WHO would be envious of Khairy Jamaluddin?
Despite his meteoric rise within Umno and the doors that were presumably opened to him as the prime minister’s son-in-law, the changing political tide means the 33-year-old now has to swim against currents. And swim he does.
With Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s exit as premier and Umno president accelerated to March 2009, Khairy will now be slugging it out in politics in his own right.
In the last Umno polls, Khairy won uncontested the post of deputy Youth chief. But in the upcoming polls in March, Khairy is vying for the Youth chief position in a three-corner fight with Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo.
The shifting political winds also means shifting political fortunes. Not just for first-time Member of Parliament Khairy; there have also been seismic shifts in Malaysian politics, as demonstrated by the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s drubbing in the 2008 general election, and the subsequent Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu by-elections.
In the first of a three-part interview with The Nut Graph conducted on 2 Feb 2009, Khairy talks candidly about why the BN and Umno are resistant to change, and mulls the long road ahead.
TNG: With the Kuala Terengganu by-election, the BN has suffered a third defeat in less than a year. What’s your assessment of what’s going on for the BN, for Umno, and for voters?
Khairy Jamaluddin: I think we’re not through with the aftershocks of March 2008. I suppose if you were to use an analogy, if there was an earthquake, these are the after-tremors. If there was a tidal wave, these are the smaller waves that come after. Maybe we’re not entirely 100% over it.
However, it doesn’t mean that I think we are at a point of no return. Even in Kuala Terengganu we still managed to lock in more than 30,000 votes, which is not negligible. It’s just that we didn’t manage to get the turnout that we wanted. We didn’t manage to sway some of the fence-sitters.
Khairy at a ceramah in Kuala Terengganu on 9 Jan
Maybe strategically there were operational problems that we faced compared to PAS. So, in a sense, I think apart from the localised issues, there’s certainly the national, political climate, which is still a little bit hostile towards the BN.
Permatang Pauh I think is a bit different. That’s more of a unique case scenario, because I think [it was] very much about (Pakatan Rakyat de-facto leader Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim).
Anwar the person?
Ya, notwithstanding the fact that, of course, there was still this aftershock from March 2008. But you can’t [lump] March 2008, Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu [together], because I think Permatang Pauh was a little bit different since it’s Anwar’s home ground.
I think we’re not out of the woods yet, as far as this hostile environment is concerned.
Why do you think people are so hostile towards the BN or towards Umno?
I think in a nutshell it’s because they thought — and I use the word “they” very generally, I don’t like to generalise, but for the purposes of talking about it generally — they thought that we could change and they realise that maybe we can’t.
Do you believe that? That Umno or the BN can’t change in response to the signals coming from the ground?
I think we can. It’s just that it’s proved to be more difficult than I thought it would be.
And do you have a sense of why it’s been so difficult? You’re talking about since 8 March, right? That it has been really difficult to bring about change?
Or from even before that?
Before that. I think because 8 March happened, because people believed that we were very reluctant to change… I’ve never said this before, but this is what increasingly I believe, that the ground shifted in 1999 or thereabouts.
Ya. It was pent up for a long time and it needed some sort of catalyst to spark things off. And that happened in the form of [Anwar's] dismissal.
Now, I would say that in hindsight, 2004 was the aberration. Because the ground already shifted and Pak Lah (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) managed to buy time because of the agenda of reform that he promised.
Anwar and his wife, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, in 1998 (Source: afyan.com)
That’s why we got the swing back in 2004, but it wasn’t a permanent swing back. Because as I said the ground had already shifted. The support that he got back was not the support that the BN got circa [the] early 1990s, before 1999. It was borrowing back the support that we lost, you see. So, just as easily as we got that support, it was just as easy for it to evaporate in 2008. That’s really what happened.
So, if people tell me that everything changed on 8 March 2008, I’d say no, everything changed in 1998. And [in] 2004, we managed to prevent it from dealing us a death blow because of that (reform) agenda. And [then] people felt that, “Yeah, we voted for [the BN] in 2004, we voted for you to change, but you couldn’t.”
