KUALA LUMPUR: His father was a Singapore citizen, a construction worker who commutes every day from Johor to the Republic to work. His mother is an English teacher at a secondary school who wakes up at 5am every morning to cook for the family and then gives tuition classes until late at night to earn extra money.
The youngest of their four children, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, is determined to ensure that the struggles of his youth and his parents are not in vain.
“I want to ensure that no other Malaysian has to go through that life,” the youth chief of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) said. “When my parents succeed, despite coming from a very humble background, I owe a duty to further progress Malaysia forward because I know how it was like to be in that position before.”
His father took up Malaysian citizenship about a year ago.
For Malaysia’s millennials, the 25-year-old International Islamic University law graduate is seen by some as a voice of their generation.
Tall and quick-witted, the Johor-born Syed Saddiq is a legend in the debating community, having won Asia’s Best Speaker award at the Asian British Parliamentary (ABP) Debating Championship three times.
“He is intelligent, knows his stuff well and his debates are original to the point where they are award-winning,” said a 19-year-old college student who watches Syed Saddiq’s debates on YouTube.
“I admire him because he walks the talk – he said he wanted to make a difference, enter into politics and he did, unlike most people who only talk and never do anything.”
THE REBEL ROUSER
But there is a perception in some circles that it is Syed Saddiq’s rebellious image that captures the imagination of the young, similar to what happened with his political predecessors Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim in their younger days.
He came to prominence in 2016 when he and 24 other youths – a group that called themselves Change Led by the Young Generation (Challenger) – wrote a statement rejecting Prime Minister Najib Razak’s leadership over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.
“Challenger successfully organised themselves into a cohesive group and travelled the country to meet other students and youth leaders, recruiting many more into their cause,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, a visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute of Singapore, said in a report titled PPBM in Johor: New Party, Big Responsibility.
By current estimates, PPBM boasts almost 200,000 members, more than half of whom are aged below 35, according to the report.
Syed Saddiq has played a key role in boosting those numbers.
“In October 2017, he even announced that he had turned down a full scholarship offer from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, in order to continue PPBM’s political struggle,” said Wan Saiful. “This endeared him to many youths and young professionals, and attracted even more young people into the party.”
The youthful makeup of PPBM could be its Achilles’ heel, however. Fundraising could be a challenge given that their network will not be as extensive as those of more established parties. The young cadres also lack knowledge of policy-making and of governing a country.
“Having young members might be good for activism but it creates a challenge in terms of sustainability and direction,” said Wan Saiful. “This is why the ideal situation is to have a healthy combination of younger and older members.”