OF late, Khairy Jamaluddin has been saying all the right things. The Umno Youth chief made a progressive maiden speech at the wing’s 2009 general assembly, and has written on the need for a transformed Malay Malaysian mindset.
But while Khairy is building up support from outside Umno, some party Youth leaders are cautious about his progress and methods. Khairy’s stand on meritocracy and inclusiveness may be the right message for Malaysia today, but is his movement listening to him?
Khairy delivering his speech during the Umno general assembly in October 2009
Rock and hard place
“University students and young professionals I’ve talked to connect with what he says, even though they’ve read unfavourable things about him in the past as son-in-law of the previous prime minister,” Jerai Youth division vice-chief, Ahmad Ikmal Ismail, says in an interview.
Indeed, Khairy, or KJ, the Rembau Member of Parliament, appears to be the lone voice in Umno calling for reason in racial and religious flashpoints such as over the “Allah” issue and Al-Islam‘s undercover coverage of a Catholic mass.
On civil liberties, he supports repealing the Printing Presses and Publications Act, and criticised the government’s censorship of the Malaysia Today website. The Oxford-educated son of a diplomat seems to believe that inclusiveness is the reform Umno needs to stay relevant.
Yet, it was also the same Khairy who called for Perak’s embattled Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaluddin‘s banishment for treason after the Barisan Nasional’s coup of the state government. Undoubtedly, Khairy has a delicate balancing act between his party’s pro-Malay agenda and the new aspirations of many more Malaysians.
Apart from the party’s pro-Malay agenda, the 34-year-old politician has also had to battle past perceptions of nepotism and interference in government. He allegedly bribed his way to winning the Youth chief post in a three-way fight during the March 2009 party elections.
But Khairy tells The Nut Graph in a 7 Jan 2010 e-mail interview that these criticisms come from “right-wing elements” in the party, especially from bloggers “who supported another candidate during the Pemuda Umno leadership contest.”
Ibrahim SuffianStill, a Merdeka Center for Opinion Research poll in November 2009 on 358 Umno delegates found that only 38% of delegates below age 30 supported Khairy’s call to ditch the “siege mentality“.
Merdeka Center director Ibrahim Suffian thinks the results suggest that Umno’s young are not getting enough political education to temper their idealism about Malay supremacy.
“Youths don’t have the kind of political education that teaches them about the country and the world. They get one version and it’s not counterbalanced,” Ibrahim says in a phone interview.
But the paradigm shift Khairy is calling for may be too grand a statement for youth members at the grassroots, says Petaling Jaya Utara Umno Youth chief Latt Sharizan Abdullah.
Latt Sharizan says Khairy must translate his vision into an easily understandable, doable working plan.
“We know KJ is smart, a good orator, with good ideas. But we are waiting for a clear plan of delivery. Mindset change is a long-term goal, we want to know what happens now,” says Latt Sharizan.
Jamawi (Courtesy of Jamawi
Jaafar)Additionally, Khairy’s message may sell better in some places than others, notes Youth executive council member Jamawi Jaafar, who is from Sabah.
Jamawi explains that Umno in Sabah can’t afford to be locked in the straightjacket of “Malay supremacy” because party membership includes those of other faiths as long as they are bumiputera. Hence, Khairy’s message may be more well accepted in Sabah than in the peninsula.
Will Khairy last?
How will Khairy forward his “agenda for change”? An Umno Youth retreat for the movement’s 191 division leaders was held in 2009 with a syllabus that promoted inclusivity and dialogue over ethnocentrism. But only half the intended participants attended, something Khairy dismisses as a problem of commitment rather than a gauge of support for him.
Latt Sharizan Latt Sharizan feels it’s time for Khairy to employ more personal time with the grassroots than speak from a podium at functions. “If he were to ask us what we want, we want him to spend more time mixing with us so that he can pass his message down in person. He could be doing more rounds to all the divisions since he doesn’t have a cabinet post.”
The traditional view in Umno politics is that the lack of a minister’s post is a handicap to a politician’s party standing. Jamawi says it’s true to some extent in that Khairy’s work as Youth chief isn’t taken seriously by the media without a ministerial platform.
“So he has to work harder to be more present among the grassroots and to be more vocal,” says Jamawi.
Khairy may be displaying the kind of measured reason people wish more Umno leaders had, but such messages could be lost if he fails to get Youth members to identify with him. He is still perceived as aloof by some, and lacking in the interpersonal touch that Malay politics at the rural grassroots appreciates.
But is he also ahead of his time in Umno? Amid the degenerating state of affairs in Malaysia over the “Allah” controversy and attacks on churches, can Khairy keep up a moderate stance, or will he succumb to communalism when the crunch comes?
Khairy walks a fine line in Umno with his politics, caught between two worldviews. Where does his future lie? Will he go down “fighting for something [he] believes in”, or will he be able to transform Umno from within?