KUALA LUMPUR: Bukhairy Sofian is fed up with a ban on political activity at Malaysian universities, which he calls an outdated shackle on a tech-savvy younger generation yearning to express themselves.
So the 23-year-old, who heads a student group advocating academic freedom, plans to support the upstart opposition in May 5 elections expected to be the country's closest yet.
“Today, youngsters can find out everything through their handphones. The youth have opened their eyes (to see) that they can change Malaysia for the better,” the political science student said.
His vote is one small victory for the opposition in a battle to win over youths who are exposed as never before to alternative political views online and tipped as potential kingmakers in the election.
Malaysian youths have a history of political apathy blamed on the country's relative prosperity, Asian respect for authority and the campus politics ban imposed in the 1970s to squelch radicalism.
But more than five million of the 13.3 million registered voters are under the age of 40 - up 31 per cent from previous 2008 polls - and over two million are first-time voters.
“The Malay youth vote is critical,” said Ibrahim Suffian, head of polling group Merdeka Centre, referring to the Muslim Malays who make up about 55 per cent of multi-ethnic Malaysia's people.
He said high youth turnout could “dilute” support for the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, which has ruled with a tight grip since independence in 1957 but faces a strong opposition vowing to end authoritarianism and graft.
The Internet is the battleground in what premier Najib Razak in February called Malaysia's “first social media election”.
Malaysian Facebook users have surged from 800,000 during the 2008 polls to 13 million, or nearly half the country's population of 28 million. They have among the world's most extensive “friend” networks and also are prolific Twitter users.
A host of independent news sites also have emerged in recent years as political agenda-setters, with biting reports on alleged Barisan corruption and other abuses.
“The Internet is playing a central role in spreading information and sparking debates,” said Ooi Kee Beng of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “The young started thinking: This is our country. We can't just leave it to the old guard. Maybe we know better.”
Denied access to government-controlled traditional media, the three-party opposition learned long ago to get its message out online in a country where smartphones are essential accoutrements.
Campaigning heavily on the Web, it seized a third of parliament in 2008, tripling its share in its best showing ever, with prominent bloggers winning seats.
“We lost the social media war. We were almost not there (in 2008),” said deputy higher education minister Saifuddin Abdullah, a leading Barisan reform voice.
Since then, the opposition has ramped up its online presence, catering to the growing Internet news media and recently launching live streaming of press briefings and political rallies and a smartphone app to track campaign events.
It has also has reached out to youths who surveys show are increasingly upset with the quality and cost of education, and with job prospects.
It pledges to liberalise campuses, forgive some student debt and implement free primary-to-university education.
Scrambling to catch up, Najib, 59, who took office in 2009, is active on a Twitter account followed by more than a million users and has two Facebook pages and a blog.
Najib lifted a decades-old ban on university students joining political parties last year, though political activity on campuses remains outlawed.
He also is dangling student loan discounts and other youth handouts and has worked to project a young image, inviting fans to watch televised football matches together and appearing at recent pop concerts.
Meanwhile, legions of cybertroopers attack the opposition online.
Khairy Jamaluddin, leader of Barisan's youth wing, said his organisation alone has 6,000 volunteers working to get the Barisan message out online.
“We can do a political talk and speak to maybe 1,000 or 2,000 people, but we post it on Facebook and within an hour 20,000 people have seen it,” Khairy said.
Grainy videos and photos also have emerged online claiming to show Anwar Ibrahim and other opposition leaders in sex acts, which they have called fakes aimed at smearing them. Barisan officials deny involvement.