Member of parliament and leader of MUDA, Syed Saddiq speaks on his mission to bring positive disruption and modern ideals to the nation, while championing diversity, inclusivity and innovation.
While waiting for the shoot to begin, I strike up a conversation with the fiancé of our photographer. In the midst of our discussion, the young banker informs me that she is in fact a member of the newly formed Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), the political party formed by former Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman. I admit I was slightly taken aback. I was under the impression – perhaps, wrongly – that young people just aren’t interested in joining political parties.
I speak as a former lecturer whose many students declared they weren’t voting in 2018 and later cited the ‘Sheraton Move’ that resulted in the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government as the reason why they would not be voting in the future.
But that point of view could have developed as a result of the ‘same old” style of governance. Now, it appears that an option has emerged, one that aims to become a “disruptive” force in Malaysian politics.
“It is all coming together,” says Saddiq, referring to the influx of applicants that the party has received in just a couple of months. “These are people who had no interest in politics before because they felt so disgusted and felt that politics is very toxic.”
He draws a parallel to his previous party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), which attracted 90,000 members in a span of two years, from 2016-2018. MUDA, Syed Saddiq says, registered 30,000 members in a matter of two and a half weeks.
“Around 90% are below 40, very multiracial and equally distributed among the states,” shares Syed Saddiq on the make up of MUDA. “That makes it very exciting.”
This diversity is also seen in the party membership which includes individuals like the educator Cheryl Fernando, whose time with Teach for Malaysia in Kedah was the basis of the film Adiwiraku; Aira Azhari, a research manager at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS). The party also sought advice from corporate figures like Jalil Rasheed, former CEO of PNB.
“I feel like I am in my zone and I can fight for something that I genuinely believe in,” he says. “I am not restricted by the political realities of different parties and am also with the right circle of people who are willing to balance between idealism and pragmatism.”
The ‘Sheraton Move,’ he says, proved to be the catalyst for a change in perspective for those who previously had no desire to be in politics.
“These are great people who might not necessarily believe in conventional politics but believe in genuine change. After Sheraton, they developed a sudden calling to contribute.”
The appeal of MUDA lies in its “disruptive” nature. The term “disruptive” comes up a lot during the interview. It is certainly true that the party doesn’t follow the structure typically adopted by other parties. There is no ‘youth wing’ or ‘women’s wing,’ indicating the lack of a hierarchy. The party manifesto too will be established once formal registration has been received.
“I don’t want to start MUDA on an autocratic path where I decide everything – the manifesto, the leadership – then it is bound to fail,” Syed Saddiq says of his role within MUDA. Instead, the goal is to get the policy team to come up with prescriptive policies that will be presented to the party once it has been formalised.
“I DON’T WANT TO START MUDA ON AN AUTOCRATIC PATH WHERE I DECIDE EVERYTHING”
“We have to go through the democratic process of deciding,” he says. “We want to get the process set right first, take everyone’s views into account and then match them with technocratic approaches to make sure that they are viable and not just populist in nature. From there, we get it passed, not just based on my saying what is right and wrong.”
What is important is that the party adheres to the guiding principles; that it must be highly disruptive; that it be pro-democracy; be reform- based and it must be multi-racial. At the heart of it is that the party has to be policy-based. That is the path the party plans to move along.
Critics have labelled the party naïve, perhaps too idealistic to survive the realities of Malaysian politics. But for Saddiq, it is this idealism that makes MUDA different from other existing parties.
Responding to criticism that MUDA — the party he cofounded with 12 others – does not have a grasp on the realities of Malaysian politics to make it a viable political force, Saddiq responds with the argument that the foundation of the party lies in challenging the “political realities” that we assume are part and parcel of Malaysian politics.
“In order for MUDA to survive, it must be the most disruptive political party in Malaysia,” he stresses. “It must be the most idealistic political party in Malaysia. Because if it is mainly about the politics of pandering, then you pander to the topics of race and religion.