And it’s so resistant, change is so resistant within the BN. That’s why in 2008 they said, “That’s it. Gave you one chance.”
What do you think is causing this kind of resistance towards change? Especially in a climate where it’s very clear that the ground is demanding for some change to occur.
I’ve said this before. It’s extremely difficult for not a party, but an institution and a power structure that’s been in place for 50 years — more — to give up that very thing that keeps them there. And that’s precisely what people are asking for.
Divestment of power, is that what they’re asking for?
I’m getting there. There are bread and butter issues to be concerned about. There are grassroots issues to be concerned about. But overall, generally speaking, the one thing that ties everything together, ties the discontent together, is this demand for the BN and especially Umno to get rid of this command and control mindset.
And I said this during my Off the Edge interview that that’s really the crux of the problem. To Umno, the road to power has always been through command and control.
Control everything, control the voters, control what they think. If they don’t fall in line, then command them to do so. That was the power equation of the past. And after 1998, people said, “Well, enough of that. It’s the other way around.” It’s not command and control of Umno, it’s supposed to be about the mandate from the people.
And I think when we fail to read those signals … well, I think we read those signals in 2004, we certainly did. That’s why we got the biggest mandate ever.
It’s not a simple case of a honeymoon prime minister. A honeymoon prime minister may get you a bump of, I don’t know, 10%, but certainly not a parliamentary majority of 91% to 92%, and winning almost every single state. It’s never happened before.
So, we got the message right in 2004. Now the tough part was in actually doing it. And I think that’s where we fell short. And I think everybody realises… no I take that back, not everybody realises that now.
You see, for a big segment within the party, they think that we failed in 2008 not because we didn’t implement the promise of giving people back more power, and as you said, devolving and divesting all this power that Umno and Barisan Nasional have.
But to a large segment of the party, still, they believe that we lost in 2008 because we didn’t exercise this command and control enough. So, you see, unfortunately the so-called reformers within the party, especially the prime minister… we fell into the doldrums, no man’s land, you know. Because we didn’t reform fast enough for people, and yet we weren’t strong enough, with an iron fist to execute and implement what Umno thought was always best. Which is, you know, no more freedom, threaten people, jail people, beat people with sticks and things like that.
Would you say that there’s still that happening right now in Umno? This kind of like, okay, we should still exert more power, more control.
Of course! Of course, I mean in fact, when they are looking forward to a new leadership, they are looking at somebody who can exercise that sort of strong command, which they were used to.
Of course, they’ve come to their senses about certain things, the realisation that we must not be too arrogant, too sombong, and things like that. But to a large extent, I don’t see how that gels with the message of having more control, because sometimes more control means you have to be less tolerant with ordinary people.
Now, if the party feels that this strategy will work, because (a) you scare people into supporting Umno and BN, and (b) you rally the party base and you hope that that’s enough to win elections, I’m not sure it is anymore.
(© It’s Our City / Flickr) I think there are a lot more “undecideds” out there. It’s not enough that you get your party base. I mean if John McCain thought by bringing in Sarah Palin he could secure the Republican base to win the elections, then he was proved wrong.
I think there are a lot more people who are independents, who are undecideds out there, even in Malaysian politics today. And that’s what gave us such a big victory in 2004, and that’s what gave us such a rude awakening in 2008.
So if you were given the opportunity to draw up a plan to reform Umno and the BN so that they could continue to be the ruling coalition, what would be in your plan? If you were given an opportunity, a white sheet of paper to do a mind map…
That’s the most remote of hypotheticals (laughs).
But surely as a young leader, you have ideas, right?
No, it’s very difficult. First of all, you take out whatever it was that we promised in 2004 and you do it in earnest. It’s not that difficult, actually. It’s not difficult to map it out. The more difficult part is actually [to] do it.
