Khairy Jamaluddin has and always will be different. He’s taller, more handsome, smarter and sharper than most, if not all, Malaysian leaders. Only Rafizi Ramli can match him blow for blow — intellectually and politically.
The others, whether in Pakatan Rakyat or Barisan Nasional, are merely onlookers in what is shaping up to be a major battle for the future leadership of the Malay community and, by extension, Malaysia.
Watching Khairy at the recently concluded Malaysian Student Leaders Summit, organised by the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC), I was struck by the extent to which he has gained from his time in the political “wilderness”. Just over three months into his Cabinet post, the 37-year-old seems to have settled well into his Youth and Sports portfolio.
The fact that he came to represent the government and the Prime Minister at the annual conference in Kuala Lumpur – one of the most important dates in the Malaysian political calendar – underlines the level of trust placed upon the Umno Youth leader by the current administration, notwithstanding his prominent detractors.
Of course, it also helped that Khairy, a father-of-two, looked and sounded like most of the young men in the audience. He is the kind of guy who knows all the latest iPhone apps. In front of a tough Malaysian audience, the veteran student activist was confident, articulate, frank and witty – navigating adeptly through a range of thorny questions posed to him.
Having watched him debating with Rafizi earlier last year in London (also at a UKEC event) it was good to see that he’d raised his game. Eighteen months of constant campaigning and ceramahs have made him a far more polished performer, confident enough to show a little vulnerability in the face of tough questions. For example, when asked what he admired about Pakatan, he paused before answering very graciously, “their camaraderie”. His candour won further points.
The Rembau Member of Parliament, who more than tripled his constituency majority in the recent general election, was also straightforward enough to admit to his government’s shortcomings and be brutally frank when he outlined the three Cs that needed to be tackled in order to win back younger voters: Corruption, crime and cost of living.
More importantly, and despite being in an Umno election season – where contenders for top posts are expected to sound extremely pro-Malay – Khairy was able to balance the demands of the party’s right wing with the broader Malaysian agenda.
He didn’t ask those who disagreed with him or his government’s policies to opt to live elsewhere. Instead, he offered a well-reasoned explanation for the moderation at the heart of the grand old party, while acknowledging the more conservative elements. Much to the excitement of the 500-plus crowd, he also criticised those who labelled the recent Metallica concert as hedonistic and a threat to one’s faith.
It is refreshing for “Middle Malaysians” such as myself to have Khairy centre stage. He has his weaknesses – there is an arrogance and a meanness – but in an environment where brutishness dominates, his studied confidence and brain power is reassuring.
In a way, his ability to reach out and explain a moderate Malay standpoint without losing his credibility with the Malay heartland goes to show that there is hope in Umno.
I especially appreciated his tact and razor-like pointedness when he was pressed by a questioner to chose one word that best summed up the head of the opposition. Instead of picking something insulting and vulgar, as many in Umno do when discussing Anwar Ibrahim, he chose a word – “inconsistent” – that neatly summed up the former Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia leader’s disappointing vacillations.
In short, Khairy was withering and dismissive without being rude: Malay elegance, understatement and disdain all in one. - September 5, 2013.
* Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.