Malaysia’s youngest minister fa­vors stronger ties with Arabs

Syed Sad­diq cred­its Ma­hathir for men­tor­ing and guid­ing him into pol­i­tics

Arab News - - News International - Nor Ar­lene Tan Kuala Lumpur Getty Im­ages

As Malaysia’s youngest minister, Syed Sad­diq was re­cently listed as one of the most in­flu­en­tial young peo­ple in the world for 2018 by the Lon­don-based global pol­icy plat­form Apo­lit­i­cal.

He was among the Top 100 young lead­ers who were “mak­ing an im­pact early in their gov­ern­ment ca­reers,” a list that in­cluded Pak­istani politi­cian Bi­lawal Bhutto Zar­dari and Tu­nisia’s mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, Sayida Ou­nissi.

Like the Mid­dle East, South­east Asia is home to a rel­a­tively young pop­u­la­tion — more than half of the re­gion’s pop­u­la­tion is un­der 30 years old. How­ever, young peo­ple rarely get to the front of pol­i­tics.

Since the Pakatan Hara­pan (PH) gov­ern­ment won its land­slide vic­tory in the gen­eral elec­tion in May, Malaysian Prime Minister Ma­hathir Mo­hamad has vowed to build a “new Malaysia.” The 26-year-old Sad­diq gained promi­nence when he was ap­pointed by the 93-year-old leader to head the Sports and Youth Min­istry.

Raised by work­ing-class par­ents, the world-class de­bater turned down a schol­ar­ship of­fer to study in Ox­ford and opted to go into pol­i­tics in­stead. He leads the youth wing of the Malaysia United Indige­nous Party and is also the mem­ber of Par­lia­ment for Muar con­stituency.

Arab News caught up with him to dis­cuss his thoughts on rep­re­sent­ing the voices of the younger gen­er­a­tion.

“It is an in­ter­est­ing shift,” said Sad­diq. De­spite his youth, he is a politi­cian with a mis­sion. He said he wants to en­sure that the youth agenda in Malaysia and ASEAN is not merely an af­ter­thought, but a main pri­or­ity es­pe­cially with the new gov­ern­ment.

“I do not want to be a to­ken or just ap­pear on a list (of most in­flu­en­tial young lead­ers) but in the end fall short in fight­ing for the youth agenda,” he said. His vi­sion is to have a whole gen­er­a­tion of Malaysians who are very proac­tive, fully par­tic­i­pat­ing in the demo­cratic process.

He and his min­istry have been ac­tive on so­cial me­dia, where he aims to “break down the walls of bu­reau­cracy of the gov­ern­ment” to en­gage with young peo­ple. “It is more than just about post­ings, it is lis­ten­ing, en­gag­ing, and I ap­pre­ci­ate that a lot,” he said.

“It has al­lowed peo­ple who pre­vi­ously might not have the net­work or con­nec­tions to meet (with the minister or the min­istry) to air their griev­ances and con­cerns,” he added.

One of his main cam­paigns since tak­ing of­fice has been to lower the vot­ing age from 21 to 18, as well as in­tro­duc­ing au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion. At the mo­ment there are 3.4 mil­lion of un­reg­is­tered vot­ers, ma­jor­ity of them aged 21 and above.

“At 18 years old, you can al­ready drive, you can al­ready get into ma­jor con­tracts, you can al­ready get mar­ried, there is al­ready a per­cep­tion of ma­tu­rity,” he said, adding that he wants to en­sure that by the end of his term, young peo­ple will be fully em­pow­ered through the bal­lot box, and their po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal in­creased.

He has been speak­ing with youth wings of the op­po­si­tion par­ties as well as the top lead­er­ship. He said they mostly sup­ported the low­er­ing of the vot­ing age.

“Pol­i­tics is tough. The po­si­tion I am in is not just about op­pos­ing things, you need to iden­tify solutions and to con­nect with dif­fer­ent with dif­fer­ent groups, and even work with your strong­est op­po­si­tion,” he said.

He at­trib­uted his rise in pol­i­tics to Ma­hathir. De­spite the wide age gap, Ma­hathir has been guid­ing Sad­diq since his early years work­ing for him as a re­search of­fi­cer. “He is a stel­lar fig­ure. With­out him, I would not be here right now,” said Sad­diq of Ma­hathir, whom he con­sid­ered as a men­tor and a grand­fa­ther.

“It is this 93-year-old who is fight­ing to youth-ify the Malaysian po­lit­i­cal scene,” Sad­diq said, adding that Ma­hathir has brought up many young lead­ers, in­clud­ing fight­ing for more young lead­ers on the cor­po­rate board, grass­roots youth lead­er­ship and even vil­lage chiefs.

“I can’t call him old, I al­ways call him vin­tage. That guy works harder than a 21-year-old, and he’s a lot wiser,” said Sad­diq cheek­ily about Ma­hathir.

With glob­al­iza­tion and the rise of in­equal­ity in Malaysia, Sad­diq’s min­istry is chal­lenged by many is­sues faced by young peo­ple, such as the cost of liv­ing, health care and af­ford­able hous­ing. He told Arab News that bread and but­ter is­sues were close to the heart of his min­is­te­rial role but it re­quired cross­min­is­te­rial par­tic­i­pa­tion to re­solve this con­cern.

With more than 700,000 Ro­hingya forced to leave Rakhine State by the Myan­mar mil­i­tary, Sad­diq has sup­ported the Malaysian prime minister on the Ro­hingya cri­sis. He told Arab News that this is not just a Mus­lim is­sue, it is a hu­man­i­tar­ian is­sue. Cur­rently, an es­ti­mated 100,000 Ro­hingya are liv­ing in Malaysia; many do not have a UNHCR card and live in dire con­di­tions.

“We have to help the Ro­hingya in what­ever ways we can,” he said. “If we are not able to show our hu­man­ity and com­pas­sion, that means we don’t de­serve to call our­selves a demo­cratic, hu­man­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment.”

The Mid­dle East has a very young pop­u­la­tion, 28 per­cent of which is aged be­tween 15 and 29 and it is also an im­por­tant re­gion to Malaysia. The young politi­cian told Arab News that he has a few trips planned to build stronger bridges with the Arab com­mu­nity there.

“We must strengthen ties with Arab com­mu­ni­ties, not just be­cause they are global su­per­pow­ers. There are a lot of ar­eas of com­mon in­ter­est we can work to­gether,” he said.

He plans to meet young lead­ers in the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing Saudi Ara­bia, and sees greater col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mus­lim coun­tries on ar­eas such as com­bat­ing ex­trem­ism and ad­dress­ing poverty.

The 26-year-old Syed Sad­diq gained promi­nence when he was ap­pointed by 93-year-old Prime Minister Ma­hathir Mo­hamad to head Malaysia’s Sports and Youth Min­istry.

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