PETALING JAYA, Aug 27: Several academics have welcomed Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman’s decision to start a youth-centric political party but a student body has voiced reservations over the former youth minister’s commitment to youth causes.
While academics from three institutions see it as a pioneering move that is in keeping with the times, several members of the Gerakan Pembebasan Akademik student group say Syed Saddiq’s record as a politician in power does not inspire confidence that his party will cater to youth ideals.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s Azmi Hassan called the move timely, noting the lowering of the voting age to 18 and recent evidence showing young voters’ influence in swaying electoral results in Singapore and Finland.
Speaking to FMT, he said the party’s multiracial nature would attract young voters since such voters did not relate much to racial concerns.
“With the correct strategy, not only can it survive Malaysia’s notorious political climate, but it can be a party to be reckoned with,” he said.
“More established parties like Umno, PPBM, PKR and DAP do have their youth wings, but these parties are too entrenched in the seniority hierarchy, which the younger generation dislikes.
“Look at Finland early this year. The voters were so fed up with the more established parties that they voted for the party with a very young leader. And now they have their youngest prime minister.”
Oh Ei Sun of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said Syed Saddiq had a unique advantage in his youthfulness, giving him the space to indulge in political experiments without incurring much political cost.
However, he said the proposed party would need to win a number of seats in the next election if it wanted to be influential, adding that this could be achieved only if it were to pick a side from the main political divide.
“There appears to be quite an active political interest among the younger voters from both sides of the political divide.
“So Syed Saddiq would have to carefully position his party to capture the largest segments of these younger voter cohorts.”
Oh said the party would have to choose between campaigning for the votes of urban youths and those of the rural crowds, adding that it would be a tall order to try to accommodate both demographics.
He expects the new party to win only a handful of seats in the next election, but he said it might be enough to put Syed Saddiq in a position to negotiate political spoils with the winners.
James Chin of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute welcomed the party’s decision to be multiracial, saying this was the future for Malaysia.
He noted that there was no precedent for a youth-based political party.
“Yes, the youths of this country do deserve their own political voice and their own political vehicle, so this is a good move by Syed Saddiq,” he said.
He agreed with Oh that the party would need to win parliamentary seats if it wanted to be relevant and influential.
In the recent announcement of his intention to form the party, Syed Saddiq said Malaysian politics should no longer be “controlled and monopolised” by the same people.
He said his party would take in not only youths with political experience, but also young technocrats and professionals.
But some leaders of Gerakan Pembebasan Akademik alleged that Syed Saddiq, when he was a member of PPBM, showed that he supported racial politics.
One of them, Bhairava Sivam, said students and youths were weary of being used as “political pawns and tickets to Parliament”.
“Syed Saddiq was happy to support a race-based supremacist party in the previous general election and had little regard for the optics of his open support for party hopping from Umno to PPBM and also for PPBM’s race-based policies.”
He also said Syed Saddiq was complicit in the previous administration‘s U-turns on important policies, such as its promise to abolish the Universities and University Colleges Act.
“What guarantee do we have that he will not U-turn again and support racist policies after he rides the student ticket into government?”
Bhairava said a youth-centric party needed to have democratic principles and the abolition of draconian laws at the crux of its struggle.
“It should also be against nepotism and cronyism. It should be youth-led and not just a puppet or rubber stamp for agendas coming from a bigger puppeteer party or parties.”
Another member of the student group, Azura Nason, said the party should not just aim for an electoral win. “It should aim for system change or institutional reforms.”
She also said Syed Saddiq, who has been closely associated with former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, would not be a good face for a youth party.
Another member, Syazwani Mahmud, said a youth party should support various student issues highlighted in the past, such as the Malaysia-Japan International Institute of Technology (MJIIT) issue at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).
In December 2018, students urged UTM to remove the “special fees” imposed on MJIIT students in addition to the basic semester fees.
UTM’s MJIIT faculty was established in 2010 by the Malaysian and Japanese governments in line with the Look East policy introduced by Mahathir during his first stint as prime minister.
Syed Saddiq, in a recent interview with Channel NewsAsia, said: “If in Thailand they can set up Future Forward, in France they can set up En Marche under Macron, I think it is timely in Malaysia to start a movement composed of young people.
“Young technocrats, professionals, young politicians from different backgrounds can come together to ensure that the youth’s voice will dominate in Parliament and outside of it so that, in the end, the youth can never be taken lightly any more.”