Age is just a number, but in the world of Malaysian politics, it often counts for everything.
Across Malaysia, party leadership is dominated by lawmakers well above the retirement age—a worrying concern for a country where the median age among its 32 million citizens is 29.
The country’s current prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, is 73-years-old and is considered to be a sprightly figure compared to his 95-year-old predecessor Mahathir bin Mohamad.
But as youth-led political movements gain traction across many parts of Southeast Asia, many are wondering if this spirit will reach Malaysia.
Enter Syed Saddiq bin Syed Abdul Rahman, the country’s former youth and sports minister, who at age 25 became its youngest-ever elected federal politician following a historic 2018 election. The political wave saw the shock defeat of the once-powerful Malay-nationalist Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that had been in power since Malaysia gained independence nearly 60 years ago.
But the change didn’t last long. Political infighting quickly resumed and a power struggle ensued, throwing the newly-formed Pakatan Harapan government into political turmoil that eventually paved the way for Muhyiddin Yassin, who controversially came into power last March, to become prime minister.
There is a lot of speculation that Malaysia will soon see early elections, according to Syed Saddiq, who said change in Malaysia is needed now more than ever.
According to Saddiq, it’s time that the youth rise up to “unshackle Malaysia from old power.”
“Challenging the status quo and traditional political power structures will be tough especially in racially-charged Malaysia but it must be done,” he told VICE News from the capital of Kuala Lumpur. “And we need all the help we can get.”
VICE News: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. You are young and clearly popular among many young Malaysians (the 2018 general elections is testament to that). But what do you still dislike about the political climate?
Syed Saddiq: First of all, thank you. But I must stress that my popularity and success in the previous election is not mine alone—it was attributed to the millions of young Malaysians who put their faith in me at the polls to carry their voices to parliament.
The journey to unshackle our country from old politics will be an arduous one because there are many issues that have been left unattended for far too long. It’s left us trapped in this current state where the only group of people benefiting from this culture is the rich while lower and middle-income groups have to continuously struggle for equal economic opportunities.
I definitely despise the business dealings and cronyism that remains rampant among many Malaysian political parties. We also see people trying to harness government power to rig the economy in their favor. Doing away with that is definitely on the top of my list. I would like for a clean and transparent political landscape where lawmakers are held responsible for their actions and accountable to the people of Malaysia.
How does being young work in your favor?
My age is actually a blessing. I was the voice of millennials and young Malaysians in parliament and the then-government was interested in my views and ideas because they wanted to understand how young voters think and how best to engage with them on issues—that was the importance of having youth representation on the board. I was very lucky.
Being the youngest minister allowed me to be way more outspoken with other politicians. It gave me room and freedom to try running things in new ways and there were people who were genuinely keen in listening to what I had to say.
Did some people not take you seriously at first because of your age?
Because I was the youngest-ever minister in Malaysian political history, there were a lot of doubtful voices that said I was too young and that I needed to have “more experience as a leader” before taking on the role of a minister. But I didn’t and have never let words from naysayers stop me from giving my best to my country. I wrote them off as words from people who wanted to discourage me from doing a good job.
But I still face challenges today. Even until now, I get heckled during my parliamentary speeches. But hey, I take it as a sign that people are listening to and then I do whatever it takes to shut them down.
Can you tell us more about these instances? Were they from older politicians?
It wouldn’t be fair to say all older politicians are the same. But there have been times in parliament when I have raised controversial debates only to have several older MPs stand up, out of order, to thwart the issue.
The most recent one was when I posed a question about Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali, our commodities minister who broke protocols and violated quarantine measures after returning from Turkey. He was fined RM 1,000 ($240)—a figure much smaller than the amount other Malaysians have to pay in order to stay at quarantine facilities—it’s RM 2,100 ($500) for 14 days. Because I raised this, I was heckled and called ‘budak kecil’ (“little boy” in Malay) by an older MP.
This culture of heckling and belittling fellow MPs in parliament is disrespectful, not only to the one being heckled but also to the people who voted us in to represent their voices.
