We met with Syed Saddiq at his Ministry of Youth and Sports office in Putrajaya on Monday, Aug. 26 for an exclusive wide-ranging interview. This was done in two parts, of which this is the first. You can read Part Two here.
Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman is the most followed Malaysian politician on Instagram, with more than 1.8 million followers.
On the social media platform, the 26-year-old enamours his followers (me included, I'll admit upfront) with photos of himself at work and occasionally features his cat, Meow Meow.
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Meow meow is annoyed that i’ll be leaving her for a 2-day working trip to Jakarta😆 Esok saya akan bersama Presiden Jokowi untuk bincang berkenaan halatuju anak muda ASEAN, khususnya di antara Malaysia & Indonesia. Malaysia & Indonesia merupakan saudara serumpun. Bersatu kita teguh, bercerai kita roboh. We are facing the same onslought from EU Protectionist policies on Palm Oil which hurt the underprivileged in both our respective countries. Our economies are also affected due to EUs protectionist policy. We must fight back & the Youth must lead the battle. Hari ahad saya akan berucap di Indonesia Future Fest bersama pimpinan anak muda pada pukul 2pm. Saya juga akan bersama beberapa tokoh usahawan muda ASEAN dalam menerokai jalan ke hadapan. Looking forward to seeing all of you in Jakarta.
More than just a pretty face
But don't let his sharp features (ahem) or the fact that he's the youngest minister in Malaysia's political history influence your impression of his abilities as the youth and sports minister.
One and a half years into his role, Syed Saddiq has so far pulled off an impressive range of changes for his fellow Malaysians.
This includes getting paid internships for government interns (believe it or not, until this month many were given a third of what is now mandated) and his efforts to create more jobs for the mat motor (motorcyclist) community, like bringing in Go-Jek.
Proudest achievement: Undi 18
But his "proudest achievement" yet, he tells us in an exclusive interview, is something that had never happened before in the country's history (apart from the history he made with his own ministerial appointment): Getting a unanimous vote in parliament to reduce the voting age to 18 years old.
As significant as that was, it of course didn't come easy.
He tells us it took him more than a year to convince his Pakatan Harapan coalition members that Undi 18 was the right move.
"There was a lot of scepticism. They thought the youths are anti-establishment, young people are not intellectually mature."
He also went out of his way to meet leaders from opposition parties including PAS and UMNO, along with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, to score their votes in favour of the amendment.
But his problems didn't stop there.
"It's the rakyat's victory"
The opposition parties asked for two more constitutional amendments to accompany it:
- Automatic voter registration for 18-year-old Malaysians.
- Lowering the minimum age for elected representatives to 18 years old.
While he was fine with these, he knew he was going to have a difficult time getting them passed.
He only had a week to propose the changes as parliament was in session at that time.
Within that period, he had to convince the other cabinet ministers, including Mahathir, that he wasn't just giving in to the opposition's demands. He was doing it for the rakyat (citizens).
"There was the argument that if we allow this, then it will be an opposition victory, but it's not. It's the rakyat's victory if we get this through."
And the rakyat emerged victorious.
On July 16, 2019, the government passed the bill to lower the voting age to 18 years old.
Mahathir the mentor
While talking about Undi 18, Syed Saddiq repeatedly stresses to us Mahathir's pivotal role in his success with the voting age changes, paving the way for MPs even younger than him to enter political office.
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Third day of Raya & in office with our hardworking PM @chedetofficial . . Alhamdulillah, after months of planning, Tun M will be the first Malaysian & Democratically elected leader from ASEAN to speak at both the Oxford & Cambridge Unions. It’s confirmed, 16th of June in Cambridge. . His last session at the Oxford Union was well-covered by both local and international media. Tun M will always position Malaysia as the true representative of ASEAN. . For Malaysia to be global, we must think global. See you in Cambridge on the 16th!
The notion of Dr M as a mentor to Syed Saddiq may sound curious, but his commitment to this view is as convincing as it can get: the young man worked for the 93-year-old for a year as his researcher without a single cent in payment just so he could learn the ropes from the two-time super-veteran Prime Minister.
Which brings us to an even more fascinating story connecting this young chap and that old man — if we may be so bold as to refer to them that way — long before Syed Saddiq even vaguely conceived any idea of entering politics.
