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Red, Green, White. Mickail defeats the plight!

One of Maldives' brightest and youngest parliamentarians to date, South Galolhu MP Mickail Naseem sits down with The Edition to discuss his introduction to politics and his recent parliamentary election win.

Lujine Rasheed
16 July 2019, MVT 08:51
South Galolhu MP Mickail Naseem smiling for his Campaign poster PHOTO: Mickail Naseem
Lujine Rasheed
16 July 2019, MVT 08:51

At the corner of Chaandhanee and Fareedhee, stuck in a herd of pedestrians on a Saturday night, I was struggling to make my way to Civil Coffee Society where I had plans to meet rising young politician Mickail Naseem.

As unpleasant as it may be to walk swiftly on these streets, the love a Malé native has toward their city is undeniable. Hence, meeting an elected member of parliament, representing a constituency within the city, was somewhat of a big deal to me.

Mickail Naseem is one of the upcoming stars in Maldivian politics whose parliamentary election win, of the South Galolhu seat, has been a victory for youngsters all around the country. His journey to the parliament is a story of endurance and passion. My goal was to find out about MP Mickail’s campaign and political background.

Quarter past the decided time, a smartly dressed Mickail, in a long sleeved checkered shirt and dark coloured pants, climbed up to the first level of the café and hurriedly took a seat across my table, all the while apologizing for the time he ran late.

Not wishing to delay any longer, I proceeded with the awaiting chat, asking him first to describe himself to me. Who he believed Mickail Naseem to be.

After a minute of hesitance he told me, "Well, I've been told I appear very serious to people. But I am not. Honestly, I don't know how else to describe myself."

Mickail speaking at an event held during the elections PHOTO: MICKAIL

An answer so crisp it left me wanting to know more. Wherefore, I asked him what he was currently reading, hoping to get more of an idea of his persona.

"I'm reading a book by the author, Yuval Noah Harari. It’s called "The Sapiens" and is a book that talks about the human evolution in a very interesting way."

Content with this additional snippet, we pivoted our chat towards Mickail's home life. He explained how he, more or less, grew up with just his parents; that he experienced a very "nuclear family" upbringing, while also enjoying great relationships with his more distant relatives.

Unpredictable Beginnings

Mickail Naseem giving his speech near the Raalhugandu area in 2012 PHOTO: MICKAIL

Jumping right into the thick of it, I was curious to know if he, during his upbringing, was ever encouraged to chase a career in politics.

"There always have been political discussions within the family, but nobody ever tried to push me towards it. My mother is quite involved in politics so that might have had some influence on me."

About your schooling days, did you have any interest in politics and the lives of politicians back then?

"Yes I did. I first attended Jamaaluddin School and later Dharumavantha School, which stood right next to the parliament. So we saw a lot of politicians going around on the streets."

"Even then, I always really admired President Nasheed: how rebellious he was and the things he stood for. So I definitely took notice of President Nasheed, he is a very inspirational figure for me."

"Additionally, I have always really admired John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK). I've watched most movies about him and have delved into his quotes. Some of his speeches are very inspirational."

Mickail Naseem accompanying President Nasheed during the parliamentary elections campaign. PHOTO: Ahmed Azim

Leading with these great examples, Mickail charismatically explained his own beginning in the world of politics.

"What drove me to become so passionate about politics was the transfer of power in 2012. I observed it quite closely and it made me determined to take a stand against it. I was eighteen at the time and I was passionate about speaking out against what was happening."

Would you say you had any interest in politics prior to that?

"I was involved in politics before as well, but I wasn't eighteen so I wasn't publicly active. However, I was working with the MDP Youth Wing and was also helping the then-President of the Youth Wing Aminath Shauna. So I was more or less involved within the party."

Shedding some light to perhaps the first ever time most people came to know of young Mickail, I urged him to speak about the events that took place near the "Raalhugandu" area around the time of the 2012 transfer of power.

"It was the 17th of February 2012, there was a gathering near the Raalhugandu area. Like all other attendees, I was just sitting in the crowd when they wanted someone young to come up on stage to speak."

"I wasn't prepared for it but realized that there was nobody young enough that was willing to speak out. So I thought about it and really felt that, because I felt so strongly about it and had so many suppressed emotions, that I might be able to effectively vent it all out. It was a good opportunity to go on stage and say whatever that came to mind. It was a very thrilling experience."

Did your family have any reactions to your appearance at the rally?

"My mum was very scared for me. I think she was afraid of what might happen next because there were a lot of threats being issued at the time. At the time, my father was working in the government, so obviously he faced a lot of threats with regard to his employment as well."

