Syed Saddiq — from renowned debater to the nation’s youngest minister

Getting the voice of the young to be heard


Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman had an exceptional year in 2018. He has risen through the ranks from being the then Opposition youth chief, to an electoral candidate for the Muar constituency — a Barisan Nasional stronghold — and now a federal minister.

The youth and sports minister, who celebrated his 26th birthday on Dec 6, is now determined to give back and provide the same opportunities granted to him to those closer to his age — five months into his current role.

In a recent interview with The Malaysian Reserve (TMR), Syed Saddiq spoke about his vision to develop e-sports, the importance of devising a fair National Higher Education Fund Corp (PTPTN) scheme and his plan to make corporate Malaysia youthful.

Donning a white shirt, blue pants and bold Superman socks, Syed Saddiq showcased maturity as he was asked various questions. Years of honing his skills as a debater, and now a politician, make the 26-year-old appear far beyond his age.

Sitting on a wooden armchair — sleeves rolled up with a notebook in hand and a built-in cabinet filled with books and trophies from his debating days. A picture of his mother, beaming with pride as she looked at him, is placed on the top shelf.

Commencing the hour-long conversation, Syed Saddiq shared the memory of his initial ministership. He was speaking to Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a grandfather figure who he looks up to, on how to make local stadiums more sustainable.

He remembered how the nonagenarian political leader had cast a heedful eye as he shared his views on the matter. “I was explaining, and he was just looking at me attentively. I thought, this is good, I have his attention,” he said.

“Then the first thing he said after I briefed him was, ‘Where is your tie?’ He notices these things.”

Syed Saddiq could only present a cheeky laugh like someone who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. This was one of his early memories as the youngest Cabinet minister.

Below is the extract of the hour-long meeting at his office at the Ministry of Youth and Sports (KBS).

TMR: How does it feel to be the youngest minister and walking into the ministry?

Syed Saddiq (SS): It is an honour to be appointed, but with that comes a great sense of responsibility to represent the young people from all races and religions, and to also be the voice of the young people who are not just in urban centres, but also from rural areas.

Not just Pakatan Harapan supporters, but also all young people regardless of their political allegiance. The election is over. It is time to work and to work for all. As soon as the appointment was made, it has been all-out work and no rest.

TMR: You share a fantastic relationship with Dr Mahathir. You have worked with him in the party, you see him as a grandfather figure. How is it like sitting with him during Cabinet meetings and official meetings?

SS: It is a surreal experience, even before. Not just when I was the youth chief of the party, but also when I was his researcher prior to the election. He is a man of discipline.

You can’t come even a minute late. He will make you remember over the next few weeks if you are late. Before the election, I could wear a t-shirt and jeans to brief him on a particular issue.

Now, obviously when you are in government, he is a lot stricter. The good part about working with Dr Mahathir is, despite being young, he will give you a chance and at the same time, he expects you to deliver.

I take a great sense of pride in delivering, especially when I know he has such high expectations upon the young leaders in Malaysia. Not just to me, but other young leaders in Malaysia as well. He also listens really well.

Initially, people said I will just end up becoming a token. Dr Mahathir will not listen to you. But nearly everything that I have proposed, ones that I have reasoned out with him, are things which he previously may not agree, but agree today.

Three weeks ago, I met him and said you can’t just appoint people in powerful positions in the government because now the epicentre is the corporate sector. We need more young leaders, credible people, to be given the opportunity to value-add Malaysia and prepare the country for the future.

I said, back then, you gave a chance to people like Datuk Shahril Ridza Ridzuan, mid-30s, to be the MD of Malaysian Resources Corp Bhd. Media Prima Bhd also had a young person to lead before, so it has been proven to work. Now, Shahril Ridza is leading Khazanah Nasional Bhd. He brought up the Employees Provident Fund to a market share of RM800 billion. So, why don’t you do the same today? I thought there will be resistance, but he said, okay, work things out with Khazanah and see how you can elevate more young leaders on corporate boards. That’s amazing. Now, we are working the plan out. But the point is, while he is 93 years old, I think at heart he is in his mid-30s.

