‘I’ve learnt things I wouldn’t have elsewhere’: Malaysia’s Syed Saddiq on Singapore experience
CNA spoke to one of Malaysia’s youngest MPs while he is in Singapore attending post-graduate classes.
SINGAPORE: Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman is committed to keeping fit.
In between lectures and engagements with politicians as well as business leaders, the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Muar federal seat in Johor fits in daily runs along the Marina Bay promenade, a stone’s throw from the hotel he is staying at.
Syed Saddiq, who is among Malaysia’s youngest MPs, has been in Singapore for almost a month, attending classes as he works towards the completion of a post-graduate senior fellowship programme with the National University of Singapore.
In an interview with CNA, the 28-year-old pointed out the iconic sights and attractions around Singapore’s city centre with ease.
“This place is brilliant for jogging. I’ve fully explored Gardens By The Bay, ran past the Singapore Flyer, and I've circled the whole area around Marina Bay including the Merlion and Esplanade… It’s an amazing route,” said Syed Saddiq.
While he was serving two weeks of quarantine in a hotel after arriving from Malaysia on Mar 7, he had to resort to running around his bed for an hour every day to work out a sweat.
“I'm pretty sure if anyone saw me from afar, they’d think I was crazy,” he said.
When he saw a group of Malaysians based in Singapore during the interview, he asked how they were coping with not being able to visit home regularly amid the pandemic, while agreeing to pose for a picture.
Slightly over a year ago, he was Malaysia’s youngest Cabinet minister in history, when he was appointed Minister for Youth and Sports in the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government after the 2018 General Election.
A lot has changed since. The PH government fell in March last year and Syed Saddiq was removed from his ministerial position. He also subsequently quit the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) and co-founded Malaysia’s first youth-based party Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA).
"WE ALL HAVE SOMETHING TO LEARN FROM ONE ANOTHER"
Last September, Syed Saddiq announced that he would be going back to school, after accepting a scholarship from NUS for a post-graduate senior fellowship programme at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP).
He had been attending online classes since then, and is now in Singapore for a month to meet his batch mates and attend classes, some of which he said were conducted by Singapore politicians and senior members of the civil service.
“So far it’s been amazing. The lessons have been truly refreshing because they’re not like typical lectures (during my undergraduate days),” said Syed Saddiq.
“You hear ministers and permanent secretaries speaking about their own personal experiences, how they navigate the jungles of bureaucracy and politics," he recounted.
"How a permanent secretary would, for example, when the minister disagrees with some suggestions made by the civil service ... navigate through all this. Because in the end, interests must be aligned … I've learnt things which I wouldn't have elsewhere.”
He also described how he learned “priceless” lessons from his fellow coursemates, many of whom are members of the Singapore civil service. There are also politicians from around the world, including a former minister of Costa Rica.
"We all have our strengths, and the unique part about this batch is that we build on each other's strengths. We all have something to learn from one another,” he added.
This trip to Singapore marks the first time Syed Saddiq is studying outside Malaysia. He attended the Royal Military college before pursuing law at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.
He previously turned down two offers by Oxford University, including one in 2018 for a conditional Chevening scholarship to obtain his Master's in Public Policy, citing how it could interfere with his work in politics.
When asked why he picked LKYSPP when the offer came in 2020, he said a key reason was the respect he had for Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
“I think you can never separate Singapore from Lee Kuan Yew. Not now, not ever. I was confident I was going to learn a lot from (a) school that he has lent his name to,” said Syed Saddiq.
Another key factor behind his decision was the opportunity to learn while networking with Singapore leaders.
“Let’s say I had gone to Oxford. I would never have got to meet up with Singapore ministers, ex-ministers, people from Temasek Holdings, civil service, etc. The ties built here will be long-lasting. And that’s something you will never get anywhere else,” he added.
While in Singapore, Syed Saddiq has held private informal discussions with Minister for Transport Ong Ye Kung, former minister George Yeo, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh as well as MP for Nee Soon GRC Derrick Goh.
He said that these engagements were invaluable particularly because he no longer was a minister representing his government, and thus could speak frankly.
“We know that the future of Singapore and Malaysia are intertwined with one another,” said Syed Saddiq.
“And if we succeed, we succeed together and that's the reality of things. We should never see the Malaysia-Singapore relationship as a zero-sum game. Singapore win, Malaysia lose or Malaysia win Singapore loses - that's a lie, it's a fallacy,” he added.
SHARING HIS EXPERIENCES IN POLICYMAKING
Besides learning in class, Syed Saddiq also had the opportunity to share some of his experiences in policymaking, especially from his time as minister.
He cited how in 2019, he had to navigate differences across the political divide to garner support for Undi18, a move to lower the voting age of Malaysians from 21 to 18.
“Even though I was a minister, I met up with MPs from the opposition, and I listened to them. I had many sessions with them. I wanted to show that we can come from different political parties or have different interests to defend the youth,” he said.
In a rare bipartisan move, lawmakers unanimously approved the measure to lower the voting age.
However, Malaysia’s Election Commission (EC) said last week it will not implement a lower voting age as scheduled in 2021, potentially affecting 1.2 million young voters if a general election is held, as expected, by the end of the year.
The EC said that the recent spate of nationwide lockdowns due to COVID-19 had affected its preparation to implement the new rule, which was due to have gone into effect in July.
Commenting on the announcement, the Muar MP said that MUDA would file a case in court to challenge this act, citing how it would affect Malaysia's “constitutional integrity” since Undi18 had already passed through the parliament and senate.
READ: Commentary - Malaysian youths will force a political reckoning some day. That day may be at hand
ON BEING CALLED A “KID” IN PARLIAMENT
Syed Saddiq's opponents have in the past taken aim at his perceived lack of experience.
For example, during a budget debate in Parliament last year, UMNO MP for Pasir Salak Tajuddin Abdul Rahman said "kids should sit down", when Syed Saddiq was talking about the issue of taxes for glove-making companies.
The remark sparked protests from various opposition MPs, calling for Tajuddin to withdraw his remark. Syed Saddiq did not get drawn into the mudslinging.
“Young people are a great asset and you should never measure a person's value based on your age. So that's why when (the MP for) Pasir Salak said all this to me, I didn't respond by calling him ‘old or boomer’. Instead I wanted to focus on the point I was trying to make,” said Syed Saddiq.
“I don't think we should be defensive or feel as if we were incompetent and inferior. We should turn that negative vibes into something positive, into a strong sense of idealism and passion to prove them wrong through our success,” he added.
Before he arrived in Singapore, Syed Saddiq announced that he was voluntarily foregoing his MP salary for the month of March, and will donate it to his team to help residents in his constituency.
He has hosted night seminars giving tips on public speaking, critical thinking and speech writing while attending classes in NUS. The proceeds from these events have gone to help school children in Muar.
“I think the days where we practice the politics of pandering are over,” said Syed Saddiq.
“The best way to take Malaysia forward is to focus on the politics of service and policies, and to ensure that we not just tolerate but celebrate moderation and multiracialism in Malaysia, because that is inherently our strength,” he added.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said that Syed Saddiq Rahman is Malaysia’s youngest MP. That is incorrect. He is among the youngest MPs in Malaysia. We apologise for the error.