IS Umno Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin crafting a new image for himself? Gone are the years when he was dogged by rumours of scandal while his father-in-law, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, was prime minister. Indeed, there is a new, though still emerging, picture of the 34-year-old politician. But what is this emerging identity all about? And is it for real?
To date, one of the bravest political moves Khairy has made as a young Umno leader is to call on Malay Malaysians to ditch racial dominance. He publicly argues that meritocracy and competition is the way forward for the community and the antidote for Malaysian mediocrity.
But Khairy remains a controversial figure in Umno. He may control the Youth wing (Pemuda), but the rival camps that supported the two other contestants in the Youth chief race are still silently seething.
Communal politics is also still entrenched within the movement, as evidenced by the kinds of debates that took place in the movement’s assembly after Khairy called for “Malay leadership” to replace “Malay dominance”.
In a 7 Jan 2010 e-mail interview with The Nut Graph, Khairy talks about his version of change, and how he will match action to words.
TNG: A survey has found that a higher percentage of youths reject the idea that Umno should be more inclusive. They also disagreed with your call to discard the “siege mentality“. Why do you think this is?
Khairy Jamaluddin: Only a fraction of the sample size of 358 respondents were youths. Also, the average age of the Pemuda delegate is over 30, whereas the survey samples those under 30 as representative of the youth in the party. So, in that sense, the sample is not representative of Pemuda Umno’s membership.
Notwithstanding this qualification, I believe young Umno members, and young Malay [Malaysians] for that matter, appear more resistant to a more inclusive Umno and a Malay worldview free of the siege mentality. Many among this generation have been conditioned to believe that the only way for Malay [Malaysians] to move forward is at the expense of other communities which are out to “get” them. They are, in a manner of speaking, under siege, or at least think that they are.
I wasn’t preaching to the converted when I appealed for them to discard that mentality. I was speaking to those whom I think, for the most part, embody the siege mentality.
But let me stress that this “us against them” condition is not a particularly Malay [Malaysian] phenomenon. Compared with their older counterparts, this generation of Malaysians, of all races, does not appear to hold on to the promise of Malaysia with quite the same vigour.
Some of the hope and anticipation shared by citizens of a newly independent nation is perhaps lost on those born after 1957, or even 1963. [It has been] replaced by a sense of frustration, cynicism and even distrust. The level of polarisation between ethnic communities has become so pronounced and acute.
So don’t mistake this to be unique to the Malay [Malaysians] — it is rather a generational disconnect to the idea of “Malaysia” as a united nation that we must address together. When I spoke at the Umno general assembly, I naturally focused on the Malay manifestation of this larger problem.
Overall, you’ve cast yourself as progressive and liberal for an Umno leader. Why are you sticking your neck out like this with such views?
Because those views are precisely mine as an individual who reflects on the way forward for our country. A leader leads from the front. I would not be a leader if I were to chime the chorus line for the sake of “political survival”. Expressing views that I do not sincerely believe in would be plain disingenuous; our nation needs leaders that speak their mind.
I am aware of the risks incurred when I take less conventional positions. But if politics isn’t the sphere where you speak your mind for the people’s betterment, then what is? As I have said before, if I am going to go down, then let me go down fighting for something that I believe in.
Do you have support from higher party leaders to take this approach, even if it goes against the status quo in Umno?
Umno as a whole is in the mood for change. So the “status quo” is not as popular as it may have been in the past. What may differ among party leaders and members is the content of the change. Making Umno more reactionary or exclusive is still “change”!
Thankfully, the prime minister and party president’s brand of change is one that brings Umno to the centre of the political spectrum. So long as my message is consistent with the party’s overall vision under Datuk Seri Najib Razak, I think I’ve got all the support and endorsement I need to carry out my plans.
Since your maiden Youth chief speech, how have your views been received by the Youth members?
They have been quite positive. You must understand the condition they are accustomed to and all the default reactions [and] positions that come with it.
My calls for change and the exact manner of that change were sobering for them, and they must be given the opportunity to digest this message and transform their worldview. I have not received any feedback from the ground which suggests that members are fundamentally against my views. Granted, some may have fears, reservations and prejudices — as do all of us — which may yet limit full acceptance of my vision, but with some persuasion and explanation I am confident they can accept this new Umno Youth perspective.
There have been attacks, of course, from right-wing elements in the party, especially from Umno bloggers who supported another candidate during the Pemuda leadership contest. They view my speech and vision as a betrayal to the Malay [Malaysian] cause, not knowing that it is the only way forward for the cause.
They live in a world of “us” and “them”, rights and privileges. These bloggers and activists dare not criticise the prime minister’s views on 1Malaysia and change. Instead, they take their frustrations out on me partly because they hold on to the old worldview that we must discard, and partly because they cannot accept that I beat their candidate in the party elections. They have been trying to influence my members’ views, so this is a potential threat for my agenda for change.
How do you plan to translate your speech into action for Pemuda?
I want to make our activities and agenda more multiracial and issue-based. Some traditional issues that Pemuda fights for, such as religion or empowerment of [the] Malay [Malaysian], may of course be intrinsically Malay-centric. But there are many other issues we can champion, such as poverty alleviation or even sports, which do not have to be exclusive to one ethnic group.
Here, the role of the Barisan Nasional (BN) Youth is important — Pemuda must not see itself as a standalone movement; but one that exists within the BN Youth family. Activities cutting across racial boundaries will work towards making Umno Youth more “national”, inclusive and confident because it will force us to operate beyond our comfort zones, our racial silos.
I also used the recent Pemuda retreat session to recalibrate our political education syllabus from one that was too ethnocentric to one that embraces the ethos of inclusivity and dialogue. This, to me, is critical because if I am saying one thing but our training programs are feeding grassroots leaders another kind of message altogether, then I am not going to succeed in organisational change at all.
I have also had to reflect the change in my statements. This has been difficult. Take the “Allah” controversy. Pemuda’s default position in the past would be predictable. Instead, I reasoned with my exco members that we must empathise with the Catholic point of view, hence my appeal for a dialogue between the parties involved to try and resolve the issue outside the courts. It’s refreshing that many of them agreed with my reasoning and allowed me to adopt a new position on the issue.
Tomorrow: Umno Youth a year later
Read previous Realpolitiker interviews