TMR: Dr Mahathir is only one component of the Cabinet. When you are presenting a case to the Cabinet, and you are dealing with people who are twice your age, do you think there is any kind of bullying?

SS: The unique thing about being young is you can state your mind and I do speak my mind. I am an active contributor in every Cabinet meeting, not just ones which are related to my ministry.

It is a collective Cabinet decision that we have to work with one another, comment and build on the strength of one another. I don’t think there is any bullying at all because we respect one another and we know our strengths.

That is where I am able to bring the youth side of things. The point is to work very closely with all ministers to ensure that the youth agenda will not be at the backburner of their ministries, but will be in the frontline. Not an afterthought, but a priority. I think there has been great respect and I truly enjoy every single Cabinet meeting because in the end, I know I can effectively say that youth interests will be safeguarded.

TMR: You’ve rightly pointed out that the youth agenda is a main agenda. It is shared by all ministries. As a ministry in charge of youth, how do you streamline this? In other ministries, there was a shift in agencies. How do you do this for this ministry?

SS: There were several agencies that were shifted to my ministry — 1Malaysia for Youth, Sepang International Circuit, BTN (Biro Tata Negara). But again, we can work with other ministries. I think the priority will always be the young people and mass sports to ensure that we get more and more young people who partake in the change-making process and that they know they can have a say at the decision-making table, not just to give an opinion and the opinion dies there and then.

TMR: What were the first few key decisions that you took when you first walked into the ministry in July?

SS: One is the issue of integrity, which I feel very strongly about…not only because I’m a minister, but also as this is the youth ministry. If the youth ministry doesn’t send out a clear signal that the youth should be allergic to corruption, then we are sending a very bad signal to the youth at large. So on the first day, I called the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission to come over to brief the MPT (Majlis Pengurusan Tertinggi) of KBS and at the same time, to work with us, to come up with an anti-corruption plan to ensure that we become more preventative than reactionary when a problem comes up.

When I got in, I was informed that we were the eighth from the bottom when it comes to integrity and anti-corruption standards. I want to ensure that we become top three, in terms of transparency, integrity and good governance. That is why we roll out the five-point plan.

Second, is to make the youth agenda a priority of the government so that we ensure that the young people are represented in the leadership-making process. The point is to “mainstreamise” the youth agenda where you have youth leaders in every single layer of decision-making. Whenever a decision is made, the youth perspective will not be left behind.

Third, is how do we gain more revenue for KBS. We have Perbadanan Stadium Nasional (PSN). On average, they lose about RM20 million a year. The government would need to subsidise RM20 million. It does not make sense because these are huge assets which could easily be commercialised.

There were some scepticisms when I put Tan Sri Dr Tony Fernandes on the PSN board, but I knew he could deliver. He is very passionate about sports and he’s really good at marketing which is very important for PSN. In stadiums, we have corporate boxes. Back then, we used to give it out for free. Ministers will use it for sports matches. They’ll give it to their friends. Now, no more. You want, you buy. Two matches for the semi-final and final of football, we got half a million ringgit just through corporate boxes, not tickets. Imagine how many more matches we will have.

Now, there is the downtime when it is not used by our athletes. We’ll run a lot of programmes, activities and concerts to ensure that we get a lot more money so that we are no longer reliant on government funding and we save money for the government. At the same time, contracts are being reviewed. Their maintenance contracts are 300% more expensive than the actual costs. We want greater accountability.

With sports associations, I said I wanted to audit their financial accounts to ensure that money which goes to them are money that will reach athletes. I want to ensure that corporate sponsors come in because they trust that money will have accountability.

TMR: How would you rate your predecessor (Khairy Jamaluddin)?

SS: I think there are some impeccable things which he has done which I will continue. There are some things that I disagree which we have stopped. For example, as I’ve mentioned integrity standards, that is a new angle which I want to bring. At the same time, good programmes will continue to be done such as Fit Malaysia. It is impactful, it is effective and it will be continued. Perdana Fellowship, it is good and impactful, we will continue.

