We must strengthen ties with Arab communities, says Malaysia’s youngest minister

We must strengthen ties with Arab communities, says Malaysia’s youngest minister
Syed Saddiq turned down a scholarship offer to study at Oxford and opted to go into politics instead. (AN Photo)
Updated 07 December 2018

We must strengthen ties with Arab communities, says Malaysia’s youngest minister

We must strengthen ties with Arab communities, says Malaysia’s youngest minister
  • Syed Saddiq credits Mahathir Mohamad for mentoring and guiding him into politics
  • He sees greater collaboration with Muslim countries on combating extremism

KUALA LUMPUR: 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 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 would be 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 in 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 cross-ministerial participation to resolve this concern.

“What our ministry can do is to act as the strongest voice of concern among other ministries, so that the voice of young people is not sidelined,” said Saddiq. His ministry has been lobbying hard on issues such as student loans, where many young graduates are unable to meet the loan repayments due to low wages and unemployment. Despite calls to abolish student loans from youth groups, his ministry had a long debate with the Ministry of Education and reached the compromise of a 2 percent repayment rate when graduates start to earn $500.

His ministry also worked on issues affecting at-risk youth, including young offenders, those that are trapped in sex networks, young people with HIV/AIDS and the “mat rempit community” ( illegal motorbike racers).

Mahathir promised in his UN speech that he vowed to ratify all the remaining UN conventions, which included the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

Malaysia is a multicultural nation, but for the past 61 years the country has been ruled by the Barisan Nasional government, where race and religion rhetorics are institutionalized.

“They will try their best to ensure that issues of race and religion continue to polarize fellow Malaysians, to divide us. From there it would a vacuum that they can exploit to resume power,” he said.

Last month, nationalists from the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) staged nationwide protests against ICERD, which led the government to scrap its plan to ratify ICERD.

“For our part, we must stand firm on the federal constitution, on the racial and religious unity that is the bedrock of Malaysian unity,” added Saddiq. “The great optimism of Malaysians in overcoming this difficult time will be what moves us forward.”

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.

Saddiq has been capitalizing on his international appeal to move his youth agenda. During his visit to Indonesia with the Indonesian President Joko Widodo in July, his Instagram account exploded with an addition of 100,000 followers of young Indonesians, many of them charmed by his good looks and warm personality. In September, he became the center of attention during the World Economic Forum in Vietnam, where he attracted many young Vietnamese.

“We are not just leadership of tomorrow, but also leaders of today,” he told Arab News.

Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana

Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana
Updated 20 min 24 sec ago

Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana

Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana
  • Police said Albanian man, 34, wound five people with knife attack in mosque in Tirana
  • Man was arrested by police that haven’t disclosed any motive for the attack

TIRANA: An Albanian man with a knife attacked five people Monday at a mosque in the capital of Tirana, according to police.
A police statement said Rudolf Nikolli, 34, entered the Dine Hoxha mosque in downtown Tirana about 2:30 p.m. and wounded five people with a knife.
Police reacted immediately and took him into custody.
The five wounded, all men aged from 22 to 35, were taken to a hospital and police said they are not in life-threatening situations.
Police have not disclosed any motive for the attack. They and prosecutors are investigating the case.
Ahmed Kalaja, imam of the mosque, said the armed man attacked worshipers and staff, and added he hoped it was “not a terrorist attack.”
The mosque at the time was filled with believers during the fasting month of Ramadan.
Albania’s 2.8 million people are predominantly Muslim with smaller Christian Catholic and Orthodox communities that have gotten along well with each other.
Police said Nikolli was from the northern town of Burrel and his religious background was not yet clear.

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations
Updated 19 April 2021

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations
  • Second round of negotiations to take place Monday morning
  • Security was beefed up in capital Islamabad overnight with heavy contingents of police

ISLAMABAD: Eleven security personnel taken hostage on Sunday by the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) religious party during police clashes in Lahore were released in the early hours of Monday morning following the first round of negotiations with the government, interior minister Sheikh Rasheed said in a video announcement on Twitter.
Rioting by the rightwing group has rocked the country since Monday last, after TLP chief Saad Rizvi was arrested in Lahore a day after he threatened the government with rallies if it did not expel the French envoy to Islamabad over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) published in France last year.
The protests paralyzed major cities and highways, leading to the deaths of six policemen, according to the government, with thousands of TLP workers under arrest, police say. The riots also prompted the French embassy to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country last week.
“Talks have started with the TLP. The first round of negotiations went well and the second round will take place after sehr,” Rashid said.
“They [TLP] have released 11 abducted policemen hostages and have gone into the Rehmatul Lil Alameen Mosque. The police have also stepped back,” he said.

