Muslims. What we want to stress is that there is no compulsion in Islam.”
On being “cool”, Nasruddin shares that it is not something that he pursues as a young politician.
“What we do is to understand youths’ tastes and interests as well as their concerns,” says the 30-something politician who holds the Prophet as his political icon.