The point is, all leaders have their own strengths and flaws. I’m brought into this office not to keep dwelling on the past, but it is about finding errors and improving it, and building on existing strengths. This ministry must be an example to the young people out there.

TMR: Are you concerned of the perception that sporting bodies are controlled by certain quarters and how do you decode this?

SS: It is a step-by-step process. You want to get the right people to run sports associations…those who are very passionate, those who know about it and those who are able to propel the sports association forward to ensure that it becomes self-sustaining.

To do that, you need to get the best people on board. One clear signal must come from the minister that funding will be done through a merit-based approach. It is not based on, you are my friend and so your sport association gets more money. You come from this particular royal household, you get more money. No. If you perform, you will get. If you underperform, but you have a plan, I will support you. But you must have a plan. It is no longer based on networking.

That is why I have said it openly in Parliament that I preferably do not want politicians to lead sports associations. But there are exceptions. Some politicians who genuinely love it, they have done a great job, I have no problem. I can’t interfere with sports associations because they have their own election, but what I can do is send a stern message that if you want funding and you want support from the government, get the right people in and funding will be done through a merit-based approach. That is the way we move forward.

TMR: Are you aware of concerns that Malaysia is too focused on badminton in bringing the country’s first Olympic gold medal?

SS: We are diversifying and we’re focusing on a few sports to win us the gold medals. There is karate-do, there is cycling and we’re also trained in diving, but in general, it is not just badminton.

In order for us to move Malaysian sports forward, we need to diversify. We cannot just hang our hats on one particular sport and if we fail there, we fail everywhere. So, yes, we noticed the concern and we are addressing it as quickly as possible.

TMR: The Perdana Fellowship and Youth Parliament are under your ministry. You’ve said that the Perdana Fellowship will be continued, but how effective has the Youth Parliament has been?

SS: I don’t think it is effective enough. I think a lot more can be done. It is a programme which I do want to continue, but there must be a lot of changes. For example, there must be greater buy-in from the people.

If you ask how many young people voted for the Youth Parliament, (the number is) very small. A handful. Not even 1% or 2% of the youth in Malaysia. At the same time, I’ve received reports that the selection process is not done in the right way so I’ve already formed a committee to look into this. We’re working with a few professors from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to come up with a reformed plan of the Youth Parliament, so that it becomes a lot more targeted, accountable and has greater buy-in among young people. But the idea is good, it is really good.

The good part about working with Dr Mahathir is, despite being young, he will give you a chance and at the same time he expects you to deliver, says Syed Saddiq (Pic by Ismail Che Rus/TMR)

TMR: You’ve also spoken about e-sports. We think it is very close to your heart. But, are you aware of the perception among households that e-sports is actually negative and that it goes against education etc. How do you strike a balance?

SS: Exactly, I think it is the right way to put it. How do we strike a balance? If you are addicted to a point where you forget your studies then it becomes a problem. At the same time ignoring the advancement of e-sports would also be bad for Malaysia. It is a multibillion ringgit industry. It is now a medal-tally sports at the SEA Games, and it will soon be a medal-tally sports in Asian Games. I’m very sure, in the near future, in the Olympics.

I don’t want Malaysia to fall behind. We must always think five to 10 years ahead. It doesn’t mean we should ignore the sport, we should build up on our strengths and also explore new territories. For those who say e-sports is bad, you look at the e-sports industry. Malaysia is ranked 21st in the world when it comes to e-sports revenue. That is a lot and I want to ensure that we will be able to create more job opportunities around it, high-income jobs like software engineers and gaming developers. At the same time, I want to ensure that we produce the best of athletes through e-sports. Ones that will win us in SEA Games next year in Manila. For the first time, it will be a six medal-tally sports. I want Malaysia to win, stake our claim. So, we will prepare for the future.

