Of politics, Syed Saddiq and a truly colour-blind Malaysia

The formation of Malaysia set the right framework in terms of political arrangements and administrative matters for Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah. A young and vibrant multiracial, multicultural and multireligious country ready to move forward (without Singapore, post 1965) had never been more promising.

That’s how I remember it and I grew up with that understanding and shared the same spirit. However, what we have today is nothing like what I imagined Malaysia would become.

I began to follow Malaysian politics when I was 21, and among the youth of my generation in the 70s, there was a growing disenchantment towards politics.

My disillusionment started during a by-election in 1976 in Kemaman, Terengganu. I was an enthusiastic young man and had the opportunity to follow events on the ground as they happened.

I met both the contesting candidates in person. The opposition candidate was somebody whom I had read about, followed some of his writings, listened to at forums and intellectually admired, partly because some of my lecturers said they looked up to him as a great Malaysian scholar, orator and intellect.

He was none other than the late Kassim Ahmad, then the leader of Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM). A small man in size but in that contest, he stood tall in stature against Barisan Nasional’s new recruit, Manan Osman, a local man from Terengganu. Kassim hailed from Kedah.

Two years earlier, in the 1974 general election, PSRM had targeted Terengganu and contested 27 state seats with a fiery and rousing campaign which caused large scale panic in the Terengganu state government. At the time, PAS was still part of BN.

Dirty politics laid bare in Terengganu

I was astonished to witness all sorts of dirty political talks, actions and campaigns. The phrase “politics is a dirty game” was laid bare in front of me. Money and religion were used extensively to counter PSRM. It was unbelievable.

PSRM leaders were labelled as communists and they were said to be against Islam or anti-religion by the very people who claimed to be religious. Soon after, I stopped following politics for a long time.

To my young mind, Malaysian political parties had some semblance of democratic principles and ideologies. But by and large they were all race-based parties except for PSRM, which was multiracial. This race-based approach however became worse and a new dimension crept in after PAS was kicked out from BN in December 1977.

Post 1977, the PAS and Umno rivalry became more intense plus there was a looming danger that Malay politics could be hijacked by religionist groups. Sadly, nobody did anything to prevent it from happening.

So, the fabulous concept of Malaysia as a multiracial country never really took off and until today, we keep reverting to racial (and eventually, religious) politics on a much larger scale.

Kassim obviously did not win the Kemaman by-election. In fact, unlike Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman who is now a sitting MP, the late Kassim never won any seat in his political career.

Kassim, during the PSRM days, was an idealist, colour blind and too engrossed in political philosophy which the majority of the voters at the time failed to appreciate.

Mahathir, Anwar and Islamisation of politics

However, Dr Mahathir Mohamad was on the other extreme. He was high on capitalism, very race-centric and had little interest in the rectification of social and economic injustice, issues advanced by Kassim.

The political scenario was made worse by a wedge placed by religious theologians, a group that controlled PAS and eventually Umno too. Between the complex methods of socialism in Europe which served their people well, and the rise of the Islamic revolution, particularly in Iran, Malaysian politicians conveniently chose the latter.

So, that’s what Malaysia turned out to be. A race-based governing party slowly but surely morphed into two prominent religious-based parties; Umno and PAS, each trying to outdo one another.

Mahathir was not a bad strategist. To ensure that his party Umno was not left behind in the ongoing battle against PAS, he lured Anwar Ibrahim into joining Umno.

The Islamisation programmes undertaken by Anwar in the 1980s and 1990s were brutal as far as Malay cultural heritage and customs were concerned.

Anwar’s brand of Islam had not only defeated PAS, but it also indirectly wiped out Malay traditions and culture whilst Mahathir’s economic policy ensured that the Malays shifted their social paradigm. They worshipped money more than honesty, accepted corruption over integrity and grabbed more power over racial harmony.

Syed Saddiq caught between three political dinosaurs

Today, 57 years after Malaysia was formed and 38 years after Mahathir first became the PM, the young and vibrant Syed Saddiq unfortunately found himself caught between three political dinosaurs, Mahathir on one side and Anwar and Hadi, on the other.

Syed Saddiq could easily mobilise the youths of today but how could he surge forward politically without being vetoed by either one of those veterans? Plus, there are still scores of Umno and PAS warlords running freely in the country.

Who would let Syed Saddiq run free, let alone support and partner with him?

I can see him as a new Kassim in the making; idealistic, forward-looking and truly concerned about our multiracial society and fighting for a new social order. But he can’t do it alone.

Syed Saddiq’s new party may have a formula for success but will it be sufficient to turn them all into votes? Will the old guards in Malaysian politics offer him their support and approval?

Kassim failed to gather enough support because he was working in a socialist silo, all by himself. No partnership, no common understanding from other leaders or parties, no common platform and no financial support.

How Sabah can show the way forward

Syed Saddiq must not go through the same route or pitfalls. He should welcome any Malaysian regardless of background, race, colour or creed. For the sake of future Malaysia, his party should appeal to not just West Malaysians but those from Sabah and Sarawak too, including young and old, youths and veterans.

Perhaps he would do well by mobilising his team to celebrate Malaysia Day in Sabah and assisting Warisan in campaigning on a multiracial platform. Maybe he should rope in Veveonah Mosibin in the process and cast his net even wider.

In the spirit of the Malaysia Day that we all truly honour and believe in, the voters of Sabah should take the lead and show the way for our West Malaysian counterparts that the days of race-based or religious-based parties are over.

As Shafie Apdal said: “We are building a nation, not race or religion.”

Happy Malaysia Day to all.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.