AT 36, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad is a relative veteran with a decade’s service as Seri Setia assemblyman under his belt.
Now a newly-elected MP for Setiawangsa in the Federal parliament, he has not been able to resist turning briefly to an old love – that of writing.
He’s just published an account of the May 9 elections to go along with previous works such as Moving Forward: Malays for the 21st Century (2009) and Coming of Age: A Decade of Essays 2001–2011 (2011).
He spoke to Sunday Star recently about why he feels compelled to write his latest book, May 9: Notes From the Frontline.
“Before I became a political activist, and I became one at 19, I was already a writer. I had started writing in online portals, in newspapers and blogs. With the historic change in 2018, I thought that it’s useful that I write things down, because it’s still new, still fresh, the euphoria is still there. Even though it’s getting a little more tricky for the government, the excitement is still there,” he says.
He’s aware that there’s been a fair number of books about the election results and the related 1MDB scandal. However, he is convinced that his book will have something different to offer.
“I have written based on what I experienced on the ground and also in party conferences, backroom, behind the scenes. In politics people only see statements and external communications, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I am not saying that I am telling everything. It’s not a tell-all, because it’s still new and there are some things that I can’t reveal,” he says.
“It’s not about airing dirty laundry. There are certain things in which I don’t name names. People need to know why differences occurred, even how we in PKR could accept Dr Mahathir. People need to understand the story of how the compromise for the greater good happened.”
Because it’s such a fresh event, Nik Nazmi didn’t have a lot of time to sit on his draft.
“I started writing at the end of May, and by September my draft was completed. Then I shared it with some close associates who helped me edit. Four months is fast, but I wanted to capture the mood. Our nation is going through various stages and now that the honeymoon phase is ending, it’s the best time to publish the book. Hopefully, it’s not too late for mine to grab some attention.”
He cites former PKR deputy president Dr Syed Husin Ali and former US president Barack Obama as key influences.
“Dr Syed was my dad’s junior in university in Singapore. He was a progressive leader in Parti Rakyat Malaysia and then PKR, and despite being an academic, he writes in an accessible way.
“In his most recent book the People’s History of Malaysia, he wrote about how Tok Janggut and Datuk Bahaman (Malay warriors fighting the British in 19th century Malaya) can be related to our modern life.
“I also think the way President Obama wrote about his problems of identity in The Audacity of Hope really captured the imagination.”
Nik Nazmi doesn’t pretend that he foresaw the dramatic change coming.
“Most pollsters did not give us a chance, saying that Barisan Nasional would pull through. And privately some of their leaders were talking about regaining the two-thirds majority that they enjoyed before 2008.
“On the other hand, Invoke and Rafizi Ramli had consistently been saying that Barisan would lose the election since December last year. Not many believed them; even I had a hard time to believe them.
“When I was campaigning, when people asked ‘Are you sure you can win?’, I was cautious, because I didn’t want to be disappointed.”
He contrasts it with 2013, when people were confident that there would be a change of government but it didn’t happen.
“This time, however, it was beneath the surface, and issues like wages, jobs and corruption really came to the fore. You got the sense people wanted change.
“I wasn’t just a candidate during the election, I was also the Pakatan Harapan Youth leader, so I went down to the ground from Perlis to Sabah, and you could really feel the mood of change.”
With great power, comes great responsibility and Nik Nazmi is keenly aware that the Pakatan government is under pressure to deliver and has not totally covered itself in glory.
“Expectations are sky high. There was a lot of speculation about Cabinet positions, but I think it’s turned out to be good that I am a backbencher because the task facing the first Cabinet is immense.
“I think we need to move beyond the issues of the past. Yes, there are wrongs that need to be exposed so that we learn and the people who are responsible for crimes are punished, but most want to move forward and look at issues like the economy and protecting our unity and peace, which can be very fragile,” he notes.
He concedes that while Pakatan won a majority of seats in GE14, it did not win a majority of the Malay votes.