“These negotiations were held successfully by the Punjab government. We hope that the second meeting after sehr will also be successful and matters will be amicably resolved with the TLP,” he added.
Earlier, on Sunday evening, Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry said in a statement the government believed in negotiating but wouldn’t be blackmailed.
“The government believes in negotiations but can’t be blackmailed,” he said.
“The operation was started after police and Rangers personnel were kidnapped. The state can’t be blackmailed by a proscribed armed outfit. [Prime Minister] Imran Khan has the strongest affection with the Prophet (PBUH) and he has talked about this at every forum.”
Earlier on Sunday, a police spokesman, Arif Rana, said the operation against the TLP had been halted as the attackers were armed with petrol bombs and a tanker with 50,000 liters of petrol.
By Sunday evening, he said the situation was “at a standstill” with protesters sitting on roadsides with sticks and petrol bombs in their hands and law enforcement personnel standing guard.
Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the TLP to be dissolved.
Talking to the media in Islamabad on Sunday, Ahmed said no negotiations were underway with the TLP.
“We tried to negotiate for two, three months with them but in vain. They are not ready to retreat from their agenda, so the government is left with no option but to establish the writ of the state,” the minister said.
Security was heightened overnight in the capital, Islamabad, the DIG operations tweeted Sunday evening.
In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils during a civics lesson.
During similar protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including that it would debate expelling the French ambassador in parliament.
A deadline to make that parliamentary move expires on April 20.

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths
Updated 19 April 2021

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths
  • Three deaths were reported

BANGKOK: Thailand reported 1,390 new coronavirus cases on Monday, slowing from six days of record highs, amid a third wave of infections in the Southeast Asian country.
Three deaths were reported. The new cases took the total number of infections to 43,742, with 104 deaths.

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants
Updated 19 April 2021

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants
  • Along with the mandatory quarantine, France is requiring more stringent testing for the coronavirus

PARIS: France is imposing entry restrictions on travelers from four countries — Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Brazil — in hopes of keeping out especially contagious coronavirus variants, the government has announced.

The restrictions include mandatory 10-day quarantines with police checks to ensure people arriving in France observe the requirement.  Travelers from all four countries will be restricted to French nationals and their families, EU citizens and others with a permanent home in France.

France previously suspended all flights from Brazil. The suspension will be lifted next Saturday, after 10 days, and the new restrictions “progressively” put in place by then, the government said. 

The flight suspension for Brazil will be lifted followed by “drastic measures” for entering France from all four countries, plus the French territory of Guiana, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

The four countries “are the most dangerous in terms of the number of variants that exist and in the evolution of the pandemic in these countries,” Le Drian said Saturday on the France 3 television station.

The list of countries subject to tougher border checks could be extended, he said.

Under the new restrictions, travelers must provide an address for where they plan to observe the 10-day confinement period and police will make visits and fine those who are found in violation, the government said.

Along with the mandatory quarantine, France is requiring more stringent testing for the coronavirus. 

Travelers must show proof of a negative PCR test taken less than 36 hours instead of 72 hours before they boarded a flight, or a negative antigen test less than 24 hours

France has reported the deaths of 100,00 people in the COVID-19 pandemic.

A variant first identified in England spread to continental Europe and is now responsible for about 80 percent of the virus cases in France, while the variants first seen in Brazil and South Africa make up less than 4% of French infections, Health Minister Olivier Veran said last week.

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
Updated 18 April 2021

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
  • Warning comes amid fears that new, India variant could become dominant
  • Virologist: “We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen”

LONDON: Humanity is engaged in an “arms race” with the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, and its capacity to adapt and evolve remains unknown and should not be underestimated, scientists have warned.
“I think it’d be a brave person to say that the virus is nearing the end of its evolutionary route and can’t go any further,” Prof. Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London, told The Independent.
“We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen. It normally takes many years for viruses, once they cross the species barrier, to really optimize themselves to be able to replicate well within humans.”
Pillay’s warning comes amid fears that a new strain of Sars-CoV-2, known as the India variant — which has caused a surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 — could become a dominant global strain in the coming weeks.
The India variant is known to carry two mutations that could reduce the efficacy of a number of COVID-19 vaccines.
Whilst that has not yet occurred, the nature and speed at which the virus has mutated thus far, including in the form of the South African and UK variants, has caused alarm among the scientific community that the positive impact of vaccine rollouts could be undone in the near future.
Specifically, scientists worry about Sars-CoV-2’s ability to alter spike proteins, used to attach onto human cells, through mutations.
The spike proteins, referred to by Pillay as “keys” to entering human receptor cells, are the mechanism through which most of the world’s successful COVID-19 vaccines look to attack the virus, by training various immune system responses to identify them. 
One such mutation, E484K, has been found in the South Africa and UK variants. The India variant carries a similar mutation, E484Q.
The fear is that by altering their proteins, these variants could render them less visible to the immune system of vaccinated people, making it harder to ward off infection.
Aris Katzourakis, professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University, said beyond altering the spike protein, mutations such as E484K could “unlock a whole load of other mutations elsewhere in the spike” that have not yet been identified by scientists, with unknown repercussions for the severity of the virus.
“E484K took about 12 months before it became something we cared about. Presumably, 12 months from now, there’ll be another one or two that are just as important,” he told The Independent. 
Prof. Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said he believes that rather than continue to mutate indefinitely, there “will be a limit on how far the spike protein can evolve. But I’m not sure we can accurately determine what that limit may be at this point.”