The boy who wanted to bake cookies for the Prime Minister
Back in 1998, a six-year-old Syed Saddiq sought his English teacher mother's assistance with a very important letter he wanted to send to the then-Prime Minister's Office.
His grand agenda:
"I wanted to invite him to my house because I wanted to bake cookies for him."
Certainly not expecting to hear back from Mahathir, his mom nonetheless decided to humour her little baker boy's very earnest and sincere request and cleaned up his grammar. They mailed it out, and that was that.
An actual response from Dr M
But they were pleasantly surprised when a handwritten letter arrived at their house, along with a few tickets to the 1998 Commonwealth Games — Malaysia happened to be hosts that year.
"Now, I know it's a handwritten note from PM himself because I know how he writes. It was a very short letter.
It said (along the lines of): 'Sorry, can't come. Really busy. But we'd love to get your energy and support from your side at the Commonwealth Games.'"
Going to the Commonwealth Games, at the invitation of the Prime Minister, no less, has to be one of the best memories Syed Saddiq has ever had, since, he says, his Johor-based family rarely travelled up to Kuala Lumpur.
At the moment, though, this 21-year-old keepsake continues to be a memory for the young minister:
"That's the thing, I don't (have it)! It's in my old house in Taman Perling. To this day, I'm still asking my mum: 'Where's the letter?'"
Expected to work 2-3 times harder
So what's it like, being Malaysia's youngest-ever minister?
Syed Saddiq says above all else, he feels an expectation to work "two to three times" harder than the others in cabinet, especially since he does not have a wife or a family to return to.
Which is why his days are typically filled with back-to-back meetings that can end as late as midnight.
That being said, he says he sometimes enjoys making surprise visits to different states to find out what's happening on the ground — blame a strong dislike for sitting at his desk all day, perhaps.
He has a life, okay?
We asked what he does in his free time (in the event that exists for him these days), only to receive a pregnant pause that was broken with sniggering from his Press Secretary and staff, who were in the room with us.
He quickly snaps, "Why are you laughing? I have a life, okay?!"
Gathering his thoughts, he said he used to enjoy going to the cinemas alone.
But instead of being a film buff, he confesses he just goes to catch some sleep.
"It can be the best of movies but as soon as I reach the cinema, I will sleep. It's a different feeling, sleeping in the cinema."
Nowadays, however, the Manchester United fan says he tries to be more active by cycling or playing football every week.
Growing up with a S'porean dad
Now, here's something not many may know: Syed Saddiq has a Singaporean connection.
His father was a Singapore citizen right up till two years ago, and worked at a blue-collar job here that he had to travel across the Causeway every morning to.
Recalling that his dad used to return home from work as late as 11pm every day, Syed Saddiq said he always cherished the quality time they spent together — especially when he was in primary school and would follow him on part of his daily commute.
"Before he goes to work at the construction site, he would send me over to my uncle's house. I didn't get a lot of contact time with my father. But when I do, it is immensely invaluable."
The banter they exchanged watching sports competitions between the two countries also helped him to bond with his dad
"Whether we are watching it live at the stadium or on the television, that's the best time for me to spend time with my father. All the jokes about the food, the economy, everything will come out at once because of football."
These experiences, he adds, also made him realise how much his father loves his family — with how hard he worked, especially.
Travelling down to S'pore every Hari Raya
And in his growing up years, Syed Saddiq and his family did often come down to visit his relatives on his father's side living here on festive occasions like Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
"There's a bias going to Singapore during Raya because that's when you get the most money. Back then when you converted S$10, it'd be RM20."
He said he had many great childhood memories from these visits, but sadly hasn't been able to join his family in recent years (since entering politics) — something he considers to be a personal failure.
But he does hope that his Singaporean relatives continue to be proud and "exceptionally supportive" of him, as they had been from the very beginning of his political career.
"In the end, when we are family, barriers don't separate us."
A severe work-life imbalance
It gets worse — Syed Saddiq confessed that he has been so busy at work that he hasn't had time for his immediate family either.
In fact, he didn't meet his parents for the whole month of Hari Raya Aidilfitri until he had the faintest of moments with them at a big celebration he held for his constituents in Muar.
"I met my parents for only two minutes to shake their hands. I felt so, so bad. Balancing things out is one thing that I'm still trying to learn."
