January 19, 2023
PUTRAJAYA – Just a little less than 18 months ago, Adam Adli was an activist who was just about making ends meet for his young family, even as he relished his new lease of life as a free man after a five-year court battle against politically tainted sedition charges came to an end.
Fast-forward to 2023, and the 33-year-old is now warming his seat at the Youth and Sports Ministry where he is Deputy Minister, after taking the reins of the youth wing of Malaysia’s ruling Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and becoming an MP – all in the space of just six months.
Notorious in his 20s for his anti-establishment protests and speeches that landed him in trouble with the law several times, he pushed for academic freedom, freedom of association for students, and electoral reform during Barisan Nasional’s (BN) rule under former premier Najib Razak. He was also a key organiser for the Bersih 5 rally in 2016 which drew over 200,000 people to the streets.
Malaysia’s new government comprises an alliance between former political enemies Pakatan Harapan (PH) and BN – along with several other parties that make up Malaysia’s most diverse administration in recent history.
There are concerns that PH could struggle to fulfil its reform agenda and push for civil liberties while being partners with BN. Malay nationalist party Umno, which leads the BN coalition, has been marred by accusations of corruption, abuse of power, and curtailing civil liberties during its 61-year rule.
In the thick of this, Mr Adam aims to provide a voice of conscience. “I learnt to compromise, but only to a certain level. There are certain lines I would not cross,” he told The Straits Times in an interview at his office at the administrative capital of Putrajaya.
He first shot to fame as a 23-year-old activist who brought down a flag-bearing then Premier Najib Razak’s image at Umno’s headquarters in 2011 during a student protest. He was later detained by the police for taking part in a protest calling for academic freedom at his alma mater, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI), which later suspended him for six years.
Two years later, Mr Adam was arrested and charged with sedition for calling for a street protest following the 2013 general election, after perceived gerrymandering allowed the Najib-led BN to win a majority of seats in the fiercely contested polls despite the opposition, then called Pakatan Rakyat, winning the popular vote.
BN was accused of using sedition laws to silence its critics and the opposition, with Democratic Action Party (DAP) chairman Karpal Singh and former PKR vice-president Tian Chua among those charged and convicted under the law. Both of their convictions were overturned after PH came to power for the first time in 2018.
Mr Adam spent five years in and out of court as he appealed his subsequent conviction and one-year jail sentence, before he was finally acquitted in early 2018. In September that year, UPSI finally lifted his suspension, allowing him to finish his studies in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).
While he is still new to politics, his rise has been rapid.
He became a member of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s PKR only in late 2021, but rose to be its youth chief less than a year after joining. That led to his electoral debut in the Hang Tuah Jaya ward in Melaka in the November 2022 general election, where he won with a margin of over 8,000 votes.
He had barely come to terms with being an MP before he was appointed Deputy Minister for Youth and Sports by Datuk Seri Anwar on Dec 9.
This is in line with PH’s strategy of installing young leaders at a key ministry that engages the most with the youth – who now make up nearly half of Malaysia’s population. In 2018, 25-year-old Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman was made youth and sports minister.
Mr Adam’s transmogrification from activist to politician helps him retain his old perspectives as an outsider in the government, he said. “I am able to ask myself, ‘What would you do, how would you react, a year ago’.”
Doing away with colonial-era legislation like the Sedition Act was part of PH’s law reform agenda when it came to power for the first time in 2018. But the coalition’s short-lived administration was upended in 2020 due to political defections – in part due to pushback from the Malay majority towards some of the proposed reforms, such as the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.
Mr Adam vowed that this government will not abuse the Sedition Act to clamp down on dissenters. While PH promised to repeal the Act should it come to power, it remains to be seen if such pledges will be carried out under a joint manifesto that PH is developing with its government partners, including BN.
“I can’t guarantee no one will be arrested, but I will not be silent if (political arrests) happen,” Mr Adam said.