Measuring up MUDA: Getting the Love, Actually?

Led by the youthful Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, the newly-established Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA) might well be able to break the political deadlock that has long dominated Malaysian politics.

Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman during the Qatar 2022 World Cup preliminary qualification
Mr Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman pictured here (centre in yellow) on September 2019. The former Minister for Youth and Sports recently registered his new party, MUDA, which will showcase young political candidates of various age groups and ideologies. (Photo: Adek Berry, AFP)
Mohd Faizal Bin Musa

Mohd Faizal Musa

Siti Syazwani Zainal Abidin

Siti Syazwani Zainal Abidin

23 September 2020

Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s former Minister for Youth and Sports, registered his new party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), last Thursday. The carefully calibrated move by the telegenic politician has been in the works for months. MUDA, which is inspired by the Future Forward party in Thailand and La République En Marche under Emmanuel Macron in France, will showcase young political candidates of various age groups and ideologies. It could gain traction in the crowded political field, provided it plays its cards right.

Hints of Saddiq’s plan to form his own party surfaced after he was no longer seen with his mentor, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Both men were from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which was part of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition that collapsed in February. Saddiq’s movement is gaining traction now, as many Malaysians have become tired and even inured to the type of politics hawked by the same old cast of personalities – namely Dr Mahathir, Anwar Ibrahim, Muhyiddin Yassin, Mohamed Azmin Ali, Lim Guan Eng and Abdul Hadi Awang.

The growing support that Saddiq is receiving – such as the 10,000 pledges it has received on social media – is a testament to the changing mood among citizens. Dr Mahathir has criticised MUDA, saying that it will only sow more division. He has highlighted the fact the MUDA is only appealing to a small target group of young voters. From a wider perspective, Dr Mahathir’s pot shots are but the tip of the iceberg.

Firstly, Saddiq’s unique selling point should not be the fact the he is a “fresh face”. It is worth noting that Future Forward and En Marche! – parties touting fresh approaches and fresh faces – have recently faltered. Instead, MUDA should address the aspirations of younger voters. Touting the youth of the 27-year old ignores the diverse policy positions and ideologies amongst youths and founding members. Such different positions require a central and binding factor. This is proving to be elusive. Already, MUDA’s founding leaders are splintered along two fronts: the young civil society activists who are championing for causes such as the disabled, the homeless and human rights, and the technocrat-professional groups that were initially introduced under Pakatan Harapan but were laid off due to the change in government. Similarly, conservative youths will prefer the United National Malay Organisation (UMNO) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) to represent them to pursue their right-wing agenda of Malay-Islam supremacy. In this diverse mix, MUDA will have to ascertain its political orientation – will it adopt a centrist ideology or a more left-wing, liberal democratic position?

The truth of the matter is this: Saddiq and his party have much to offer and can potentially break the political deadlock that has long shaped Malaysia.

Secondly, existing parties such as Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Parti Amanah Negara and Parti Warisan Sabah have an established pool of talented and popular youth leaders who have gone through a fairly comprehensive recruitment process. The screening rigour in these parties, which were bedfellows in the PH coalition that collapsed earlier this year, is not apparent in MUDA’s recruits. The DAP, for example, has a constant supply of leaders from various racial groups. What is the differentiation then, between MUDA and these other parties? Can MUDA compete with these youth leaders who were previously Saddiq’s allies when the next general election looms? 

Thirdly, MUDA needs experienced political figures in its ranks. By solely relying on Saddiq’s marketability and not on older and more seasoned political operators, MUDA might well founder. Saddiq will do well to take a leaf from Macron’s En Marche – the French party’s phenomenal success in the 2017 polls has been attributed to its striking a balance between bringing a fresh face into the political scene whilst also supported by a group of professional and experienced seniors.

Lastly, MUDA needs a clear plan to address the needs of disgruntled youths. Youths in Malaysia were frustrated by the lack of representation in previous administrations. In addition, they felt disenfranchised. Issues such as gender equality, racial tensions and the environment were shoved under the carpet as political parties carried out a ruinous tussle for power. Can MUDA turn this around and overcome realpolitik by bringing pertinent issues that matter to the nation’s youths to the table? To adequately represent the youths, MUDA has to answer to and be ready with solutions on a range of contentious issues such as vernacular education and problems of the poor, in particular those who were hard-hit by the pandemic. Simultaneously, MUDA has to manage the stress and pressure from right-wing groups that are advocating for the party to adopt a Malay-Islam narrative.

While one can be doubtful of MUDA given the litany of challenges, the sudden establishment of MUDA has led existing parties, particularly those in the opposition, to be caught on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, rejecting MUDA completely will be overkill – it will be frowned upon by the citizens fatigued by the typical partisan politics of the state. On the other hand, these parties may struggle with accepting MUDA, given the threat that it poses to the status quo that they desperately want to protect. This lends weight to the power that MUDA can exert on political parties.

The truth of the matter is this: Saddiq and his party have much to offer and can potentially break the political deadlock that has long shaped Malaysia. Hugh Grant in the classic Christmas film “Love Actually” played the role of a young and smart Prime Minister who exuded authority because of the strong support of his team. Can Saddiq become Malaysia’s Hugh Grant character? Saddiq may have the opportunity, but he will have to overcome the numerous barriers in his way. Only then can he successfully deviate from the status quo that has debilitated empowerment of the nation’s politically detached youths, and in the words of Winston Churchill, Britain’s real-life prime minister, potentially lead Malaysia into broad, sunlit uplands. 

Dr Mohd Faizal Musa is a Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Siti Syazwani Zainal Abidin is a Research Officer at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/145

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.