Are politicians in Southeast Asia too old?
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Are politicians in Southeast Asia too old?

PLATO once touted the values of gerontocracy, a form of oligarchical rule in which an entity is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than most of the adult population, saying: “It is for the elder man to rule and for the younger to submit.”

This antiquated way of thinking is strangely no less true today as it was back then. Old people dominate leadership positions around the world, and Southeast Asia is no exception.

Just look at Malaysia, now the proud owner of the oldest prime minister in the world with Dr Mahathir Mohamad clocking in at an impressive 93 years of age. While remarkable, this jars somewhat with the median age of the Malaysian population, which is 28.5 years.

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Mahathir’s not alone though. Burma’s (Myanmar) de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is 73-years-old while the median age of the country is 28.2 years.

Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte equals her at 73-years-old but his population is incredibly young at just 23.5 median age.

Having old people in office is certainly no bad thing in and of itself and blanket judgements about older politicians are of course indefensible. After all, many of our older leaders have more skill and intellectual firepower than most of us will ever have. Try to debate Mahathir on policy – policy he likely implemented – and you will quickly prove my point.

But while older leaders are far from unusual, is it good for a country? Does the difference between the age of a country’s people and its leader matter?

The key is diversity throughout government to ensure a steady influx of new perspectives, regardless of the age of the top dog.

As Malaysian member of parliament Hannah Yeoh told Asian Correspondent: “Age diversity is important to enable representation of various sections of community.”

This way countries establish a government that fairly represents the interests of all.

Yeoh points to her commitment to provide child daycare centres in every government building as an example of age diversity in action.

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As a young parent herself, the Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister was pinpointed an issue many young government employees were struggling with but which was going unnoticed by those higher up.

It was only when “I announced all government agencies need to have childcare facilities at the workplace, that these deputy ministers went straight to check,” Yeoh said.

While the idea had been floated decades earlier, no action had been taken. With Yeoh’s intervention, the new Pakatan Harapan government now plans to push ahead with the policy by Jan 1 next year.

It’s fresh energy and determination like this that proves the value of having new people in office, even if the leader is an old hat.

Private sector companies put huge resources into recruiting and training younger workers under the belief that those workers will have a different viewpoint and new ideas.

“The iconic companies, the ones most able to innovate and change to the ever increasing number of missions, are those that have a much more balanced number of generations,” Sean Morris, head of Deloitte’s federal human capital office in Washington, told Politico.

Why should governments, that deal with a mind-boggling number of “missions,” be any different?

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This balance across generations is just as important as getting the young voices in. While it’s great to have spring chicks like 25-year-old Minister of Youth and Sports Syed Saddiq, it is equally as important to have your Mahathir’s and your Lim Kit Siang’s.

Not only do senior officials bring experience and wisdom on policy and the workings of the government, but they also provide a different perspective that is more sensitive to senior issues, such as retirement and care for the aged, than their younger counterparts, Yeoh said.

The new Malaysian government has tried to strike that balance with names like Yeoh, Syed Saddiq, Yeo Bee Yin, Steven Sim, and Teo Nie Ching – all under 40 – taking tops spots in the cabinet.

Mahathir has embraced his younger colleagues and is not afraid to be publicly associated with the party’s up and comers.

Their voice will be important going forward as the interests of youth and future generations – such as climate change, biodiversity loss, crumbling infrastructure, and youth unemployment – become increasingly important to all of society

Yeoh is confident about the future and thinks this new Pakatan government has got it mastered. In terms of age diversity, “we have a good mix this round.”