I have just completed a study on the newly established Parti Amanah Negara and I am now starting to examine the other new party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). I must admit that at this early stage, I am impressed with PPBM’s ability to attract the younger generation.
PPBM leaders I interviewed told me that their membership will soon reach 200,000. From this, 55 percent are under 35 years old, making the majority of their members young. Quite a few of their national, state and divisional leaders are from this age group, with many actually still in universities or colleges. I do not know if any other party in country can compete with this.
Youth activists played an important role in galvanising support for PPBM’s anti-Najib Razak agenda even before the party was launched. In early 2016, a group of 26 student and youth leaders issued a statement calling for the Prime Minister to resign. The group called themselves “Challenger” and their spokesperson was Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman who was only 23 at that time. This group came out of the blue and many of the names were not at all known in the national arena prior to them issuing the statement. But Challenger successfully organised themselves into a group and they travelled the country to meet with other students and youth leaders, inviting many more into their cause.
Following PPBM’s official launch in September 2016, Syed Saddiq became one of the founding members. And 12 of the remaining 25 signatories of Challenger’s first statement soon joined him in the party. Many of them are still active in the party until today, playing important roles to bring more of their peer group into PPBM.
I have been meeting quite a few of these young leaders in PPBM, trying to understand their perspective and why they decided to jump into politics. Interestingly, many of them did not come from UMNO. PPBM was their first party.
And despite PPBM’s positioning of themselves as a party championing the Malay agenda, these youngsters realise that racism must not be the basis of Malaysian politics. Their commitment to defending the special position of the Malays as enshrined in the Federal Constitution is unwavering. But they also believe that it is dangerous to fan racial sentiment just to win votes.
Three main themes emerge as the main reasons behind their decision to join PPBM.
Top of the list is their admiration of Tun Mahathir Mohammad. The maximum age to be a member of PPBM’s youth wing – or as they call themselves, ARMADA – is 35. That means the oldest of them were born in 1982, a year after Mahathir became Prime Minister. For the next 22 years, they live under Mahathir’s administration and they grow up seeing and enjoying the many development that Mahathir brought to the country. But they were also too young to understand any criticisms that were hurled at Mahathir throughout this time. Hence for many of them, until today, Mahathir is a hero.
Second is their anger towards the current administration. These youngsters feel the pinch of the rising cost of living. They are personally experiencing the difficulties in finding a well-paying job, let alone buying a house or a car. Those in higher education as well as fresh graduates have to deal with student debt. But while they have to face all these challenges, they read everyday about the extravagant lifestyle of some politicians and the many allegations surrounding 1MDB and FELDA. It is unsurprising that they want to do something about it. Being a new party, PPBM provides them with the platform that they want. Unlike the more established opposition parties like PKR and DAP, there is less bureaucracy and less hurdles to becoming an important contributor in PPBM.
The third factor is the role played by the current head of ARMADA, Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman. This law graduate from the International Islamic University Malaysia built his name as a champion debater both in Malaysia as well as internationally while still at university. His name shot into the national public discourse when he became the spokesperson for Challenger. While building up Challenger, he travelled from one university campus to another, garnering support for the cause. Today he still zigzags across Malaysia to recruit members for his Armada. His hardwork, coupled with his popularity, is clearly an attraction. Many university students as well as young professionals admire his tenacity and they see him as someone they can easily relate to.
It is yet to be seen if PPBM’s top leadership will give way for their own younger leaders in this coming GE14. At the moment the party still has to deal with some of the young leaders resigning for various reasons. I suspect there will be more such resignations as we get nearer to GE14. There will be more lures that may pull these youngsters out from PPBM. But once the dust is settled, it would be a shame if their hard work, and more importantly their potentials, are not recognised.