Trailblazing MP and MUDA president Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman opens up about put-downs, pitfalls, and plans for a better Malaysia

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We're the ones we've been waiting for. We're the change that we seek," Barack Obama once said.

In our generation, one Malaysian man has worn many hats in a short span of time: the son of a middle-class family, a student, a gamer, a law graduate, a part-time lecturer, a researcher, a debate trainer, a part-time karaoke-r (it's true), a politician, a minister, and a cloud kitchen co-founder. His name is Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

You all know his story—he first came into prominence in the country's wider political scene when he made his debut contesting the 2018 general election (GE14) and was elected to the Parliament. Shortly after, he was appointed the Minister of Youth and Sports, Malaysia's youngest ever federal minister since Merdeka, in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. At 25 years old, he was also the youngest cabinet minister to be appointed.

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Young but driven, he always dreamed of making a change. They say you shouldn't do anything without a plan, well, he had plenty, including spearheading the historic passing of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 2019 for the Undi18 Bill, to lower the minimum voting age from 21 years old to 18 years old, with almost unanimous support. But in February 2020, in one swift Sheraton Move, the PH government fell, effectively removing him from his ministerial position and disrupted his plans, among other things.

At this point, he had already experienced plenty of put-downs and name-calling, in large part due to his age. Instead of throwing in the towel and calling his political career a day, he did what any other determined change seeker/maker would do—he founded his own party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), Malaysia's first youth-based party, in September 2020.

On March 13, 2022, it was announced that MUDA had secured one seat in the Johor polls in the party's maiden election. Upon his return from Johor, Tatler caught up with the Asia's Most Influential honouree in an exclusive interview.

Tell us about yourself.

I'm the youngest son of my mother, a teacher, and my father, a labourer. I studied at the Royal Military College (RMC) before getting a Bachelor of Law from the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and doing my Public Policy studies at the National University of Singapore.

Before joining politics, I was a part-time lecturer in IIUM, a researcher for a local think tank, and also a debate trainer. I had the privilege of travelling across 25 countries to teach debating and public speaking. Then I made the leap into politics. Today, I’m a member of the Parliament (MP) of Muar and a proud civil servant for Malaysians.

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What were your parents’ initial thoughts on your decision to go into politics?

It wasn't easy because I was earning comfortably and I also received a scholarship to pursue a Master’s in Public Policy at Oxford University. Coming from a middle-class family of educators, my mother told me that I can’t let go of this opportunity, that I must take it, that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and they’ll never be able to bear the cost of funding my studies at Oxford University.

So, it wasn’t easy convincing my parents but I’m blessed to have the most supportive parents ever who've stood by my side through thick and thin. They too have been victims of the system and threatened on many occasions to weaken my resolve. If they were a different set of parents, I’d never be where I am today.

As the Minister of Youth and Sports, you were the youngest ever federal minister. How did you overcome not being taken seriously because of your age or (lack of) experience?

I like the challenge and I believe the best way to prove my critics wrong is through my actions and success. I believe that age is merely a number and if we’re able to put our mind to it… young people are very creative and innovative, and they dare to think out of the box. They’re able to come up with unconventional solutions to deal with conventional problems. If anything, it’s a bonus, not a liability.

When I first took the leap of faith into politics, I was tasked to become a co-founder of a party when I was 23 years old, in my third year of university. I led the youth wing which became the largest segment of the party. Even when I was made minister, very quickly I was tasked to pursue one of the most ambitious constitutional amendments which required two-thirds support in Malaysia. Malaysia doesn’t have a good track record of bipartisanship or of parties working with one another. If anything, we have a great track record in hyperpartisanship. But I took it upon myself to prove my critics wrong, to show that a young person can work with all political parties and leaders to reach a common path and ground. Diplomacy via maturity matters.

In one year, I was able to amend critical constitutional amendments that today have enfranchised millions of young voters, not just our generation but also the generations to come. I take that as a great responsibility, being the youngest minister. I want to ensure that after me, there’ll be many other young ministers appointed regardless of who wins.

You see parties competing to field more young candidates, the recent youth appointment of an MB in Johor, many more young people are being fielded as candidates in Melaka, and also being state ministers.

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Was there ever a low point that almost drove you to give up?

To be honest, there had been many occasions. I’m not perfect, I’ve made a fair share of my mistakes, I’ve learned from them and I’ve moved forward. Before GE14 at the end of 2017, I was kind of set to go to Oxford University. That was a tough time because I lost all sources of income instantly when I became active in politics—I could no longer teach, and I was removed as a debate trainer and a researcher.

