The pantun or poem at the start of his policy speech gives you an idea of what the “progressive politics” of Khairy Jamaluddin is all about and why he thinks it will save Umno.
If that is, his Umno elders will listen.
He starts out with several old tropes used to describe Malay Muslims: that they are subtle and nuanced, that they prefer sharp sarcasm instead of the bold scolding, that they are reserved, and that even while they do well, they do not stand out.
But Khairy stresses that is the old Malay. Malays now, he says, break taboos and challenge customs and traditions. They want to be liberated and want to pursue their visions and ideals.
After all, the Umno Youth chief is of that generation which came of age after the Asian financial crisis of 1998 and the Reformasi movement, and who experienced it both on the wild streets of Kuala Lumpur and on the uncensored internet.
At the same time, when Khairy took over a splintered Umno Youth in 2009, he set about pinning down what were the needs, desires and anxieties of that generation and what kind of programmes Umno would need to speak to their hearts and minds.
To get that, said Umno Youth central committee member Ibdillah Ishak, Khairy and his officers got together and interviewed focus groups of different genders, races and ages.
What emerged was a catalogue of problems and challenges youths these days faced, as well as what they want the government to help them with.
“It was from there that we formalised Barisan Nasional Youth, because we saw how they wanted their leaders to be inclusive,” said Ibdillah, who is now in charge of new media for Umno Youth.
Under Khairy, Umno Youth became not just a pressure group that petitioned the government on behalf of young people, they created the solutions.
“Our progressive approach has been manifested in programmes resulting in real change felt at the grassroots,” Khairy said in his speech.
The programmes include the BN Youth Job Fair, The BN Youth Housing Expo for affordable homes and the BN Youth Education Scholarship. They were meant to tackle the most pressing problems expressed in the BN Youth lab – stagnant incomes and the high cost of education and
He justifies how well received these programmes were by stating: “Research by Merdeka Center found that 54% of Malay voters below 30 voted for BN."
Khairy offered more proof of the effectiveness of inclusiveness when he garnered a 15,000-vote majority in his Rembau parliamentary seat in the 13th general election. Up from 5,000 he got five years ago.
This he achieved by working for all his Rembau constituents, for those who voted for him and those who did not.
The approach, he admits, was questioned by his own members. Umno leaders are still notorious for playing patronage politics with their constituents, as can be seen in how as wakil rakyat, they will sideline villages and communities that did not vote for them.
Another significant plank of Khairy’s progressivism is the willingness to engage. Not just with the people you are supposed to represent but with your political rivals.
To this day, Khairy is still one of the few BN leaders who will openly debate with Pakatan Rakyat leaders.
It goes back to his point about the new generation and what goes through their minds during an election – it’s about comparing which coalition can give them the best for their vote.
In the new electoral marketplace of rival manifestos and competing national agendas, the serious politician must excel at the hard sell.
“Don’t fear debates with the opposition. Young people need to see you debate against the opposition. Bring your facts, debate with the opposition.
“If you cannot debate with the opposition, the young people will not be with us.”
In fact, in a survey by Universiti Malaya’s Democracy and Election Research Centre (UMCEDEL) some months before the 13th general election, more than 70% of respondents said they wanted to see a debate between prime minister candidates Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
So the question now is, as Khairy himself admits, will Umno listen to him?
After all, Khairy spouts inclusiveness but Umno fields Malay supremacist leader Zulkifli Nordin in the Malay majority seat of Shah Alam.
Khairy says Umno leaders need to take Pakatan leaders head on in debates, yet the people are still waiting for the Najib vs Anwar debate.
“I am only in charge of Umno Youth, that’s all I’m responsible for. I do what is in my power,” says Khairy on why he is progressive yet his senior leaders are not.
The problem, again Khairy himself admits, that getting the youth vote, which is crucial for the next general election, is a collective responsibility of the whole party, not just Umno Youth.
And this is another thing that his elders must learn.
“Voters look at the big picture. If young voters like Umno Youth but hate the leaders on top, then there’s very little Umno Youth can do to persuade them. This is a reminder to my party elders.” - December 5, 2013.