Syed Saddiq missed call from Dr M asking him to be Youth & Sports Minister because he didn’t recognise his number
The 'vocal Johorian' tells all about his relationships with two of Malaysia's Prime Ministers.
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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 second. You can read Part One here.
Most Malaysians and a good number of Singaporeans would have some impression of who Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman is.
The first time many Singaporeans heard of him was when he was appointed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as the youngest Minister in Malaysia’s history, at the age of 25.
And for many Malaysians and Singaporeans living their lives on Instagram, they may possibly have seen
Instagram influencer with 1.8 million followers Syed Saddiq’s regular posts about his work, his views on Malaysia, and of course his pet cat Meow Meow.
The first in-person impression we got of Syed Saddiq was of him in a sports jacket, seated at his desk, deep in concentration at work — we could easily uproot and place him in a university library and he wouldn’t look at all out of place.
He soon looked up and saw us, though, breaking into a ready smile and striding to us quickly.
And after a brief introduction of us by his Press Secretary, he gestured for us to take a seat at the sofa and we got started right away.
The 26-year-old (he turns 27 in December) strikes us as a man driven to incessant work and activity, either by his youthful energy or his sense of purpose or both.
He wakes up early every day, though he dismissed a previous article stating that he wakes up at 5am.
“It’s not 5am lah, waking up at 5am is slightly too much, that’s my father (from Johor) when he went to Singapore (to work)”, he said.
Okay then — we suppose Syed Saddiq is a laid-back fellow who wakes up at 6am, says his morning prayers, starts his fitness regime of 50 sit-ups, 50 push-ups, and dumbbell, and reads all of BBC and The Economist Espresso (a morning briefing from the editors of The Economist) before he even starts work.
His work day, by the way, often ends at midnight.
He really, really looks up to Mahathir
One thing that really struck us from the outset, though, talking about his achievements thus far in office, was, slightly unexpectedly, his astoundingly deep respect and affection for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — a man whom he describes as “a Prime Minister who is 93 but works just as hard and thinks like a 30-year-old”.
In a coalition cabinet made up of veterans, idealists and eccentric first-time Ministers who made puzzling public remarks, Syed Saddiq’s achievements are already among the highlights of Mahathir’s current administration.
Undi 18 (Vote 18), the amendment to the Constitution that allows Malaysians aged 18 and older to vote in general elections, is perceived by some as the administration’s high-water mark.
And Syed Saddiq is the face and brains behind that legislative success.
He doesn’t seem keen to bask in the glory though, stressing that Mahathir’s assistance was instrumental in getting Undi 18 passed and going as far as to say that attaining a unanimous vote would have been “impossible” without his help.
That being said, he of course considers this his biggest achievement thus far in his ministerial tenure.
He elaborated how Mahathir helped him in Cabinet, and “put his foot down” when other members of the Cabinet wanted to delay the move.
“Actually convincing the Prime Minister was the easiest, oddly enough. Because despite him being 93, turning 94, he is as young as 30 years old at heart.”
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“Oh, you’re the vocal Johorian!”
Syed Saddiq’s first communication with Mahathir took place when he was just six, having sent a grammar-checked personal request to the then-first-term-Prime Minister, hoping to bake cookies for the good old Doctor at his house, and received a handwritten reply.
But their next meeting, in person, was to have important consequences for Malaysian politics.
This took place in 2015, when Syed Saddiq was still in university and Mahathir was still in UMNO. Mahathir held a meeting with some youth leaders (among whom Syed Saddiq happened to be) to better understand their concerns about Malaysia’s future.
Syed Saddiq acknowledged that by this time, he had been pretty “vocal” in speaking out against then-Prime Minister Najib Razak over his alleged involvement in the 1MDB scandal.
He described it as a “very interesting conversation”, as Mahathir at the time was still insistent on staying in UMNO, even though Syed Saddiq believed that UMNO would never share Mahathir’s new vision for a progressive Malaysia.
