26-03-2013 17:20

Saifuddin Abdullah - The reluctant politician who speaks his mind

If you didn’t know Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah personally, you would have completely missed the man sipping his cappuccino quietly and alone in the quietest corner of the hotel coffee lounge. He seemed occupied, only looking out into the patch of green outside and occasionally attending to his phone.

Most of the time his interaction with the phone would be to answer a message on Twitter — that annoying, universal communication platform embraced by youngsters and canny politicians alike.

You would probably be excused for not recognising him, because some members of his own party say they do not know him — no doubt the unfortunate effect of his tendency to speak his mind.

Being the deputy minister for higher education, Saifuddin’s statements usually involve young people, which in recent times meant taking sides between freedom of the young versus preserving the establishment like in the case of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (popularly known by its Malay acronym of AUKU) and the appropriate reaction to Bersih 2.0 movement.

His to-the-point pronouncements, often on the wrong side of Umno’s official party line, has not endeared him to some in Umno, but it has earned him respect and fans from both sides of the political divide.

This is easy to see from his easy conversations with his students, both on Twitter and in the real world when he makes his visits to universities and colleges.

Saifuddin has previously referred to himself as a reluctant politician and that given the chance, he would have remained in the civil society movement. He probably realised 13 years ago that the easiest way to make the kind of changes he wants to make is easier within Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN).

I got all this in as I approached Saifuddin for the interview with The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) which had to be squeezed between two of his official functions on a Tuesday morning.

There were no hovering secretaries nor photographer to interfere in the free-flowing conversation.

I was just thinking that Saifuddin’s face is unremarkable but it is probably the future face of Malaysian politics.

TMR: Datuk, it seems that there are some things that you think ought to change in Umno. If there’s so many things that are not right, why are you even in the party?

Saifuddin: Well I have been an Umno member since I left school, and my loyalty will always be with Umno.

However, it is common knowledge, even among the party diehards, that we need change. And this could be seen from the time of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he was president and continues to this day under Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak who, I think, is a very democratic and progressive leader.

There is nothing bad that cannot be fixed in Umno, that cannot be corrected. You can see all the shortcomings, the weaknesses in Umno but in the end this is man-made. It can be fixed.

TMR: What are some of the weaknesses?

Saifuddin: Money politics and patronage. To some extent, patronage may be seen as necessary in politics, when you view it from the point of tutelage or grooming new politicians.....




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