COMMENT | Sizing up Syed Saddiq

COMMENT | Sizing up Syed Saddiq
COMMENT | Sizing up Syed Saddiq

QUESTION TIME | Malaysians are looking for change given the abysmal political leadership now, but are they making a mistake by embracing Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman to their bosoms a bit too early?

Do not forget that our collective feel-good bearhug for Dr Mahathir Mohamad as the leader of change and reform despite his horrendous past record, justifying the end with the means, and what it led to. The means thwarted the end which could have transpired if Pakatan Harapan had simply stuck to the straight and narrow.

With his boyish good looks, eloquence, ability to think on his feet, and his savvy media presence and positioning, Syed Saddiq’s proposal to form a party for youth and youthful aspirations has fired the imagination of many justifiably tired of the old ones. But is it genuine and doable or is it another one of his moves to focus the spotlight on himself and to become at least a kingmaker in this current volatile political environment where no single party can obtain a majority?

So before we give a warm welcome to Syed Saddiq, let us look at his track record and see what he has done and achieved so far, his stand on various issues, and some of his behaviour which is relevant and concerning to what we are looking for - an honest, capable, competent and experienced leader.

Right now, he is forming a multi-racial youth-based party, not quite severing links with Mahathir but distancing himself from Mahathir’s Malay-only Pejuang which he was part of. By his own admission, his relationship with Mahathir is excellent but he now feels that we need a party for all Malaysians.

Here’s a quote from a report in Malaysiakini: "I am not here (in politics) to only be the servant of the Malays. I'm here to be the servant for all Malaysians. I'm not here just to unite the Malays, but to unite all Malaysians.

"I have great respect for (Mahathir). As someone young, with hope and highly idealistic, I firmly believe that diversity in Malaysia is our strength. While he talks about splitting the Malay votes, we (on the other hand) have to unite all Malaysians."

If that was how he felt, then why did he join Bersatu earlier and Pejuang after that? If Mahathir was still prime minister and he was still youth minister, would he be forming this multi-racial youth party?

Forgive me for being cynical but this looks to me very much like an opportunistic thrust to take advantage of the changed political environment post-Sheraton Move - how Syed Saddiq can become relevant again.

‘I was a racist, Islamic radical’

Syed Saddiq, born in 1992, will be 28 on Dec 6. His father was a Singaporean construction worker and his Malay mother an English teacher. In March 2016, the 23-plus-year-old debating trainer at his alma mater the International Islamic University - he won some international debating competitions - gave an interview to the Malay Mail which was quite revealing.

Some excerpts: “If you met me five years ago, I’m like a totally different person. I could speak English but my English wasn’t good. I never got A’s for my English papers and English papers in Malaysia are not difficult. My knowledge was shit. I thought Africa was a country, Egypt was a continent. I still remember pronouncing “recipe” as “reh-sip.

“I am not proud of my past. I was a racist. I was an Islamic radical because I would actually say if you do not pray, you would go to hell and burn in hell. Like I’ll only mingle with Muslims. People always say oh no, this person is racist or a radical and cannot be changed. No, no, no, I was exactly that and I have changed.

“I realised the epicentre of change in Malaysia is not through the military. It’s not through becoming a lawyer because I’m currently reading law. Unfortunately or fortunately it is through politics. Politics is the epicentre of change.”

I must admire his candour but some of the things that he admits to are, well, worrying, especially about being an Islamic radical. I suppose people can change but I will look for deeds in that - not words.

He subsequently had dinner with an Islamic radical wanted in India for money laundering and terrorism financing and one who believes that non-Muslims would go to hell and burn in hell, Zakir Naik.

Zakir has repeatedly insulted non-Muslim Malaysians in many different ways - it is astonishing that he has not been jailed because he is such a divisive figure who provokes religious enmity. Syed Saddiq had suggested forgiving Zakir and moving on after having earlier called for his deportation - a rather quick turnaround from his liberal, multi-religious ways.

Remember too that Syed Saddiq implicitly supported the Malay Dignity Congress which Mahathir supported. In fact, he disapproved of the demonstration by a Universiti Malaya student against the vice-chancellor for supporting the congress. This was in October last year.

The latest announcement is that he has accepted a placing and scholarship at Singapore’s National University for the Lee Kuan Yew Senior Fellowship in Public Service. I would say “well done”, except that there are political conflicts here if he were to become a successful politician. There are lots of dealings, many of them testy, between Singapore and Malaysia.

He made a big deal about turning down an offer to do his masters in public policy at Oxford University, including scholarships worth RM400,000 from Oxford and sponsors in October 2017, in favour of politics.

There was no need to make a public announcement. He could have rejected the acceptance and kept quiet but instead called a press conference to make political capital out of it. At the same press conference, he claimed he was offered RM5 million to leave politics but never gave details.

And then on June 14, 2018, after Harapan’s historic win over Umno/BN on May 9, 2018, he posted on his Facebook page that he declined a second offer to Oxford. "For the second time, I'm forced to reject the offer because I have been given the trust and responsibility by Muar voters to bring their voices to Parliament.”

What he had turned down was actually a conditional Chevening scholarship offer to do a Masters in Public Policy at Oxford - which means he has to get a place in Oxford first.

The announcement, which need not have been made and could have been just kept to himself just like the earlier “first” offer, was strategically made ahead of Mahathir’s announcement of the final cabinet announcements which were made on July 2. The announcement also stated that Syed Saddiq would become youth minister. That made him the youngest minister ever - the first significant job he held after leaving his alma mater, probably a world first.

Syed Saddiq owed a lot to his rapid rise in politics to Mahathir who chose him to contest the Muar parliamentary constituency for Bersatu and brought him into the cabinet. When rumours floated about his romantic link with Mahathir’s granddaughter, he denied it. But the fact remains that his rise in politics was due almost entirely to Mahathir.

Finally, in March 2020, after the Harapan government was ousted via the Sheraton Move in February the same year, Syed Saddiq said RM250,000 was stolen from his house. When Malaysiakini asked him for a breakdown, the bulk was for renovations.

Malaysiakini reported: “Providing a breakdown of the sum, the Bersatu Youth chief (then), in a social media post, said RM90,000 belonged to him whereas RM50,000 to his mother and RM70,000 to both his parents.

“Pointed out that the figures do not add up to the RM250,000 which was reported stolen, Syed Saddiq replied that this was an estimation.

“This is why I said let the police investigate.”

It is rare that at any time I would have even RM1,000 in my house. Doesn’t the young man know about banks where he can put his money safely into and freely transfer through online banking? If he is so careless with his money, can we trust him with national finances?

Syed Saddiq does not stand up to our sizing up. Really, in our understandable eagerness to find great leaders, let’s not be too hasty in hailing him as Malaysia’s potential saviour. There are others better.

He is not anywhere close and needs to establish a great track record before he is given a chance to take the reins. A young man in a hurry can be quite reckless and feckless.

P GUNASEGARAM says it is dangerous to take people and things at face value. They may be worth far less upon diligent inquiry.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.