To execute it?
To execute it.
And to bring people around to the idea that there needs to be reform?
And you mentioned the reformists in Umno as well. But the thing is, I think the public, especially since 8 March 2008, is not hearing about reformists in Umno. I mean, the one reformist we heard of (Datuk Zaid Ibrahim) got sacked. So, what about this reformist wing in Umno that you’re talking about? Is it big? What future does it have?
Zaid Ibrahim and Mahathir I don’t know if it is that big, but there are some people who think that way. But, you see, the party base has been… political parties, when they are presided over for too long by one person, end up becoming the image of that person. And Umno is in the image of somebody who presided over it for a very long time.
You’re referring to (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad)?
Clearly lah! (laughs). So whatever it is you want to call it, Mahathirism or whatever, that’s the party.
But surely you can’t always point fingers at him. Yes, he left a particular kind of legacy, but when new leaders come into the picture, then the new leadership surely must also show new ways.
You can show new ways, but when the party has been conditioned in a particular way of doing things for the last two decades, at least after 1987, that’s just the way they think, you know. That’s just the way they operate, that’s their default ideology.
So it’s very difficult. I mean, you know, you talk to an average Umno person and they’ll tell you, “You shouldn’t have so much freedom of the press”; “Why are they talking about the Umno elections?”, you know…
I mean, how do I reconcile myself to that kind of view? I don’t know where that comes from. It must come from somewhere. You know, “Pak Lah is too open” — how do you explain that? If I don’t point to a particular legacy, then I’ve got to find the root cause somewhere. There must be a root cause.
I’m not faulting him. I mean, that’s just the legacy. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but I’m saying it has left us with a particular problem today. And if the public, if the voters, non-Umno people are rejecting us because of these things, then you can’t say it’s because of the new administration. I mean, everybody has to squarely shoulder the blame for this.
Sure. I’m just going to play devil’s advocate because people are going to say that you’re coming off sounding like you’re defending your father-in-law. And also continuing to say that, look, Mahathir is the source of a lot of problems within Umno. But do you think, then, that Pak Lah, despite being really well-intentioned about reforms, was incapable of providing a different kind of reality that could at least challenge the reality that was left behind by Mahathir? And do you think that was one of his failures as a leader?
I think that certainly there were instances where I feel that more could have been done. And we didn’t; the prime minister didn’t push hard enough.
But it was very difficult to do it, because I think he was undermined within the party itself. Not just by his predecessor, but also by people within who didn’t share these views. And who felt that 2004 was won because of them, when really it was won because of him.
I think if you ask [the voters], they voted for him, not for the party. And when [those within the party] turned their back against him, and undermined him at every single turn, that’s when he couldn’t function properly.
And unfortunately, he doesn’t have a ruthless streak to him. Which is just the man’s character — you can’t teach people that. So I guess he was outmanoeuvred at every turn by people who didn’t want to see things change.
Do you think you could give a “for instance” of one of the things that you think was a lost opportunity for the BN?
Lost opportunity, I mean the bills on corruption and judiciary only taking place after the elections, after the “defeat”, could’ve been put front and centre much earlier, but it wasn’t.
There was a cabinet revolt when he asked them to declare their assets. They were set to resign if they were asked to do so. So, those were clear-cut instances of things that were second-guessed.
So he was emasculated, you think, by the party itself?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. That’s pathetic. But I think that maybe they couldn’t accept the changes. He put a donor-organ into some body that rejected it.
Sure. That’s a really good analogy. Going forward, do you have any optimism or not, that Umno, and by extension, the Barisan Nasional, can reform and rejuvenate itself?
Well, I must have some optimism, otherwise I must have some sort of death wish. Because I spend most of my time away from my family campaigning for this position. And if I’m doing it for nothing more than just wanting the position then there must be something wrong with me. So, obviously I still do believe that things can get better. However, I’m very realistic about this and I think that it’s going to be a long, long road to recovery.