Khairy is Well Deployed on the Youth Front

Khairy is Well Deployed on the Youth Front

We have written before of Khairy Jamaluddin, whose stellar rise and bright future have been the talk of Umno for some time. We have reproduced that discussion below, but recent developments warrant an update.

We discussed his recent debate performance, in which Khairy’s willingness to cede territory to PKR’s best and brightest was a prelude to a masterful win on those same points by displaying a sophisticated, and candid, understanding of the topics.

The remarkable aspect of all of this is not Khairy’s performance — his skill as a debater and his obvious comfort before an audience have been well-known for some time — but rather why Umno is keeping this shining light of youth relatively hidden.

If Umno intends to show its youth, openness to new ideas, and sophistication, it could do worse than to showcase Khairy a bit more. This was on display in his recent interview with The Malaysian Insider, in which he discussed the Employees Provident Fund’s (EPF) low-cost home loan programme at some length, dispelling some of the misperceptions that have popped up, and basically providing a complete dossier on a matter that is not even in his portfolio.

Even in print, this was remarkable feat, but the question — raised by Khairy himself — is this: Why did it fall on Khairy to do this as a rear-guard action? If his charm and command of the issues were the needed weapons, why not have him on hand with this matter early on?

As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak continues with his goal of transformation and reform, both in Umno and across the nation, connecting with the 21st century young voters of Malaysia counts more and more. Khairy is well deployed on the youth front.

ORIGINAL PORTRAIT OF KHAIRY, first published 21 December 2011

Certainly, on the face of it, there is much to admire. Khairy is an Oxford-educated fellow, a Member of Parliament at the age of 35, a steady hand at policy both arcane and every day, the head of Barisan Nasional’s and Umno’s youth divisions, a true intellectual, and by all accounts, even those of his political opponents, an up-and-comer of the first order. His blog is one of the most literate in our nation’s corner of the internet (and certainly competitive with the best of the rest), as, to take one easy example, his excruciatingly clever destruction of the NFC scandal reporting shows. (A testament to Khairy’s willingness to engage all comers is the fact that this same column appeared in The Malaysian Insider, which is well-known for its pro-Opposition bias.)

At an age when most of us are longingly looking back at our youth and glory days, he took to the armed forces and earned his wings as a certified paratrooper. He understands modern technology and social networks in a way most of our political class does not, using them to communicate, to educate, and to learn — the last being the hardest for many of BN’s and PR’s old guard to internalise. He has put his career at stake by advocating government reform, arguing for media regulation reform even against factions of the Government, apparently out of conviction. As a real feather in his cap, he is also one of the brightest front-office stars of Malaysian football. He has risen fast in the world, and his future is bright.

(His particular affection for the Manchester United is something we do not hold against him.)

But we do not envy him, for he appears to have his hands full. His position as head of Umno Youth puts him at the forefront of a group known for being exuberant and partisan to the extent of endangering Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s transformation programme. Khairy, who by all accounts is a dedicated believer in that programme, must try to soothe his rambunctious group, maintaining their enthusiasm without allowing the sort of regrettable incidents that marked the Umno General Assembly to rise up and damage the election effort.

His speech outlining Umno Youth’s election plan kept to these themes well, and showed a determination to have his group engage young voters, not merely proselytise them; this is a clever channelling of election fervour, for it gives an outlet for that fervour that makes the party look engaged and open.

The upcoming general election promises to be a baptism of fire for Khairy, and how he handles it will determine his future in Umno and Barisan Nasional. With so much riding on Najib’s transformation and reform agenda and a unified, tolerant Barisan Nasional, the press scrutiny — mainstream and Opposition — will be even more intense than usual.

The more open-minded and forward-thinking members of Umno should be cheered by Khairy’s performance to date. But for critics there is a real question as to whether the erudite Khairy is indeed the best fit as Umno Youth’s chief. Khairy, whose understanding and attention to policy details of a staggering variety — from electoral reform to Petronas reform to press regulation reform — has never been in doubt, is in many ways better suited for a Cabinet-level position than as the head of a nakedly political group. He has shown enormous flexibility in his brief life, but this may be a bridge too far.

GE13 will answer this question, as it will answer so many others. Can Khairy bridge the gap between electoral and campaign politics, a critically important party role, and the challenges of genuine policy formation and promotion, as well as ultimate policy management in the next government, should he be given enhanced responsibility? The answer to these questions will tell us much about Khairy’s future, and Umno’s as well.