"Regardless, they all really encouraged me because this was what I really wanted to do and I have always felt really passionate about politics."

Aside of your family, how did the people of Malé react to your speech? Would you perhaps describe yourself as an ‘overnight politician’?

"I wouldn't say so, necessarily," he chuckled, "But yeah, for a week or so after that speech a lot of new people recognized me. I had my five minutes of fame I guess. I also received a lot of supportive messages, which again was very encouraging. The response was overwhelmingly positive."

An Oxbridge Indoctrination

Young Mickail's graduation photo from the University of Cambridge. PHOTO: Mickail Naseem

Continuing the conversation about his first steps into the world of Maldivian politics, Mickail seguéd into the journey of his education, which stemmed directly from the very events that took place at the rally at Raalhugandu.

He explained how the scholarship he had gotten at the time, funded partially by the government and partially by the University of Cambridge, was revoked following his speech.

"The government revoked the scholarship and cancelled the entire scheme, just to prevent me from going. At the time I was attending Villa High School, preparing for my A-levels. I was even expelled from school over expressing conflicting political standpoints to that of the school's headmaster. As a result, I had to prepare for the A level exams on my own."

Relaying the events of his late teen years with an undercurrent determination, Mickail went on to tell me, "Fortunately, I eventually managed to secure the scholarship. It was nothing short of a miracle, I would say, that the University of Cambridge decided to provide me with a full scholarship. That's how I got the chance to travel to the UK to pursue my bachelor's degree."

Curious about his time at university, I posed a question to Mickail about the sort of a student he was during his undergraduate days.

"Pretty proactive I would say. I attended all the events related to Maldivian politics held in the UK and promoted the country within the university as well."

"I tried changing the "holiday destination" impression people had about the place and let them know what was really going on. I worked very closely with the university's Amnesty International club as well."

Did you experience a difference in Maldives’ political landscape when you returned after post-studies?

"Throughout those three years I did travel back and forth. I was never removed from the Maldives per say."

"But, I do see a difference from when I left and now, in that there isn't the atmosphere of fear anymore. I think more people feel a sense of freedom to say whatever they want politically without having to face dire consequences for what they say and how they feel."

Was it this change of atmosphere that inspired you to run for parliament?

"Initially I had actually not thought about running for parliament this election, at all. The earliest I had set to run was maybe in 2024.This decision was quite spontaneous."

"I was wondering who would be running to replace the former MP because it was a vacant seat at the time. And with the potential names that were coming up, I felt like why not me?"

Mickail paused his tale for a minute as a patron of the coffee shop approached the table to congratulate him. Mickail's win was definitely praise worthy and based on how graciously he accepted the exchange, I could see that these handshakes have become the norm for Mickail after voting day.

Following the brief and rather pleasant interruption, he gathered his thoughts from where he left off and began explaining, "South Galolhu is the area I lived in for most of my life. Although that's not where I’m technically from, I lived there for over eighteen years. So, I thought I could do this."

Enthusiastically grabbing his phone, he told me how he was very inspired by something he found online while he was still contemplating running. He opened his Instagram feed and told me, "When I was trying to make my decision to run, I saw a post featuring a quote by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). I reposted it on my own feed. I’d like to read it for you."

And so, he enthusiastically proceeded,

"They'll tell you you're too loud, that you need to wait your turn; and ask the right people for permission. Do it anyway."

"After seeing this, I felt like this was our time. That we are not too young to run albeit the stigma around young people running for political posts."

"Frankly,I don't know why it exists. Perhaps people aren’t familiar with a culture in which youngsters have a say in decision-making. Especially within our region."

Is AOC a big inspiration to you?

"Yeah. She is a very inspirational figure that I've been following recently. I think she's fantastic."

Campaign Paraphernalia

Mickail Naseem visiting houses to meet people of the constituency. PHOTO: MDP Youth Wing

With a seismic roundup of Mickail's introduction to politics I brewed my questions, like my second cup of cappuccino, towards tales of his campaign trail that got him elected. My curiosity manifested questions which focused on his expectations, experiences and outcomes of the campaign.

"Many people ask me if I knew I'd win. But I really didn't. This wasn't a seat typically attributed to my party. From the time the parliament came into being under the new constitution, the South Galolhu constituency has never been won by the MDP. This was a first and there were a lot of difficulties involved."

"As I said, there was a stigma around my age, as well as open hostility surrounding how I wasn't "Galolhu enough" to run for the district seat."

