When a 92-year-old became Malaysia’s prime minister in 2018, he became the oldest prime minister ever, anywhere in the world. And the world remarked how well he looked and compos mentis he sounded.
He was, of course, Mahathir Mohamad, who had returned to the premiership for a second stint after a 15-year absence from active top-tier politics.
Two years later, he is no longer at the top and the heady days that carried him there have receded while the current political leadership is characterised by squabbling, plotting and uncertainty.
Malaysians of all ages are flooding social media platforms with a waterfall of political opinions. Many are asking, is it time to enforce a retirement age on politicians in the same way that the rest of us have a limited working life?
When “normal” people reach their 60s, they often have no choice but to stay home and spend the rest of their lives in their figurative rocking chairs, rehashing their glory days with their surviving friends.
Society has told them: You are no longer needed; we can get along just fine without you. Or for some it may be more a case of society saying: Thank you for your service, enjoy your retirement, you’ve earned it.
Either way, average Malaysians have little choice about it: they’re on the scrapheap.
Of course, our leaders being anything but average, an enforced retirement age does not apply to them.
But should it?
An informal vox pop by MalaysiaNow threw up a mixed bag of opinions.
Harish, 58, is blunt. “No,” he said; “it would be ageist of us to set an age limit for our politicians. Right now, there’s a problem with the old guard still fighting their deep-rooted battles, but it’s not their age that’s the problem: it’s their close-mindedness.”
His solution to that problem? “That’s easy,” he says. “Set term limits.”
Andrew, 44, says, “We need leaders who are still energetic enough to keep up with the times. They must have physical and mental strength. Too many old politicians don’t have any new ideas and should make room for new blood.”
Candidates young and old urge the electorate to vote them into policy-making offices that will govern every aspect of voters’ lives. But how can the diverse tapestry of Malaysian voters, which now includes 18-year-old political innocents, choose between energetic young candidates and their reputedly shrewder and more experienced elders?
“It’s not their age that’s the problem: it’s their close-mindedness.”
Pak Wei Han, political psychology lecturer at HELP University in Kuala Lumpur, says that voters tend to gravitate to older political leaders because they think they are wiser than up-and-coming candidates. However, economic circumstances often influence a voter’s choice.
“When times are good, and the economy is stable, there is usually a voter-preference for candidates who have been in the game a long time,” he says. “But if the economy is in the doldrums there’s likely to be dissatisfaction with the government and a preference for younger candidates.”
Pak describes how voters often make decisions based on soundbites designed to quickly appeal to their emotions. Many voters don’t actively follow politics and so their votes are cast not based on a candidate’s history and current policies but on their latest tweet.
“It wouldn’t be a terrible thing to impose age limits in the Malaysian political system,” he says. “But it’s far more important to teach political awareness in our education system. That way voters are less likely to base their choices on inadequate information, snap judgements or irrational decisions just because they have a good feeling about a candidate.”
Caroline Kiya, whose father served a term as a Sarawak MP, says, “Yes, impose an age limit but with room for case-by-case exemptions. I would make 68 the official age limit, then allow up to 75 after health and mental tests and political performance evaluations,” she told MalaysiaNow.
“That’s not to say the younger ones don’t hold potential, but they shouldn’t become ministers straight away. Like in the corporate world, start at the bottom first, and work your way up, preferably, with mentors in their 50s and 60s.”
We may ponder what a certain still politically active and ambitious 95-year-old may make of that.