The Asian Voice

Vital for Malaysia to groom next generation: The Star columnist

The writer says that perhaps Malaysian politics is going towards gerontocracy.

Malaysian politician Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman speaks during an interview with Reuters in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, Sep 3, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - As I was listening to Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman's talk at the Concorde Club session, a gathering of journalists and opinion shapers last week, I could not help but think where he is heading politically now.

He has left Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and his party Muda has yet to be registered.

Mr Rahman has all the ingredients of a future leader - young, suave, articulate, confident, clever.

But "future" can be misleading in Malaysian politics. We used to hold our breath for Khairy Jamaluddin, a former much despised "fourth floor boy" who transformed himself into one of the shining stars of Malaysian politics.

(His decision to look more like Pierce Brosnan in his most distressing role at the moment is another matter).

And we invested a lot of hope in Nurul Izzah Anwar, one of the finest young minds around.

(She has, since the fall of Pakatan Harapan, been staying clear from the limelight).

There are many others on both sides of the political divide, young men and women who are making their mark, perhaps even trying to free themselves from the shackles of "old politics" in Malaysia.

But Malaysian leaders are not good at grooming a younger generation of leaders. Thus our talent pool is so limited.

Just look around us. The major political players are still the ones when I was the chief editor of Utusan Melayu in the 90s.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (now aged 95) is still a force to be reckoned with.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim still believes in his political invincibility. He is aiming for the top post even at 73.

The current prime minister was born in the same year as Mr Anwar, one of the Wawasan Team members in the historic 1993 Umno elections.

There is talk of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah spoiling Anwar's chances. The Gua Musang Member of Parliament is the doyen of Malay politics, omnipresent in times of crisis, another battle-worn figure one must not discount. He is 83.

There are many young Members of Parliament today. The record is held by P Prabakaran who won the Batu parliamentary seat when he was 22.

But people like him are in the minority. Some five years ago, the median age of Members of Parliament was 56 years old. Mr Jamaluddin was the youngest. Only nine per cent of them (22) were in their 30s.

Things are no better now. Our political system is still dominated by ageing people. Perhaps Malaysian politics is going towards gerontocracy.

It wasn't like that before.

When Tunku Abdul Rahman became the prime minister in 1957, he was 54. He was the Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya for two years prior to that.

Tun Abdul Razak was the youngest person ever to become a prime minister in 1970 at 48 years old.

Tun Hussein Onn was 54 when he assumed power and Tun Dr Mahathir was 56 in 1981.

When he started his second tour in 2018, he was already 93, creating history as the oldest elected head of government in the world. The record stays.

Datuk Seri Najib Razak, born in 1953, was 56 when he became prime minister in 2009.

Just look at the presidential race in the United States. Joe Biden, who has been elected the 46th president, is 77. Donald Trump is 74. Ronald Reagan was 70 when he was elected president in 1981 and served two four-year terms.

In a study conducted on US congressmen and women, the average age is now an all-time high of 57.6 years. For the Senate it is 62.9. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is already 80.

One congressman, Don Young, 83, of Alaska is serving his 25th term. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at 30 is the youngest member of the 117th US Congress.

A lot of improvement is seen elsewhere. The youngest leader of the G20 is Emmanuel Macron of France (39).

The hugely popular Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau was sworn in as the youngest leader in 2015 at 43 years old. He was only 11 when he first met and shook hands with Dr Mahathir in 1982.

Jacinda Ardern, 40, has just won a landslide victory for her party. That is understandable considering how she led New Zealand these last few years. The Christchurch massacre proved her real quality and she was praised the world over on how she managed the crisis.

There is always the issue about how a leader's age is related to his or her effectiveness. Perhaps it is true that one gets wiser as one gets older. The reality is, the world is getting younger and the demand for a change in the way things are done is getting louder.

Perhaps, we must learn from past mistakes. Young talents must be nurtured and more importantly there must be a succession plan for all parties.

It is sheer waste if people like Syed Saddiq becomes another footnote in our political history.

The writer is a columnist with The Star. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.

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