The young lad must have made an impression, because the elder statesman would later on recognise him at another meeting with grassroots leaders at his house.
“He saw me and said ‘Oh, you are the vocal Johorian!'” Syed Saddiq added.
Entering Dr M’s close circle, launching his new political party
After that, Syed Saddiq began to work closely with Mahathir and his allies, who were looking for someone to handle youth affairs.
They put their trust in him to become a co-founding member of their new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). Syed Saddiq is now the chief of PPBM’s youth wing.
He told us he believes this appointment was a demonstration of Mahathir’s and former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s commitment to youth issues — he was 23 at the time.
Syed Saddiq said he appreciated its significance even more so because the youth wing leader of a Malaysian political party is usually someone more experienced and who would have financial resources to help the party. This, he said, signalled to him the immense trust they had in him.
“They gave me a chance. So from then onward, we worked really hard together,” he said.
But Syed Saddiq wanted to work even more closely with Mahathir, so a year before the 2017 election, he spent a year working pro-bono as a researcher for him.
“So for one year I didn’t get paid, but I got paid in priceless experience.”
“Tormented” by Najib’s regime
It was during this period, however, that Syed Saddiq found himself a target of political detractors. Making things worse was the fact that his mother, a teacher, was targeted as well.
“There were threats directed at her, she was about to be transferred to Sabah despite the fact that she was still recovering from cancer.”
The rest of his family wasn’t spared either.
“There were very personal things… sent to my father and my brother. It was difficult, but the difficulty just increased my resolve as to why it was much needed to clean up Malaysian politics.”
Syed Saddiq revealed that the Najib administration dangled cash at him to accept a scholarship he clinched from Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government for a Master’s degree in public policy, something he said was “one of (his) life dreams”.
But he ended up rejecting it (the scholarship and the alleged bribe money), knowing it would interrupt the work he was doing with constituents ahead of the 2017 election (he was standing for a seat in Muar, which he now holds).
“And then when offers didn’t work, threats started coming in,” he said.
Meeting with Najib Razak
Despite that experience, Syed Saddiq still decided to meet with Najib (who is still an elected MP, by the way) to try and get his support in his push for Undi 18.
“So meeting up with Datuk Sri Najib was not the easiest of things. I mean, one of the major reasons why I got into politics was because of him, oddly enough.
I lost my job as a researcher, as a lecturer, my mom and family were threatened. I mean, the many many tormenting times which my family had to go through were caused by his regime.”
But at this point, he chose not to elaborate further, with the excuse that dwelling on the past hinders his ability to move forward.
Missing a call from Mahathir because he “didn’t recognise the number”
Despite the challenges, PPBM formed a successful coalition with other parties, the Pakatan Harapan, and went on to win the 2017 election.
And so the bright-eyed 25-year-old became the MP for Muar in Johor, defeating a member of UMNO’s supreme council.
But there was more to come.
“I remember exactly when the call was made,” he said. He was in Kedah, about to attend the nikah or solemnisation ceremony of the younger brother of one of his best friends.
“So I was in a taxi, going from the airport to that place, and suddenly I received a call.”
He didn’t recognise the number, so he didn’t answer. But a second call came through, this time from someone he recognised, the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister.
“(He said) ‘Eh Syed Saddiq, why didn’t you pick up the call before?’ I said, I don’t know the number. He said ‘That’s the Prime Minister calling!'”
Mahathir then came on the line, and offered Syed Saddiq the position of Minister for Youth and Sports. He certainly didn’t see that coming, but responded that it would be an “absolute honour” to serve the new government.
“The first person who actually found out that I was made a minister was the taxi driver. Because he actually heard the conversation, you see.”
Mahathir behind closed doors: a “really chill and relaxed guy”
But who is the real Mahathir? Syed Saddiq painted a picture of a nonagenarian who sticks to a punishing schedule that men half his age would find difficult to maintain.
He said Mahathir never enters the office later than 8:30am, and then is tied up in activities that can run until midnight.