"I wanted to prove to people that it's not where you come from that matters. It's where you live, and who you become as a result of living in that particular place. Galolhu is where I have lived for the majority of my life, home to my neighbors and friends. Nobody can question my belonging."

Tell us more about your campaign process and experiences.

"Unlike other parties, the MDP held primaries. During that time, I did door-to-door canvassing where I had to introduce myself to people for the first time, given how new I am in politics. In a primary, you can't really sell policies starkly different from the other person, because you both belong to the same party. So you have to really sell yourself. And that's exactly what I did."

"After winning the primary, it was time for the main election. I ran against five candidates which included a sitting MP, a deputy leader of a political party, a former commissioner of police and two other people: all from Galolhu no less. So you can imagine what I was up against. But during the PSM-hosted candidates' debate, I was able to convey the messages that the MDP wanted to deliver to reach the people. We had calculated and measured the policies in place, based on the statistics that we have gathered over the years. I think the public really responded to the clarity of our party's policies."

"As for the outcome, I was honestly a bit surprised. During the final week, we knew we had acquired enough pledges to potentially win but, as you know in the Maldives, "vote-buying" is quite common. And that mostly happens within the last two days. So there was always a chance for a turn around. Other than that, I was confident we had the votes to win."

You’ve described your family as always having stood shoulder to shoulder with you throughout most of the obstacles you faced - was your campaign any different?

"My family was a big part of it, I had a lot of people backing me. My mother, in fact, was my campaign agent."

"It was very nice to have her as my agent because you need people you can really trust in a campaign. She is someone I can trust with everything, unconditionally. I would describe her as an asset to my campaign."

How did your family feel about your victory?

"They're quite pleased with it I think. They have been teasing me, calling me "MP" in the house, which has been a little annoying. Other than that they're quite okay. They always advise me to remain humble and to never forget my roots."

Role as an Elected Official

Pictures from the canvassing of Agenda 19. PHOTO: Mickail Naseem

Having the new members of parliament recently sworn in, I asked Mickail about ideas he had for his course as an MP. He assured me how he planned to, first and foremost, stick to his principles as well as the mandate that the public elected him on: Agenda 19.

He further explained how he believed Agenda 19 should be what their legislative agenda should be based on, expressing his stance that the party should not stray away from it at all.

Steering the conversation from the importance of Agenda 19, Mickail spoke about specific issues he planned to immerse himself into, mainly focusing on housing concerns.

"Housing is one of the burning issues in this country, especially in Malé and South Galolhu due to the presence of numerous government offered flats in the area. These apartment buildings were built under the Maumoon-regime and are basically collapsing. The people living there are in a very dire situation. This housing crisis is something I want to tackle right away."

In addition to housing, he stressed the importance of keeping a keen eye on Judicial Reform because of his belief that democracy in Maldives can only be consolidated following judicial reform.

"I think that is the foundation of everything. Without tackling that, whatever we do will be rendered futile."

As we got closer to the end of our chat, I wanted to clarify Mickail's plans to connect with the people of his constituency and if there is a way for people of South Galolhu to reach out to him.

"I have given out my personal mobile number to all my constituents and I have no plans to change it. My personal target is, if I have missed one, to return all calls within 24-hours."

"Secondly, I'm going to hold interactive sessions with my constituents before deciding on major bills because I promised them I would hold Town Hall meetings on a regular basis within the year. Lastly, I am hoping to establish an office for people to walk in during set hours and lodge their concerns."

Youngsters' Catalyst

Mickail pictured partaking in demonstrations. PHOTO: Munshid Mohamed

Rounding up our Civilian-to-Elected Official conversation, I praised him for being such an inspiration to young politicians in Malé. Being in such a crucial position of influence, I was curious about Mickail's views towards youngsters aspiring to run, and what he would say to them.

"To anybody aspiring to run, I would say don't wait. Just do it! If you're waiting to run once everything is in the right place, it won't ever happen. There's no such thing as "perfect timing". If you want to do something you should just go for it."

"And you are NEVER. TOO. YOUNG. TO. RUN. After you're eighteen, you're just as eligible as anyone else. More young people should run and take over the reins."

With that, I thanked South Galolhu MP Mickail Naseem, for taking the time to share his story with us, wishing him luck to the bright future laid before him in the political sphere.

Walking away from our conversation, I itched to quote one of the best (adding a subsequent twist to it of course) - "A man may die, nations may rise and fall," but all convictions indicate that Mickail's strength and determination as a politician, will certainly live on.

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