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“You must be the change you wish to see in the world” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Whichever way you look at it, Syed Saddiq is a trailblazer with an impressive resume for one so young. Elected to parliament at 25, he was immediately given a seat in cabinet, making him the youngest ever cabinet minister in Malaysia’s history. He co-founded the Malay nationalist PPBM (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) with Tun Dr Mahathir and then broke away to establish the multiracial Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (Muda). 

He soon proved he was more than just a pretty face. Focusing on empowering the youth, he was a prime mover behind a game-changing constitutional amendment that included lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. In one stroke, 5.8 million young voters were automatically added to the electoral register. No mean feat given that it required a two-third majority in a deeply fractured parliament.

At a recent interview on Critical Conversations, I had the opportunity to assess the man and his mission. He’s passionate, articulate and unfailingly polite.  In a country full of boorish politicians long past their shelf life, Syed Saddiq presents a stunning contrast. Where they often insult and demean journalists, he responds to questions – even the ones that make most politicians squirm – in a cool, collected and courteous manner. At press conferences, he performs like a pro, skilfully parrying the difficult questions and keeping the focus on his agenda.

His wide grasp of issues is also impressive. Clearly, he has done his homework, thought through things carefully and arrived at considered opinions. You may not always agree with his views but you have to concede that he’s not making it up as he goes along. Again, what a contrast this young man presents to the many oh-so poorly informed senior politicians who frequently fill the airwaves with their arrogance, stupidity and bigotry. 

And then there is his willingness to recognize his mistakes. In discussing the Zakir Naik issue, for example, he readily admits that he could have done a better job in handling the whole matter and quickly apologises for the offence he caused. Not for him the usual excuses about being misquoted or taken out of context. It’s good politics, of course, but there’s an earnestness in him too.

Furthermore, while more senior politicians hem and haw on hot button issues like the creeping Islamization of the nation, he is more forthright. Cleverly avoiding the underlying religious underpinnings, he zeroes in on the hypocrisy of Islamic leaders and the illogical policies they pursue. He insists that the ban on 4D lotteries, for example, will lead to an increase in illicit gambling. He excoriates Islamic leaders for being more concerned about petty things while ignoring the rampant corruption that is crippling the nation.  As well, he remains adamantly opposed to harsher Sharia laws because he argues that in a nation where the powerful often act with impunity, it would afflict the poor more than any other segment of society. 

His approach to national unity also sets him apart.  He is less about slogans like Bangsa Malaysia and more about meeting the needs and aspirations of all Malaysians – employment opportunities, good education, basic amenities, good governance – so that no one will feel deprived or marginalized.

Syed Saddiq has come of age politically at a time when the nation stands at a critical juncture. Two political visions are competing for primacy – the Ketuanan Melayu version and a broader Malaysian-centric one. Tun Dr Mahathir is the architect of the former; Syed Saddiq now seeks to posit himself as the newest champion of the latter. While the old guard are still talking about uniting Malay-Muslims, Syed Saddiq is focused on uniting all Malaysians. 

Clearly, he must be doing something right because all the other parties appear to be wary of him. For months, the government blocked the registration of his party. He won a major victory recently when the courts ordered the government to register the party. He still faces corruption charges which many suspect are politically motivated; it is not as implausible as it might seem. 

Without a doubt, he faces an uphill task. He has to build a party with sufficient spread, raise funds and find credible candidates if he is to make his presence felt at the next election. It is not an impossible task especially given his impressive social media networking skills (758k followers on Facebook alone) but it will most certainly test the mettle of the man.

More problematic is his reach amongst Malay voters. His message of inclusive politics will no doubt resonate among non-Malay voters, especially the legions of PKR and DAP supporters who feel let down by their respective parties. But will Malay voters – long used to responding to narratives based on race and religion – respond with equal fervour? He remains confident that they will respond to his leadership and his message of unity premised upon social justice and equal opportunity for all, but it is by no means a sure thing.

Come GE15, Muda (in a loose electoral alliance with Warisan and candidates under the Gerak Independent banner) will have to go head-to-head with UMNO, PPBM, PAS, Pejuang and PKR for the Malay vote and PKR and DAP for the non-Malay vote. It’s going to be a very crowded field; the competition will be intense. If Muda (and its allies) can establish a foothold in parliament, it could presage the beginning of a sea change in Malaysian politics. 

There’s no doubt that great ambition stirs within Syed Saddiq though he seems determined not to let it get ahead of him. If he can sell his vision, if he can stay the course, if he can resist the corrupting influence of power, that ambition might be just what is needed to bring about the change that we all want to see. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 18th December 2021]