They didn’t just threaten me with very private things, they also threatened my family. That’s where I draw the line. But weirdly enough, it didn’t drive me away from politics. It actually increased my resolve to change Malaysia to ensure that no one, including my political opponents, will ever have to go through what I faced and to build a more mature political environment in Malaysia.

The most recent one was post-Sheraton Move. Mind you, the clashes were between two of my political mentors, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. When they took separate paths, it was a very painful split. It wasn't just about losing my ministerial post or my party position—I was subsequently expelled—but then came the institutions of government being weaponised against me and my family.

Initially, I thought I’d just slow down a little bit but it actually increased my resolve to keep on changing Malaysia for good. Even if I fail, at least I know I’ve moved the pebble in front for the following generation to pick up and keep marching forward.

Can you tell us some of the values on which MUDA is built?

First, I want MUDA to be a principle-based, multiracial, moderate, policy-centred political party in which there can’t be barriers and walls separating MUDA from the people. If you look at MUDA’s membership, it’s really based on grassroots activism. In a very short time, we were able to mobilise 75,000 members. A majority of them have never joined any political parties and to some extent don’t have much political experience but their hearts are really in service.

To change Malaysia for the better, to talk about policy improvements which can turbocharge our country forward to become a developed country, about important issues like education reforms and job creation (not just low-income jobs but quality jobs), about income inequity which hurts many middle-class and lower-income Malaysians. These are the focus of MUDA and we're built on that foundation. We want to make Malaysia a developed and dignified country in which all Malaysians feel at home regardless of race, religion, and political creed. We’re stakeholders in this beloved country and no matter how painful things get, we know that this is our country and our home forever together.

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For the things that you had planned but ultimately couldn’t execute because of the collapse of PH, which of these are you bringing with you into MUDA?

Oh, so many! It was quite frustrating because a lot of the changes would’ve come in March 2020, in the next parliament sitting.

In the previous parliament sitting, I got through Undi18, Undi Automatic, and Calon18—three constitutional amendments. I also amended the Youth Act from 40 to 30 years old. So, four critical amendments I made in one parliament seating.

The following parliament seating, the Cabinet agreed on a few critical reforms: the IPCMC Bill, which looks at creating greater transparency and accountability among the police force while increasing allocations for them to ensure their welfare is well taken care of; the Political Funding Act, which intends to break the political class from the corporate class to ensure that politicians and civil servants won’t always be subservient to the corporate elites which in the end hurts the cause and the interest of the average Malaysian; and the two-term limit for prime minister.

It was a package of reforms and changes that we were about to carry through. We were also about to ensure that the repayment of student loans would only start after a person’s income reaches a dignified level, which is about RM2,500 to RM4,000. We agreed to pass those in the Cabinet in January 2020 and were about to table in March 2020. Sadly, the government changed and all were backtracked.

If anything, MUDA should carry those and more. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done to turbocharge our country forward.

If you knew then what you know now, and if you could go back, what are some things you would’ve liked to change?

For some issues, I should've definitely been a lot more vocal. People are very vocal in private meetings but maybe in public, I could’ve been better. I also think that I should’ve rushed things a lot more. People were already annoyed! (laughs) if you asked my Cabinet colleagues, they were annoyed that I pushed for so many things so quickly, but I think I could’ve done a lot more.

We actually almost missed Undi18 as the Cabinet wanted to postpone it further because “there’s no need now, elections are still far, far away”. I was like, “No, no, no we need to do it now! I've got a one-year deadline, I’ve already consulted everyone in the opposition, now is the time!”

Luckily, I followed through. But I should’ve pushed harder for the Political Funding Act, the two-term limit, proper transition to power, and built greater inter-party collaborations in the government coalition.

I should’ve been a lot more hands-on instead of allowing my idealism to cloud my judgment. I should’ve been more aware of it so that I could’ve addressed it better.

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What words would you impart to someone who’s just starting a similar journey to yours?

Follow your heart, really. Because whether your passion is in politics, business, or civil service, if your heart's not in it, you’ll burn out very quickly. There were multiple points where I suffered from burn out and I was about to quit, but I reminded myself why I joined politics. I never once imagined that I’d be where I am today, that in such a short time, I’d be blessed to be given the opportunity and I’m very honoured, glad, and satisfied. So, follow your heart.

There are times when you may not get what you want, but as long as you believe in the course in which you want to take, the journey will ultimately be meaningful. It’s not just about achieving the outcome, you must enjoy the journey. If you enjoy the journey, nothing can stop you.

Tatler Asia's Asia’s Most Influential is the definitive list of people shaping Asia. Asia’s Most Influential brings together the region’s most innovative changemakers, industry titans and powerful individuals who are shaping the region through positive impact. View the full list here.

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