Malaysia is a young country. The median age is 28 (according to its Department of Statistics). And yet Mahathir Mohamad is its prime minister again at 92 (he turns 93 on July 10) – more than three times older than the average Malaysian.
Given the vast discrepancy, how did the good doctor keep himself relevant – if not electrifying – to young Malaysians?
His association with Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, a tall, good-looking and well-spoken 25-year-old, has certainly helped. He has been a key part of Mahathir’s “youth strategy”, and was recently named as the leader’s youth minister, making him the youngest Malaysian to ever be appointed to Cabinet.
Syed Saddiq has certainly helped Mahathir, as has the nation’s current love for throwbacks.
Malaysians as young as their mid-30s still remember, through rose-coloured glasses, the tail end of his first premiership (1982-2003) and its achievements.
Pioneering infrastructure projects such as the Penang Bridge, the North-South highway and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, along with the nation’s rapid industrialisation, will forever be linked with Mahathir.
At the same time, a growing nostalgia for the certainties of his transformational era in office, combined with an amnesia for the systematic institutional failure of those times, has worked to his advantage.
In Indonesia, a similar trend has been dubbed “I miss Suharto Syndrome” (“Syndrome Amat Rindu Suharto” or SARS).
Moreover, Mahathir has not shied away from courting and being publicly associated with young politicians.
This in many ways echoes the manner with which he was once groomed – as a youthful Umno upstart – by Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s revered second prime minister.
For the past few years, Syed Saddiq, a Johor-born neophyte, has been the older man’s near-constant sidekick.
Born into a middle-class family, he first came into the public eye as a champion debater who later polarised the chattering classes by rejecting Umno and embracing its splinter, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (commonly referred to as “Bersatu”), which is part of Pakatan Harapan.
In the process, he also turned down a chance for a master’s scholarship at Oxford to contest in Johor’s Muar parliamentary seat. Once thought of as an Umno stronghold, Saddiq won the constituency by a thumping 6,953 votes.
But his role went deeper than that. Syed Saddiq helped to make the elder statesman seem more connected and in touch. Most politicians facing a similar challenge would have surrounded themselves with a host of young – but essentially anonymous – faces.
Syed Saddiq can almost always be spotted near Mahathir, whether in press conferences or social media posts.
To be fair, Syed Saddiq is more than just a pretty face (or prop) as some of his detractors claim.
With more than 987,000 Instagram followers, he also ran the then-Opposition leader’s Facebook Live questionnaire sessions that featured contributions by young Malaysians from all walks of life.
Through his father’s own experiences, he also brought to light the difficult daily working conditions 400,000 Johoreans face in Singapore.
In a heart-rending video which garnered 841,000 views on his Facebook page alone, his father related the sacrifices he made for his family’s well-being, including undertaking 17-hour workdays.
The rapport between the prime minster and Syed Saddiq is clear. In one 29-minute YouTube video from earlier in the year, the two discuss how young Malaysians can benefit from learning English. At one point, Syed Saddiq jokingly called Mahathir cikgu Mahathir (“teacher Mahathir”) – something few would dare do. Despite the recent Cabinet appointment, it’s still too early to canonise him as one of Mahathir’s potential “heirs” – anyone who knows Malaysian political history knows what a poisoned chalice such an anointing could bring.
Can he survive the realities of government? Will his considerable charm be enough? Given the fickleness of public life and the speed with which the social media cycle passes, can this moment in the sun, be sustained?
He will also need to prove that he has maturity and political guile to succeed beyond a Mahathir administration.
Moreover, despite their reverence for him, there are real divergences between young Malaysians and Mahathir, not only over classic wedge issues such as civil liberties and social mores, but also more substantive ones such as Malaysia’s economy.
During the campaign, Mahathir’s controversial comments about young graduates wanting to become Uber drivers or nasi lemak sellers – in effect, dismissing the entire “gig economy” – caused real offence in some sectors.
Syed Saddiq will hence be challenged to bridge such gaps when they arise. But can he? Will he?
Whatever the case, take it from someone who has seen generations of politicians across Southeast Asia come and go – watch this young chap.