For most of Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahmanâ€™s 29 years, Malaysian politics has been dominated by a select few.
Between Mahathir Mohamad, the countryâ€™s longest-serving leader, his ally turned adversary Anwar Ibrahim, and more recently Najib Razak, former prime minister and now convicted crook, the roll call has remained more or less the same.
Now, however, the son of a teacher and a labourer from southern Johor state is attempting a long-awaited changing of the guard.
A former sports and youth minister in Mahathirâ€™s short-lived Alliance of Hope government, Syed Saddiq is making waves in Malaysia with his multi-racial breakaway party, the Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), in the lead-up to a national election that could be held as soon as the middle of the year.
The old names are still around. Mahathir, at 97 and just out of hospital after being seriously ill with a heart issue, is still an MP and is fielding candidates from his party in the upcoming poll. Opposition leader and nearly man Anwar is fighting for his political life, while Najib a stalwart of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) who still wields great influence, could return to the political stage, and even potentially the prime ministership, if he can stay out of jail.
Syed Saddiq is decades younger than all of them and a lifetime Mahathirâ€™s junior. He was Malaysiaâ€™s youngest ever cabinet minister, at the age of 25.
But itâ€™s not just generational change that he and MUDA, which in acronym form means â€œyoungâ€ in the Malay language, are pushing.
In a country long preoccupied with racialised politics, Syed Saddiq and his party are campaigning on an inclusive, moderate and policy-centred agenda he believes is long overdue.
â€œItâ€™s high time to disrupt Malaysian politics,â€ he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. â€œWe have to overhaul the whole system to turbo-charge the country forward.
â€œThis party is set up not to face the next election but to prepare Malaysia for the next 20 to 30 yearsâ€¦ a country in which all Malaysians, regardless of race [or] religion, could call their home. But most importantly, is to build strong democratic institutions, which transcend political personalities and hyper partisanship.
â€œNow is a time for me to shape the future of Malaysia together with many other aspiring Malaysians.â€
MUDA, which was registered only in December, will dip its toes in the water for the first time in an eagerly anticipated state election in Johor on Saturday, a poll that just happens to be the first in Malaysia since the voting age was dropped from 21 to 18.
Syed Saddiq said his biggest fear was that Malaysia had declined to the extent that â€œwe are no longer the destination of choice for investors in south-east Asiaâ€, arguing a major reset is needed to reverse a worrying brain drain.
â€œ[Malaysia] is declining because our democratic institutions can be subverted for personal, hyper-partisan political interest,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s declining to a point where tens of thousands of young Malaysians who are highly qualified in terms of academics are making the active and conscious decision to leave Malaysia to find greener pastures abroad.â€
The multibillion-dollar 1MBD corruption scandal, over which Najib has been convicted but is appealing, further eroded trust in elected officials. It led voters to throw out UMNO in 2018, with Mahathir and Anwar joining forces to deliver the perennially governing party a historic defeat.
Three years later, though, UMNO is in government again and without another election being held, wrestling back control with backroom manoeuvring.
In Malaysiaâ€™s coalition-based power games, MUDA is joining the ranks of the opposition, and aside from Anwarâ€™s Peopleâ€™s Justice Party, which resisted a deal with the newcomers, it wonâ€™t go head-to-head for any seats in Johor with opposition parties.
As for whether the new party and its president are the real deal, that is yet to be seen.
Professor James Chin, an expert on Malaysian politics at the University of Tasmania, said Syed Saddiq was offering a new brand of Malay-led racially diverse politics, but how effective his sales pitch would be remained unclear.
â€œThe problem is that no one knows how well he will do in Johor. If he does badly in Johor if no one votes for him then we are back to the old politics,â€ Chin said.
â€œHe has a very, very strong social media presence, but based on my own research, social media does not equate to actual votes. Letâ€™s see if they come out to vote for MUDA.â€
With half of Malaysiaâ€™s voters 40 or under, Bridget Welsh, a research associate with the Asian Research Institute at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia, believes the new 18 to 20-year-old voters in the country could prove very important in close electoral races.
She said the immediate challenge MUDA faced was of machinery and questions about whether social media messaging would work in rural areas.
But she said voting patterns in two recent Malaysian state elections showed that â€œvoters are looking for something new, especially younger votersâ€.
â€œSo in a sense, MUDA in some ways has recognised that niche,â€ Welsh said.
The party reports that in two months it has signed up 75,000 members, most of them having joined a political organisation for the first time and the oldest among them 86 years of age.
If that demonstrates appeal beyond the nationâ€™s youth, MUDAâ€™s diversity agenda also runs beyond race, according to Syed Saddiq. He said women made up more than 30 per cent of the partyâ€™s leadership.
Of course, not everyone is a fan. Critics argue the MUDA has tried to railroad its way into the opposition bloc, and write off its personnel as being naive and untested.
Syed Saddiq, as the partyâ€™s co-founder and frontman, is the primary target.
He has been labelled a â€œfakeâ€ who â€œgoes where the wind blowsâ€ by the son of the Sultan of Johor, Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Ibrahim, with whom he was once close.
And following a tumultuous split from his former camp, the Malaysian United Indigenous Party, he is facing police charges of misappropriating 1 million Malaysian ringgit ($328,000) in party funds.
They are allegations he dismisses as politically motivated and brought about as a result of his refusal to join in the skulduggery that ousted Mahathirâ€™s government in early 2020 after less than two years in office.
â€œI have great respect for the royal institution, and being a policymaker I must be open to criticism from anyone, from citizens and also from the royalty,â€ he said.
â€œBut if I had not stood my ground, and gone down the path of being an unprincipled politician, I would have just remained as a minister with a very lavish salary with a good life by joining the toppling of the democratic government, which was done by my ex-party.
â€œInstead, I stood my ground, I ended up being expelled from the party, which I co-founded, I lost my job as a minister, lost my post as youth chief of the party and was even charged for not bowing down to threats and the subversion of democracy.
â€œSo I will continue to fight on, and I am not afraid, because I believe Malaysia deserves better.â€