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SINGAPORE, April 14 — In this series, TODAY’s journalists meet the people behind the headlines to talk about issues of the day and the more personal side of their lives.
In the first instalment, Natasha Meah speaks to Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, a Malaysian member of parliament and former youth and sports minister. The 28-year-old was recently in Singapore to complete a postgraduate fellowship at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He spoke of coping with pressure and expectations as the youngest minister in Malaysia’s history and how he unwinds amid the cut and thrust of life in the fast lane.
Here are the edited excerpts:
Natasha: How have you been settling in Singapore?
Syed Saddiq: For the first 14 days, I had to be quarantined. When I was quarantined, I was at Fairmont hotel, and then Mandarin Oriental hotel for my fellowship. There wasn’t much I could do. I’m a workaholic, so I just can’t keep quiet for 14 days. When it comes to my fitness, I’m very meticulous. If I don’t complete 10,000 steps, I feel very restless, so I substituted my normal exercise routine by running around the bed for one hour. I’m pretty sure if someone was recording that, they would think I’m crazy. I exercised on the balcony, too. And I finished so many Netflix documentaries; it was very productive. At night, I taught tuition to fundraise for my constituency Muar. We teach public speaking, critical thinking, writing skills and advocacy via Zoom. And then, when I was out, immediately, the first thing I did was to get on my sports shoes to jog to Gardens by the Bay.
Natasha: Do strangers recognise you in Singapore? Have you been getting selfie requests at school and elsewhere?
Syed Saddiq: The person who greeted me (at the restaurant) said “after this, let’s take a photo” because, apparently, they’re Malaysians. Also especially when I jog, but they’re just new friends.
Natasha: How did your life change after you became a minister (from 2018 to 2020)?
Syed Saddiq: A lot. Obviously, I had to almost ditch my private life and social life, and just focus on work. Especially being the youngest minister, there was a lot of pressure because if I failed, my fear was that politicians or so-called political masters would never want to appoint anyone young after this, so I want to prove that age should never become a determinant of success and failure. And that if you’re young and you’re credible, you can do the best. If you’re given the opportunity, you can succeed. So it’s really about making the point that just because we’re young, in no way should that be seen as a point of incompetence and inability.
Before that, it was quite hectic as well, because I was already working for the former prime minister (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) as a researcher and youth officer. But it was never as hectic as being a minister, where I worked from Monday to Sunday, travelling from state to state. Even though it took away a substantial portion of my time, I did not regret it because I generally loved doing the work.
Natasha: Did the label of being the youngest minister come with pressure and scrutiny? Did you feel as though people didn’t take you seriously?
Syed Saddiq: The pressure was definitely there. It was not just pressure from the outside. Even internally, because, as I mentioned, if I failed to deliver, that would disincentivise other prime ministers to appoint a young minister anymore, because when I was appointed, I was 25 years old. There was a lot of pressure, but I knew that the pressure should not be a liability. I should convert it to positive energy to drive me forward to work really hard, to hustle every day, to ensure that I get the reforms and changes through. So in the end, people will use that as a reference. It’s been done before, it’s good, it can be done again. Some didn’t take me seriously, but a lot did. There were those who were like “too young”. But I did not take that negatively; instead, I took that as a challenge. You may look down on me now, but instead of hitting under the belt or responding negatively to you, I’ll prove you wrong through my work and my work ethic.
Natasha: Do you reckon much of your success can be chalked up to your social media presence, since you’re one of the most followed Malaysian politicians?
Syed Saddiq: Social media comes naturally when you’re able to deliver things. If not, why would people follow a politician? Like it’s so boring, right? But when you stand with them, work for them, you’re good at policymaking, then they’re more likely to reciprocate, either through support or to connect. Social media is merely a symptom of other things. So yes, it definitely helps to get the message out.
Natasha: You’re 28 now, and you have a lot going on in your life. Do you even have a life?
Syed Saddiq: This is my life, and I am proud of it. Even though I have to sacrifice my social life, family time here and there, I genuinely love doing what I do. That’s why I don’t mind working seven days a week. I don’t mind working late nights, because I enjoy it. When I have free time, I feel very unproductive and, when I feel unproductive, I feel like I’m not doing enough. Especially being young, this is our time to hustle.
Natasha: What about romantic relationships? Do you have time to explore these things?
Syed Saddiq: Conveniently, it’s almost 5.15pm (the time he had to leave). Haha. I don’t talk much about it because, right after the election, I remember the press conference, and the media was asking me about very important policy questions and I was very happy to talk. And one of the media representatives — and it’s not her fault, obviously a lot of people were asking — asked me a question on my dating life. I responded because I have to answer the media. But, because of one question, everyone in the media picked up that part. And the last thing that I want being a young public servant is for people to think that I’m only focusing on that. But, in reality, I talked about constitutional reforms, ministerial reforms, democratic reform, and they got sidetracked. But, in the end, I believe those whom I serve want me to focus on serving their needs, their policies and their constituencies, and not on my private life. I do (have time to explore romantic relationships), but obviously nowhere close to others, so that part is quite rough and tough. That’s why finding the right partner is very important: Someone who will understand.
Natasha: You’ve interacted with a lot of youth in Singapore and Malaysia. What are their main aspirations?
Syed Saddiq: They are the reason I have great hope in Malaysia. They are very focused, hardworking, multiracial, moderate. Their priority is quality jobs, a dignified salary, affordable housing, good public transport, climate change, so these are the main issues. These are the issues that will take Malaysia forward to define the heart of Malaysia. So I’m very optimistic. Malaysia is really an undervalued asset, or a stock or share that is really undervalued at the moment and just waiting to be unleashed. I think young people will do that.
Natasha: What do you hope this generation of young Singaporeans and Malaysians can achieve now and in the future?
Syed Saddiq: Moving forward, for a lot of us, it’s not just about having a job, waking up in the morning, going back from work. I think we are truly the age of disruptors. We want to make an impact on our community, society. That’s why we are keen to experiment with many things. Even those with a day-to-day job will often find very interesting hobbies or will try to engage in small businesses online or offline. So really, young Malaysians and Singaporeans will be the disruptors of their respective countries. And we have seen that in the tech side. We’ve seen that in the business side. I think we’ll see it in the social, political side very, very soon. — TODAY