One might expect an older person like Mahathir to be conservative in his mindset, but Syed Saddiq said he “loves unconventional ideas”, and that it was an “absolute pleasure” to work with him long before the election.
So what’s Mahathir like in private? Can Syed Saddiq share something the public doesn’t know?
Syed Saddiq paused at this point for a long moment, before saying,
“He’s a really chill and relaxed guy when you know him in person. People always think he’s very scary, very fierce, but there’s the soft side of him that a lot of people don’t know…
He’s very humorous. He can sing, but he loves listening to other people singing more. And deep down, behind all the political walls, his heart is always in the right place.
That while outcomes may be different, you know that when he engages something, he means well.”
And according to Syed Saddiq, Mahathir’s longevity is a result of a “struggle” he sets for himself.
“And that’s why I believe one of the reasons why he has that longevity is because whenever he has a struggle, he will try his best to complete it. He will put all his willpower in that direction to ensure that perjuangan, or that struggle, is completed.”
Singapore and Malaysia can prosper together
Besides Mahathir and Najib, Singapore is another topic that came up a few times during our conversation with Syed Saddiq.
And of course it would, given that Singapore-Malaysia relations have been through some rough spots since the PH took power.
We’re glad to hear, though, that Syed Saddiq is a firm believer in the heights that both Malaysia and Singapore can scale if they work together.
“If Malaysia and Singapore had closer ties, common dreams, common goals, together we can be one of the strongest superpowers in Asia, not just in ASEAN.”
He said our countries were similar, having prosperous, moderate and multiracial populations, and despite being separated by borders, people in both countries want to see moderation triumph over extremism.
He added that he feels Singapore and Malaysia could work closely together in ASEAN to fight against injustice, economic integration, and to also represent ASEAN on the national stage, dealing with giants like China, the U.S., and Europe.
“To say that we’re frenemies is wrong. When Singapore prospers, Malaysia prospers with her. And when Malaysia prospers, Singapore prospers with her. In the end, we are indeed one family. When we go through hardship, we go through it together.”
He cited the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis as an example of a tough time that both countries weathered together.
“While we will have our differences, like any family member, but in the end we’ll still come back together and hug each other.”
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A bright future ahead of this young man?
The late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said that “a week is a long time in politics”.
And indeed the past week was a tough one for him, still at the receiving end of flak over his decision to meet controversial Indian Islamic preacher Zakir Naik.
And the criticism he faced was intensified given the fact that it came days after Syed Saddiq himself asked for the preacher’s deportation.
But he didn’t seem fazed at all by the brouhaha.
He even “doubled down” by insisting on the need to reach out to those who disagree with him.
The last thing he wanted was for people to argue in silos and echo chambers, he explained.
Is the Zakir Naik controversy a sign of tougher times ahead for the young Minister?
If political progression proceeds on a linear trajectory, Syed Saddiq is likely to be primed to be a Deputy Prime Minister or even Prime Minister in anywhere between 20 and 25 years.
After all, Syed Saddiq appears to be following the tradition of ambitious and promising Malaysian politicians who went on to become the top leaders of Malaysia.
They include former Prime Minister Najib Razak (Youth Minister, 1986-1990), former DPM Anwar Ibrahim (Youth Minister, 1983-1984), and also Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (Youth Minister, 1995-1999).
Najib took 23 years to be PM after his youth ministry portfolio. Anwar took a decade to become DPM, while Muhyiddin took 14 years to rise to DPM.
The young Syed Saddiq, whose bright political future depends much on Mahathir and the success of PPBM, will need more than just energy and idealism to make it to the top.
Just ask any of his highly ambitious and competent predecessors. We’d wager they didn’t see Malaysia’s ruling party of six decades ever losing power.
Hopefully, Syed Saddiq will have his mentor’s luck to stay the course.
Read more from Mothership’s exclusive interview with Syed Saddiq here:
Here’s part one:
And here’s his response to the Zakir Naik controversy:
Top image by Rachel Ng