Unfortunately, in Malaysia these are the two most popular issues. But we need to aspire to be better.”
Comparing MUDA with PPBM, the party that he was once a key member of, he describes PPBM as taking the easy route, taking their battle with United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to their racial heartlands.
“That is about the politics of pandering,” he says. “Now it will take more time. You need to go to the rural heartlands and change the hearts and minds of people instead of just saying what they want to hear and getting people to vote for you.”
MUDA, of course, has the advantage of having youth on its side, which allows them to go in for the long haul, to the extent that Saddiq is prepared to lose the next election if it means not sticking to the agenda.
“So be it,” he says, without hesitation. “If I merely pander to political realities and put idealism on the backburner, then I wouldn’t be in politics. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it was only based on political pragmatism.”
Saddiq was just 23 when he joined former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as a member of PPBM. Two years later, he managed to wrest the Barisan Nasional stronghold Muar with a majority of 7,000.
“If you follow political pragmatism without idealism, my story would not be possible,” he says. “I don’t come from a political family. My mother is a teacher, my father commutes daily to work in Singapore. But it is made possible because of the idealism.”
That belief system was further strengthened following the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan government.
“I felt so dejected,” he says. “I felt like quitting politics. I thought why do I need to put myself through this? This is politics that is not based on principles and values. You can backstab those who you have worked with for some time and for what? Power.”
But the final push for MUDA was really how events unfolded after Sheraton.“We were still fighting for power,” he reflects. “When we were in government we were fighting among ourselves and even out of government, we were fighting among ourselves. We were not discussing principles and policies that we should have put forward or our mistakes while in government. Instead of going through the genuine process of introspection, we were fighting.”
When little changed following the change in government, Saddiq opted to go on his own, co-founding MUDA with 12 others, instead of joining Dr. Mahathir into Parti Pejuang Tanah Air.
“I thought the different parties would put forward new leaders,” he says. “So even when Pejuang was formed, I decided that I would not join. It would be better for me to move on a different path. Yes, it would take a longer time but it is fine.”
“IN ORDER FOR MUDA TO SURVIVE, IT MUST BE THE MOST DISRUPTIVE POLITICAL PARTY IN MALAYSIA”
From the start, you have always advocated a different approach, pushing for bipartisanship. Even recently, with regards to Budget 2021. Do you believe that this is possible?
After GE18, things were not moving fast enough. For example, to pursue UNDI18, something so obvious which was also part of our manifesto and something not tough to do took about a year of convincing Cabinet to give me the green light to do something that should have been done to begin with. There was a lot of scepticism and I was told that we don’t have two-thirds support and that Malaysia has never had a track record of bipartisanship in passing a constitutional amendment.
But if you fall into the same political conventions, you will never be able to do the impossible. Three months earlier, another minister tried to pursue something less controversial with regards to Sabah and Sarawak status but failed. The difference is that we never reached out to the opposition. We can’t condemn them in parliament and then expect them to support our bill.
I met up with them to explain that this is something that can be done together, that media can cover as a collective success. I met with Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Datuk Seri Tuan Guru Haji Abdul Hadi Awang and in the end, it was possible. Obviously there were tough compromises but it could be done. If we had moved faster, we could have done so much more from regulating political funding to preventing party hopping.
What was it like for you, the youngest minister to negotiate with these party leaders?
Obviously it was not easy, especially for me because of the terror my family and I faced close to GE18, the level of suppression. I lost my job as a researcher and a part-time lecturer. My mom, a teacher, was threatened. Personal things were done to my father and my brother. It was tough but I learnt that in politics to never hold grudges and never take politics too personally. In the end, the nation must come first. I was the one who requested for the meeting, they obliged. It was a focused discussion. I said UNDI18 was a national issue and national calling. I told them there was wide support among young people and this was the best way for us to put it to the test. We focused on common issues and national issues. In the end, we were able to do it. You have to put personality and personal issues aside, Malaysia must come first.