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Mama, You’ve always been there for me through thick & thin. . You were there when i had to get my head stitched during my first bicycle crash. . You were there when i was hospitalised for asthma during my first foolish attempt to smoke to look “cool”. . You were there to cheer me on during my first National Debate finals. . You were there when i decided to put aside my Oxford studies & scholarship to embarkon a greater jouney, despite the strong resistance at first. . You were there when the Police came knocking at our home in search of me at 2am in the morning for my outspokeness. . You were there when i graduated from IIUM,but was barred from attending my very own convocation. I remeber how you borrowed the graduation robe and suprised me with it to console me. . You were there when our family went through hell with the threats & coercion. . Heck, i distinctly remember one of the greatest “insurance” i had back then was knowing that if i ended up in jail, you’ll be the first one to protest *internal joke*. . Despite being there for me all the time, i feel disheartened that i can’t be there for you all the time. During your birthday, during Raya celebrations, during family gatherings. The last time you visited me & stayed for almost a week, we didn’t even have much time to talk as i would leave the house for work before you wake up & come back when you’re sound asleep. I can’t keep on blaming “work”. As you thought me before, “di mana ada kemahuan, di situ ada jalan”. . You are truly my one and only superwoman. A superwoman who’d wake up at 5am every morning to send Abuyah out to Singapore for work. Then leave to teach and come back at 2pm. Cook lunch, Then teach tuition classes from 4-6pm, then cook dinner, then another tuition class from 8-10pm. You do this everyday. On, weekends, you’ll run x5 2-hour long tuition classes! A superwoman who will insist to cook for the family despite working around the clock. . I will forever be in your debt mama. I don’t care if i’m called a “mama’s boy”. Behind every man’s success, there’s a woman. Often that woman, is his mum. That’s my story. . Happy mother’s day mama. My one and only superwoman.
He is thankful, though, that his parents have always been understanding of the challenges he faces as a minister, telling us that whenever his parents get a break from work, they do travel up to KL to stay over at his place.
Even then, his hectic schedule doesn't permit him to spend as much time with them as he would like.
By the time they wake up in the morning, he says, he would already be out. When he finally knocks off from work, they would already be asleep.
But having his parents under the same roof as him gives him the slightest of comfort.
"Just knowing that they're in the house is comforting. And I hope knowing that I'm in the house, even though I'm not able to spend a lot of time with them, comforts them as well."
Doing it for the rakyat
One might wonder, after hearing about all these sacrifices he's making in his personal life (dare we even ask about a girlfriend?), if this was a life Syed Saddiq was always kind of working toward.
He told us, though, that despite being actively involved in Malaysia's political scene since 2016 when he took the helm of BERSATU's youth wing, he never envisioned himself at the frontline of politics.
"I wanted to be many things before, but the closest one would be a lot more to academics because I come from a family of teachers. My mum, aunt and sister are teachers."
Even when he was very close to accepting a scholarship at Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government to take a Master's in public policy, he thought he would graduate to become what he described as a "backroom guy" doing policy research.
"That was one of my life dreams, you know, to study in Oxford. Especially a subject I love so much — public policy. It has always been either Oxford or NUS's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. They have one of the best public policy courses as well. But NUS, it was two years. So I couldn't (spare the time). In Oxford, it was one year."
But here's the amazing thing: he rejected it, believing he would be doing a "great injustice" to his constituents.
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1 hari di Muar besama lebih 15,000 yang hadir ke Sambutan Hari Raya. Bermandi peluh😅 Saya memohon maaf kalau ada kekurangan. Saya akan sentiasa terhutang budi kepada orang Muo. Saya akan berkhidmat sebaik mungkin untuk membalas budi kalian semua. #YangBerkhidmat #muomutiarajohor
As fate would have it, he made this decision mere weeks before he was appointed as Malaysia's Minister for Youth and Sports.
"About two to three weeks later, I received a call from the prime minister and he told me: 'I want you to be a minister.'"
And the rest was history.
But whether he's a minister, an MP or a "backroom guy", one thing for sure is that this young man is doing his best to do whatever it takes — even sacrificing almost all of his personal life — to make Malaysia a better place for his rakyat.
Continue reading the second part of the interview here:
Top image by Rachel Ng