The minister who climbed the fence

FEBRUARY 6 — Is Syed Saddiq brave?

In a world of high walls of indifference, witnessing a minister in charge of all things youthful scaling fences to evade a mob leads to speculation — even if premature.

Sometimes, in our fixation about politics we forget it’s about people we are passing judgement about. People, like those you wake up with, raise and build a business with. And grow old with. 

People.

To the undiscerning, Syed Saddiq Syed Rahman’s our youngest minister ever. If he’s your son, nephew or related to a person from a village you’ve visited once before, you’d wish him the best.

Societies desire their young to succeed because it speaks about youth as much as about where they came from.

Anyways, to those new to the tale, it was the last day of January and hundreds of hooligans descended upon the minister at an event he was at. He had his parents with him. 

The police, apparently, advised him to flee the scene and he did. Which involved him in a highly parodied act of climbing over steel.

Social media lives for stories like these. And expectedly, it’s been caricatured. So much that questions emerged about Saddiq’s manhood, capacity to cope with his high office and capacity for character worthy of emulation.

Are they fair? Here’s a reminder.

Be careful when you intend to build a country, you don’t eat your young.

What is courage, and what is courage in our local context and history?

As a young teenager, Saddiq had to compete with some of the brightest young people in the world, as a debater. While the ability to speak for seven minutes appears trivial to many, he had to do so in front of many bright minds these other countries forwarded who did not consider the exercise trivial. If anything, there were many who saw a Malay Muslim lad with courage as a trivial challenge.

Let’s posit that in the corner for a second. It’s bravery we are interested in.

His debate exploits allowed Saddiq access to the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. He’s good advertisement. Passage to then youth minister Khairy Jamaluddin and law minister Nancy Shukri.

But don’t rush.

The standard playbook for all young aspiring leaders was to place yourself in the conveyor belt, be careful, don’t be over-adventurous and honour senior leaders till your time comes.

This, if Saddiq proceeded with, no one would fault him.

He did not.

Was it rash or a rush of blood to his head, he chose to walk away from BN and step into an infant Bersatu Pribumi.

It’s instructive to insert here my unending putrid disdain for the racism available inside Umno, Bersatu Pribumi, PAS, Amanah and PKR. I hope it’s well recorded.

But we must compare apples and apples.

Anwar Ibrahim was in his mid-thirties when he chose to shun PAS and pick Umno in 1982 to access power. Almost 40 years later, his choice is vindicated even if his temperament is suspect.

Mahathir Mohamad was always an Umno man, and when he opposed prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in the 1960s he was in his forties. He kept his anger within the party. Sacked, he returned to the party. The radical Kedah lad knew enough to stay with the safe choice.

Khairy, from his mid-twenties, positioned himself well inside the Abdullah Badawi administration, and roamed the Umno universe.

They’d moan and groan about the party, but they stayed on the path of least resistance.

Saddiq didn’t. There’s plenty of courage in that, even if back then it appeared foolish.

He chose to leave the adulation inside Umno, the federal government, and followed his heart and went with the infant, and maybe soon to be stillborn, Pribumi Bersatu.

“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope,” is what the protagonist Jyn Erson (Felicity Jones) utters in Star Wars’ Rogue One. It was 2016, the year the Umno-copy party was formed and perhaps Saddiq found inspiration in a fictional lost cause, which might be the case in his political choices.

So, as much as people spite Saddiq for being too young a minister, other than the birth-lottery benefit of being a Malay-Muslim male from Johor educated in the Royal Military College before the International Islamic University (IIU), he chose to put his chips with the new start-up.

He showed courage.

Second question

The intrusion last week in Johor also presents another challenge. Is the bully culture celebrated in Malaysia? Is it that those who are capable of physically disrupting the peace-loving are seen as strategists? They were strategically capable of collecting gangsters and roughing up democrats?

For those not well acquainted with the power-play locally, it is standard for violence to prove a point.

Nomination days are a joke. Party events are aberrations. Gatherings are a farce. 

I was in PKR headquarters as gangsters associated with a minister in the previous administration tried to storm the office. Bikes revving, angry men screaming and hitting shutters. Is this how to build a country?

Yet, many doff hats to those willing to punch the living daylights out of the civilised.

Are we incensed a minister can be bullied?

I can name former education ministers who’d speak about the evils of violence and erect billboards in schools asking young people to come forward when they are physically intimidated but would back the violence their Umno party advocates. At the same time. Without shame.

“Listen children, violence is horrible and avoid it. Unless of course, we are asking for it, then the bloke just deserved it. It’s not a punch, it’s about reminding them to respect our party.”

Look, if they can arrive to harm a minister who has the protection of police, imagine how safe is life for you, the regular citizen? If they can come for Saddiq, coming for you would be a cake walk. This is what should upset Malaysians, the intimidation they can be subject to. Because mob law gets affirmation.

Courage

We started with Saddiq, we should end with him.

A friend accused me of being unfair when it comes to him. You see, we are all from the debate community, decades of debaters. Saddiq impressed me the first time I heard him speak, and I don’t hide it.

The suggestion has been that I do not know how it feels to be under the cosh.

What do they know?

As a person advocating against race politics inside UKM in the nineties at the height of the Mahathir-Anwar administration, it was bloody scary to be in Bangi campus. 

Everyone I knew opposed me, friend or foe. Which leaves you alone. And intimidation was a common affair and I did not have police or campus security to bail me out.

Hit yes, hurt yes, cursed yes, chased yes, but you have to stand for what you believe in, whether as a few or one.

I don’t support the politics of Pribumi Bersatu, it’s bigoted without question. But I support the courage Saddiq has shown over the years.

He should have stood his ground in Johor last week. The police can offer ministers security advice, ministers have to factor politics and determine. While he did live to fight another day, he lost the symbolism of resistance. That he can say, in New Malaysia, no one needs to run away. He lost that chance.

Other chances will arrive. I wish him courage on those days.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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