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Will young voters in Malaysia revive the career of a 97-year-old politician?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Joe Biden will turn 80 years old in a few days. And being the oldest president in U.S. history has stirred up debate over whether he's too old to run again. A similar conversation is playing out in Southeast Asia this week, where Malaysia's 97-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is vying for an against-the-odds comeback in the election to pick a new parliament. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports that in an election where age has become an issue, young voters could shake things up.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Malaysia's youth could be the kingmakers in Saturday's election thanks to two reforms. Voting age was lowered to 18. And everyone eligible to vote has been automatically registered. It's a dramatic shift that bumps up the voter rolls from 15 million to 21 million. Analyst James Chai (ph) says that's a nearly 30% increase in the size of the electorate.

JAMES CHAI: So fundamentally, the biggest unknown in the election is now that group of new voters, who are largely consisting of people below 30 years old.

MCCARTHY: Like its Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaysia is tracking younger, with 30 the average age. And Chai says generational tensions simmer in this election, as many young people attribute the problems of the country to leaders who don't understand them because they are too old. That former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is contesting a seat in his late 90s speaks to the perceived mismatch between the traditional ruling class and the country's changing demographic. And some analysts say his bid is doomed.

But the age gap is advantaging younger politicians, who are better positioned to reach young potential supporters where they live, on social media. Twenty-nine-year-old Syed Saddiq, one of the country's youngest politicians, is running for parliament and uses TikTok to air the grievances of young people in short, snappy clips.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Economically, our country is - we're just going way too low, lower than we should be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Poor education system.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Money laundering cases, abuse of power.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Microforms of racism. Microforms of sexism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: They think we are too young to think for ourselves.

MCCARTHY: Saddiq, a rising political star with more than 3 million followers on social media platforms, says the TikTok generation wants to move beyond the old guard. And it's why he launched a new youth party in 2020.

SYED SADDIQ: It's meant to be a party of disrupters to disrupt Malaysian politics because among the Malaysian masses, they see the political elites engaging in political power plays in which they get richer and richer, their cronies get richer and richer, corruption gets far worse, institutions of democracy weaken. And young people are fed up.

MCCARTHY: Many young Malaysians these days support inclusion, pluralism. And there's growing acceptance of social issues such as LGBTQ rights. Many are alienated by the litany of corruption scandals that has engulfed the incumbent ruling coalition. And that could benefit opposition candidates who take to the campaign trail, like Syed Saddiq.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCARTHY: He says, besides corruption, the incumbent government has done little to address rising youth unemployment in the country's pandemic-ravaged economy. And Saddiq says his asset-light generation is angry.

SADDIQ: We don't own a car. We cannot own a house. We can't even get a bank loan to get a mortgage on a house.

MCCARTHY: Saddiq says their dire straits will animate turnout. In fact, according to a new survey, nearly eight out of 10 young people said they would vote. If they do, young Malaysians could move their country in a new direction.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVENINGS' "STILL YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.