Exchange programmes between youth leaders in Malaysia and China could bolster diplomatic ties between the countries, according to Asia’s youngest cabinet minister, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

Likening his proposal to China’s “panda diplomacy”, 25-year-old Saddiq, Malaysia’s minister for youth and sport, said on Wednesday that it “wouldn’t be unconventional for us to have a lot more exchange programmes”.

Doing so would “ensure that the relationship between top brass in China and Malaysia as well as the grass roots will always be close”, he told the South China Morning Post ’s China Conference in Kuala Lumpur. “In the end, our futures are interconnected.”

Saddiq said his idea for connecting youth leaders from various nations with their Malaysian counterparts drew on his own experiences with the United States government’s professional development exchange programme, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and that he hoped to emulate its success.

He also emphasised the need for young people to be brought to the forefront of politics and governance.

“The youth are the strongest disrupters because they buck global trends. Young people cannot follow the same conventional routes because these have been dominated by others for decades and if you use those routes it will take an exceptionally long time,” he said.

“Governments can change. Youth leaders will become future leaders.”

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When asked about youth activism in Hong Kong during a Q&A session, Saddiq urged the city authorities to listen and engage rather than suppress dissent.

“Having more and more young leaders who are able to speak up, brave enough and having a moral conscience in doing so, will be good to move Hong Kong forward,” he said.

He also commented on Malaysia’s close economic ties with China, noting that they were good and “must forever be good”.

“Even at the height of the cold war, Malaysia and China had really good ties. We were the first nation in Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] to solidify ties with China in this period.”

Highlights from the China Conference:

Saddiq, who is a lieutenant of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was part of the democratic wave that swept the Pakatan Harapan coalition to an unprecedented victory in May during Malaysia’s 14th general election. His party, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), and several others toppled the Barisan Nasional coalition after 61 years of rule.

In his address, Saddiq touched on the facets of Chinese governance and culture which had influenced his policies.

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“We can learn from previous administrations such as that of Deng Xiaoping, which embraced free-market capitalism and opened up the Chinese market while at the same time strong governance at [China’s] heart was able to elevate half a billion people and lift them out of extreme poverty,” he said.

Saddiq urged countries to embrace free markets and cooperation in a globalised world, adding in Mandarin that “we are like one family” to loud applause.

“I learned the phrase for the elections,” he said with a grin, “but now the elections are over.”

Saddiq emphasised the importance of a strong connection between Malaysia and China, a sentiment investors are likely to welcome after a tense period when Pakatan Harapan first took over and questioned the fairness of deals made between Malaysia’s previous administration and Chinese corporations.

Several Malaysian infrastructure projects backed by Chinese companies have been put on ice while the government reassesses their feasibility and its own fiscal capabilities.

“While some countries build walls, the best of countries build the strongest of bridges. And that’s Malaysia and China. The bridges must always be there, based on mutual trust and fostering a win-win attitude because our fates are inherently intertwined,” he said.

The minister also said media reports played an important role in encouraging global citizenry. “But at the same time the government must also ensure that ties are good and that’s why Dr Mahathir has expressed time and time again Malaysia wants to work and cooperate with all parties as long as there can be a win-win relationship.”

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The youth minister clearly made an impression on the conference. After his speech, audience members thronged around him hoping to exchange a few words or snap a selfie. His self-deprecating wit drew laughs as he discussed his youth-centric policies and goals, private sector collaboration, globalisation, and his poor fashion sense.

“That hasn’t changed, even though I am now a minister,” he joked.

The China Conference ends on Thursday. It is the Post’s first event outside Hong Kong and is themed around China’s growing Southeast Asian footprint.