“Pakatan Harapan parties won no seats in Kelantan and Terengganu and there are large swathes of Malay areas in Perlis, northern Perak and Pahang in which we were not impressive,” he says. “We have popularity in the south and west coast but if it’s not handled well, the country may be more divided.”
Another thing that could affect the popularity of the government among young voters is the constant U-turns over the issue of PTPTN repayments. Nik Nazmi believes that this could saddle the coalition with a lot of problems.
“Ultimately, our election manifesto was written without access to statistics, but even it is not 100% implementable, we should try to deliver as much as we promised. We also have to recognise that higher wages, better jobs and better housing are more important to the rakyat than institutional reforms, electoral reforms and transparency.”
“Even my generation, which was the first recipient of the PTPTN, we need to understand the circumstances (of why they are having difficulty paying back their loans).
“Yes, we took the loans, we agreed to the debt, but then, we are earning very little, and the percentage of unemployment for fresh graduates is higher than for people who do not go to university!
“The degree is sold as a ticket to a better life, but when it’s not delivering that, there is a lot of frustration.”
He nonetheless commends the unlimited travel pass – at RM100 and RM50 a month – that the government launched recently to reduce the cost of living for the people.
“It was the Pakatan Harapan Youth who pushed for the universal transportation pass. To be fair to the previous government, they have improved public transport but costs were still prohibitive. Networks are much better now than they were 10-20 years ago and by lowering the cost, the hope is that public transport usage will increase and that is something that is really important for the younger generation. I know it’s not universal because it’s very Klang Valley-central, but we will work to broaden it,” he says.
Despite his youth, Nik Nazmi is no political novice. He has served in various roles in the last 10 years in Selangor, from political secretary to the mentri besar and a member of the state Exco to Deputy Speaker.
“When I was running as a 26-year-old in Seri Setia in 2008, I had to fight hard to convince the voters to cast their ballot for such an inexperienced guy.
“Now I have had that experience and had the opportunity to work with GLCs, I can carry out specific projects in my constituency. The demographic in my new area includes a big group of urban poor and we need to carry out education initiatives there. I started the Mentari project in Seri Setia to offer tuition to children and build a low cost library in my kawasan. This is where the Federal Territories can emulate Selangor because the Selangor library has done very well,” he shares.
Another factor that has undermined the euphoria of the GE victory is the bruising electoral process that PKR had undergone recently. Surprisingly, Nik Nazmi wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you look at party history since 2010, we have had a lot of colourful contests. Datuk Seri Azmin Ali vs Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, when we started one man, one vote. In 2014, it was a three-way contest with Azmin, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim and Saifuddin Nasution, now it’s Azmin and Rafizi.
“I actually think it’s healthy. It’s not usual in Malaysia, where in parties like Umno there is usually a lot done behind closed doors with a succession plan. But this comes at a cost, because there is no contest of ideas, so are people being promoted because of their capabilities or because they can protect the interests of their predecessor? At the end of the day the party loses its vitality.
“Still, I do accept that PKR can take it too far. I am all for democracy and openness but now it’s all over and done with, let’s focus on delivering. We are capable of uniting and coming back stronger. We are now the most successful multi-racial party in Malaysia’s history,” he says.
Nik Nazmi admits he is far too busy for his liking.
“I have a bad habit of buying books and not having the time to read them. I used to read very fast, but the lack of free time now, and the distraction of smartphone and WhatsApp, have left me lagging behind,” laments the father of one son, Nik Ilhan, seven.
He is also a foodie, says Nik Nazmi, confessing that it is “bad” for him as a politician.
“It’s because people always give you the best food! On my Instagram I use #nikmakan when I go looking for food.”
To relax, Nik Nazmi likes watching television too, when he can.
“Comedies like Modern Family, I find to be great escapism. I do watch a few series like Elementary, and political drama House of Cards – until it became too real and a bit depressing, since I am already living in that world,” he quips.
But as many may already know, football is the young politician’s big love.
“I am a huge, huge Liverpool fan,” he raves.
“And although locally I am running for the KLFA (Kuala Lumpur Football Association) deputy presidency, as a fan I also follow Kelantan and Selangor, which is a long story.”