Your political mentor Mahathir Mohamad is 95, making him probably the oldest politician in the world. What differences do you both have when it comes to politics, party direction and priorities—given that you each hail from two completely different generations?
Tun Mahathir was not just my mentor. He was responsible for shaping my political career since we formed the Bersatu party (The Malaysian United Indigenous Party) years ago.
By looking at the differences in our ages, it is easy to see the polarizing features in both of us. I am in my 20s and Tun Mahathir is in his 90s. However, make no mistake: he still has the work ethics of a young man. He may be 95 but he is always excited to learn and tries new ways of doing things. He embraces the new era and tries his best to adapt to it.
No one is too young to contribute to the country and at the same time, no one is too old to try new, innovative ways in leadership. I learned not to make excuses with age.
Of course, there were a lot of disagreements between both of us when it came to the political vision, economic reform and the direction in which the country needs to go ahead. However, the difference in views and values did not hinder us from serving and giving our best to Malaysia.
Tell us more about your new youth-led political party and what inspired you to branch out on your own.
Malaysian politics has always been about who stands to gain the most power and influence. And when the world was in the middle of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, our politicians in Malaysia were too busy lobbying for power and position. There are no serious conversations about the economy, the environment or tackling the education and income gaps between poor and rich families—these are all critical issues that should be the central focus of politics.
And I believe most Malaysians overall are having major political fatigue, people are getting tired of old political rivalries and need to move on for the sake of our country. The only time that politicians will “seriously” promote welfare ideas to their constituents is during the election campaign period. And that is wrong. I know there are many young Malaysians out there who are not only waiting for the political landscape to change but for a younger political party that speaks to them. I’ve also seen a huge amount of interest by many youth leaders that want to contribute to the formation of such a party.
Politics should never be chained, controlled and monopolized by the same people. There’s a real desire for a fresh political change in Malaysia to replace the current culture which is outdated and has failed to engage young people. We want to unshackle Malaysia from the type of politics based on money and power—and refresh it with young people with the right heart, mind and interests who can move the country forward.
If Thailand could have the Future Forward Party and France had En Marche under Macron, I believe it is timely to build our own disruptive youth-led political force in Malaysia made up of young people—technocrats, young politicians and professionals from different backgrounds willing to come together to ensure that the youth voice will dominate both in and out of parliament. My party is still at the discussion phase, but we need a breath of fresh air in Malaysian politics and that is the belief in young voters having power and not being dismissed or taken lightly anymore.
It’s time to do away with the culture of warlords and ensure there are healthy rotations in positions of power.
What will the party’s key issues, values and goals be?
It’s still too early to say but we are currently engaging people and remain committed to our best in serving the country. We want to ensure our key values and issues we remain passionate about will best represent the majority of Malaysia.
We should not underestimate the power of Malaysian youth and we need to keep our ears close to them and ensure that we are listening. They are the heartbeat of our country.
One thing we are doing differently from older political parties is we are engaging with people who cover various groups, from technocrats to farmers to civil activists to be part of the early formation of the party. This will ensure the party grows with a framework that is able to cater to diverse voices.
But our key party uniqueness will be our “disruptive features” so stay tuned for more of that when the time comes.
You also aim to tackle issues of race, which dominate the mainstream political fabric in Malaysia. Why have you decided to take a stand against it with your new party?
When parties claim to fight for the cause of a single race over others and politicians start using divisive language, it becomes deeply problematic because it divides the country. It has been 63 years since Malaysia’s independence and I think it is unfair that leaders are still calling certain races “pendatang” (a common Malay phrase referring to foreigners, immigrants and outsiders) or openly criticizing other religions and calling them fake. It diminishes the core values set by our forefathers.
What do your peers say?
All of them reacted positively to the idea of a youth-led Malaysian political party. They agreed that there’s a systemic wrong in existing parties that desperately needs to be fixed. But beyond that, I think a lot of people are concerned about their futures.
And with an additional 7 million expected voters at the next polls, after the lowering of the voting age to 18, I’m expecting the youth voice to count and be more powerful than ever.