The idea of having a party for young people appears to alienate a sizeable portion of the population. Does that seem practical?
The term MUDA is an acronym. The party is meant to be inclusive of all groups. When the leadership line-up is revealed, you will see those in their 40s, 50s, coming on board. Party membership is also open to all. MUDA means to highlight the disruptive nature of our party and politics of idealism. It cuts across all age categories. If you look at someone like Bernie Sanders in the US, he is in his late 70s but runs policies and politics like he is in his early 20s. The politics of MUDA is not based on age but based on values and principles.
There was a recent article about a group of independents who are forming a bloc to stand in the next elections. Do you see this as a growing trend? Of people not wanting to be associated with political parties.
Because the dislike of existing political parties and the distrust of our political system is huge. It cuts across parties, beliefs and race. I think that problem is real. I think existing political parties have not realised that and therefore are unwilling to change. I think the next election will be a wake-up call.
If recent events have shown us anything, it is that no party can really expect to dominate…
To me that makes politics constructive. The fact that you now know that you can lose government at anytime, hopefully through democracy and not a backdoor government, you are more likely to make politics more constructive and to promote bipartisanship. Today, you might be in government, tomorrow you might be in opposition. It keeps politicians on their toes. You must serve and you must serve well. You cannot be comfortable and complacent. This creates greater accountability and transparency.
People have spoken out about the way you are sometimes treated in parliament – being heckled by the opposition – how do you deal with situations like that, particularly when you are trying to promote bipartisanship?
For their behaviour, I allow the public to judge for themselves, but I am going to be very focused on the message I want to deliver, that’s why I didn’t heckle them back. I didn’t condemn them. Syed Saddiq and MUDA wants to bring a different kind of politics. Even when I met up with opposition when I was in cabinet, when I restored allocations to their areas – some of the biggest beneficiaries in sports funding was in Kelantan and Terengganu – some people ask why I was restoring the allocation. It is because they were starved of allocation. Just because they are under PAS, they don’t play sports?
You have an interesting way of dealing with the public, with daily podcasts, even inviting Food Panda riders to your house. Do you think that is the right thing for a politician to do?
I think politics must be as engaging as possible. What is the purpose of having social media or following if it is a one-way channel? It is about understanding their needs and responding the best way possible. Some things you cannot deliver because of the intricacies of the system but at least people know you have tried and we went through the process of pushing it through.
Young people today want to speak about issues like gender, role of religion in government, LGBTQ, things that most political parties don’t want to address. Is MUDA prepared to do so?
These issues are the most sensitive issues in Malaysia but you can’t just hide it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. The least we can do is engage, understand and address it step by step. For example, when I tried pursuing sex education reform while at Bersatu, I was lambasted. People only look at it from one point of view. But they don’t acknowledge the rise in HIV+ cases in traditionally conservative pockets of Malaysia like Kelantan. With regards to transgenders, there are lots of cases of work-based discrimination, of being isolated and alienated and so they are forced into the sex trade. They have nowhere else to go, so we must ensure equal employment opportunity. Basic protections are not accorded and that’s where the problem lies. But everything has to come back to policy.
What is your vision for the country if MUDA emerges as a prominent political party?
I want Malaysia to celebrate its diversity and to treat its diversity as an asset and not a liability. I want Malaysia to be a bastion or beacon of leadership and democracy in Southeast Asia. We have so much potential to lead and to show that we are a country that is not only prosperous but also celebrates diversity and multiracialism. I want Malaysia to be the beacon of moderation. Tying it all together, it is really about building a success story that passes from one generation to another. For example, I have left a Malaysia that is better for my children. The basic Malaysian dream should be that we have left a country better for our children.
Photography by Farhan Akmal/DocumentingKuala; Styling by Joyce Lim;
Assisted by Megan Ng; Hair and Make-up by Joey Yap;
Shot at The Chow Kit – An Ormond Hotel