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.