OCT 25 — A few days before I was scheduled to participate in a debating tournament somewhere in the Asian subcontinent, I was informed that the then deputy higher education Minister wanted to meet the contingent for a chat.

I snubbed the meeting and chose to have nasi padang in Jalan TAR — a custom before leaving Malaysia. Good lado should never be turned down for a meeting with a BN panjandrum.

It was unfortunate that I declined to personally meet Saifuddin Abdullah. Who knows? We could’ve swapped BB PIN (Blackberrys were fashionable back then) and might even establish a strong rapport.

Nevertheless, the fact that a person in power took interest in a few students who were passionate about a college activity warmed my heart.

Moreover, he requested for the meeting. He did not demand it. For once, we had the choice to decline to meet a deputy minister.

A strange Umno Member

To essentialise and homogenise Umno as a party of arrogant opportunists and hawkish right wingers would be misguided. Umno is a tad bit more complex than that.

Nevertheless, one finds it hard to escape from this sentiment since Umno consistently aligns itself with these characteristics. The simple yet erroneous thing to do would be to stereotype all Umno members as exhibiting similar qualities.

Hence, I was surprised when I first met Saifuddin Abdullah. It was at one of those events at local universities where some member of government would come and give a self-serving talk. These events are always compulsory. Classes are even cancelled to make room for the guest speaker.

At that time the amendment of the controversial Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) provision was a hot issue. Everyone was talking about it. The traction to repeal it was stronger than ever — people just wanted to bury a tool of control which was a relic of the Mahathir era.

Saifuddin was promoting a book that he wrote. To be honest, it was all drivel to me and I listened with indifference. I’m afraid my smartphone was more interesting than the speaker.

However, what caught my attention was how he talked about supporting liberalism and enlightenment values — and the chap knew what he was talking about! He cherished freedom and wanted to repeal the ridiculous and oppressive UUCA provision that prohibited students from joining politics.

This was a man to watch.

I noticed that Saifuddin was different from other Malaysian politicians — especially right wing Malay politicians. His demeanour was dominated by a sense of softness which seemed to be the permanent expression of the man.

Lemah lembut and berbudi bahasa are apt phrases to describe the guy — qualities that the Malays like to ascribe to themselves.

This is refreshing when we put in context the virulent bleating of other so called leaders. The profane Ibrahim Ali swearing on Al Jazeera would forever remain as the hallmark of the anti-intellectual, conservative Malay.  The lashing out at critics by most Malaysian politicians shows their poverty of philosophy and class.

Saifuddin who was diplomatic, charming and tactful seems to represent a new and more elegant breed of leaders.

After the talk, he went around, salam-ing the students in the hall. I was reluctant and admittedly a little shy, a trait that I am cursed with when it comes to dealing with people.

Nonetheless, a lecturer of mine pulled me towards him and introduced me as one of the debaters of the university. Details are sketchy but Saifuddin told me that he had a personal interest in intervarsity debating.

I was sceptical about what he said. After all, politicians are rarely known to keep their promises.

But I was wrong.

You can’t eat principles, but you gotta stick to them

True to his word, Saifuddin along with other “Umno liberals” like Khairy Jamaluddin (KJ) and the Opposition fought and amended the UUCA.

I can never forget that pivotal moment on TV3 where he debated with former UiTM VC Ibrahim Abu Shah. After Ibrahim made his point in defence of UUCA, Saifuddin gave a riposte to him by saying that he was thankful that the former VC was the VC of UiTM no longer.

That statement was on national television and it clearly outlined his sincerity in opposing UUCA. It also appeared that you can have some semblance of dissent in the government.

Saifuddin enthusiastically encouraged intervarsity debating among students. He himself was a debater during his university days, attended numerous debating tournaments in Malaysia and vigorously engaged in discourse — even with a former UiTM VC.

To be an Umno member but a liberal as well, one must have thought hard as to the position that one is undertaking. I think Saifuddin has fully rationalised as to why he accepts and embraces liberal values yet chooses to be an Umno member.

I have much respect for a man who has rationalised his principles thoroughly and sticks with it even when the chips are down.

Principles are important because it sets a moral standard that one believes that everyone else should follow. Positive principles, especially those infused with enlightenment values if emulated by others and practised in a collective manner, leads to a healthier society.

Just look at Scandinavian societies. No one person should be more equal than another. This is something shared in society and well institutionalised. No one is treated differently by virtue of his race.

You see, people like KJ and Saifuddin are very different men, no matter how “progressive” they appear to be or how constantly they interact on twitter.

While KJ might have been a progressive, his time in Umno has made him a progressive that is progressing in a retrogressive direction. KJ has followed Najib Razak’s tactic of unholy silence on issues that are debilitating the nation.

Furthermore, need I remind you that KJ was found guilty by the Umno disciplinary board for ethical breaches in the Umno Youth elections sometime back yet given a slap on the wrist?

Malleable principles are not principles. They are only interests.

Where to, Saifuddin?

The dénouement of the 13th General Election has seen Saifuddin being voted out by his constituency. His political career has spiralled down ever since.

He lost the seat at the Umno Supreme Council. What is worse, he was appointed as the CEO of the laughable organisation, the Global Movement of Moderates.

Seriously, at a time of peaking extreme right wing sentiments, Malaysia has no moral authority to chide others on the virtues of being moderate.

It appears to me that Saifuddin’s appointment is just similar to another Paul Low or Waythamoorthy —a smokescreen to embellish the government’s battered image.

He accepted his loss and congratulated his opponent. But his message on him not succumbing to money politics is a stark reminder of the costs of being true to one’s core principles.

We need more people who are incorrigible to the end — a commodity that is bankrupt in Umno’s moral universe.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.