E-sports can also generate interest in computer science and software development. For example, I met with the CEO of Razer Inc. When he started Razer, what sparked that interest was gaming. He wanted to create his own games. He wanted to create his own software and merchandise. He did it. When I was in Vietnam, I met up with one of the most successful telecommunication entrepreneurs there who is now a billionaire. It started from the same interest as well. Similarly, how Internet back then was seen as a taboo. People stayed away it. But those who, in the end, had the first move advantage are now the ones who are leading the industry. I want Malaysia to lead. At the same time, I want Malaysia to lead in other sports as well. In the end, it is about giving due recognition. I think that is most important.

TMR: But computer games have been around for so long, and now there is e-sports. How do you instil this in a person? Is it advocated or do you make it a learning process? What is your plan?

SS: We are preparing an E-Sports Plan which will be rolled out next year to create that ecosystem where it doesn’t lead to a dangerous path where people get addicted. There is a difference between e-sports and just gaming. We want to draw that difference. We want to ensure that it becomes a lot more productive and it branches out to more productive areas as well.

TMR: Will it involve schools?

SS: We need to work with the Education Ministry on that.

TMR: Talking about leadership, what happened to National Service (NS)? Will you continue it?

SS: We didn’t get the budget for NS so that will be put behind. What we are moving is a Malaysian Future Leader School.

It is a lot more focused and targeted. It is not a compulsory programme, but it is reward based. The smartest and the best will be selected. It is a three-tier process which targets those who are 15 and 17 years old. The first tier will happen at schools where school teachers and the principle would nominate five to 10 of the brightest in the school to go to tier two.

We are working with about 200-300 schools so then they will nominate their lists. They will want to be the best of the best to get into this elite programme. Going into the second tier, we are working with a few outbound schools and a few other bodies where it will be a 12-day leadership camp where they will be assessed and trained there to be future leaders.

Then the best of the best from the camps will go to the third tier where only 200 will be selected across Malaysia. This is where they will be placed under ministers, chairmen and CEOs. Next year we are running the Corporate Fellowship process. Twenty CEOs and chairmen have agreed to have mentees.

Those who have a great affinity for volunteerism, we will send them abroad to become international volunteers. This will be the cream of the crop which will be endorsed by the PM. The PM will be addressing them and will give a certificate as a recognition that these are, not just leaders of tomorrow, but also leaders of today.

TMR: You’ve also spoken about PTPTN. I don’t know if you will agree but the confidence level among youths on the new government has dwindled since the new decision on the loan was made. Do you think this is fair to the youths who voted for Pakatan Harapan?

SS: We need to listen to the concerns of the young people. When the first PTPTN plan was announced, I disagreed with it. I mentioned an issue which was discussed in Cabinet in detail. That is why I brought it up in the subsequent Cabinet meeting and now it is put on the backburner, and a new plan is coming up. PTPTN is a very critical issue which involves bread and butter issues for young people — cost of living and education costs. What is key is we need to acknowledge Malaysia’s financial situation and at the same time, not overburden young people. Payment must still be made, but it must not overburden the young people to a point that it is difficult for them to live a quality life and to get a living wage. It will just backfire completely then because young people will not be able to contribute financially to the economy and Malaysia is hurt in the long run.

TMR: What happened to the previous plan? They have postponed it and they are working on a new one?

SS: Yes, and this time, the KBS will be involved. The Cabinet has decided that it will be a tripartite discussion — my ministry, the Finance Ministry and Education Ministry.

TMR: What is your opinion on the salary deduction proposal on PTPTN?

SS: I will defend the salary deduction as long as it is not overburdening. The initial plan where, for example, those earning RM2,000-RM2,500, the deduction was RM40 a month, I believe it is doable and affordable. The problem is when it is done so progressively to a point where those who have paid, those who have signed the contract — who have consistently paid for the past 2-3 years — the repayment rate is negotiated and agreed with PTPTN, and suddenly the contract gets rescinded. Then you expect them to pay two or three times more than what they paid before because you want to get the money back in three years instead of 10 years. That is why as I mentioned, there is a middle ground. Repayment must be done but at the same time, it should not be overburdening. I never once agreed to abolish PTPTN. But, I do want to create a just repayment deal.