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11-03-2013 11:51

Nobody Likes the Liberal Guy: Dato' Saifuddin Abdullah

Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah has never been one to hold back on his opinions despite often receiving flak from fellow UMNO members. He found the time from his busy schedule to meet up with CLIVE over some coffee to share his thoughts on the coming 13th General Elections (GE13), and beyond.

What advantage do you think either parties have over the other?
I think for Barisan Nasional, our advantage is our track record. Especially governing at the federal level since Independence. As for Pakatan Rakyat, they seem to be more attractive to the young voters so many people are of the opinion that they have the advantage in that area. So it’s very competitive, perhaps the most competitive GE ever, and this is really a golden opportunity for Malaysians to decide on the future of the nation. I see GE13, not as a platform to decide who is going to form the next government, because I am confident in all humility, I am confident that BN will carry the vote and will return as the government on the federal level. But I am looking beyond GE13 as a platform to take off towards a new conversation. We need to move on. We’ve had too much politics in the past year. We need to do some soul searching. We need to sit down and start a new conversation for the better of the country.

How would you suggest we do that?
The conversation should start firstly with all stakeholders coming forward to offer a “real” new manifesto for the country. Today both Barisan and Pakatan will come up with their own manifestos, but no matter how we do it, everybody will know that it is made to win elections. There’s no two ways about it, so let’s be truthful about it. What the rakyat really wants is a real manifesto, and it will show in how the rakyat elects their people into their legislative houses. But that isn’t going to be sufficient, we will need to sit down and have a real conversation.

[Laughs] Politicians aren’t usually open enough to admit something like that.
I know that the rakyat know it themselves. So there’s no need to sugar coat it. The real manifesto at the end of the day is what is put into the ballot box. People will either vote in hope or to protest, but these are symbols of the “real” manifesto. Immediately after the GE, we really need to sit down with the rakyat and discuss the issues. We cannot have a winner-take-all mentality. What I mean by that is we cannot ignore a good point in an opposing party’s manifesto simply because they are from a different party.

If a big number of Pakatan MPs are voted into parliament like what we have now, are we going to continue to refuse opinions from the other side of the house because they are from a different party? I don’t think we can go on having a monopoly of Parliament.

You must get a lot of criticisms from your colleagues.
Yes I’m used to the flak I receive from within my party. They accuse me of many things, but in my mind it’s really simple. There are limits to party politics. In certain instances you have to be bi-partisan, where you can engage and consult, and collaborate in certain areas. Say for instance, education.

One of the big issues now is free education. Many of the discussions from both sides of the house have been slanted politically. This is a topic that’s worthy of discussion. Even our side had announced that there will be a review of the school system. Among them is how to spend more prudently in managing our public universities. My position on free higher education is a very simple question; why are the top universities in the world private universities? So if I see that the top universities in the world are public universities, then perhaps I will start discussing free higher education. But I am all for spending more prudently for public universities.

How would you gauge the mindset of the younger voters?
Young voters, professionals, those with higher education, entrepreneurs, and civil society activists form a group, that I term the middle ground, make up 30% of the electorate. They are by definition non-partisan, who will vote using their conscience. These are the people who will be looking at the issues, manifestos, and comparing candidates. The political party will be the last factor to influence their decision. They are not card carrying party members. They don’t give a damn about who their parents will be voting for. If you ask me, the party that can get the support of this 30% will win the elections.

The results of the 2008 elections was a result of the 30% voting in protest. This time, a big number of the 30% won’t vote in protest. They will vote for real hope. Of course there will still be people continuing the ‘anything but UMNO’ style voting, but I’m very happy to see that there are more constructive criticism now. It’s turning into a real discourse now, a real conversation.

BN used to say that the public was biting the hand that feeds or that people were ungrateful…
I have never agreed on that angle. To me politics and especially the elections isn’t about being grateful, or saying thank you. Because it is the responsibility for any government that is voted in to serve the people. I have never used that angle myself.

You get singled out a lot for being too ‘liberal’. Does it affect you?
I try to just be what I am. I joined politics with my own idealism, and I try to advocate what I call ‘new politics’. Where the main objective is to bring discourse to a new level, and start a new healthier culture of politics. Our politics is sadly too adversarial. Opponents aren’t seen as political rivals, but more as enemies.

But what kind of weight does your ‘liberal’ label hold in this climate?
This whole ‘liberal’ thing is coming more from my party I think. When they say I am a liberal, it sounds like an accusation. Like I’m not toeing the party line. To my friends in the opposition, when they call me a liberal, the tone sounds more like a compliment. So it really depends on who’s using the term [laughs].

Is race-based politics still relevant today?
I think for this election, race based politics is still relevant. There are still issues that need to be addressed. Though there are more and more people talking about delivery of services that are more needs based than race based, and I am more for needs based before race based, but issues still come up that is race related so it gets mixed.

My hunch is that this will be the last election where we talk about this. Even Barisan Nasional really have to do our own soul searching. I’m not saying we should abandon race based parties completely. We could make it in a way where we can still have UMNO, MIC, and MCA, but let BN supporters join BN directly, without having to be a part of the racial parties.

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