The Straits Times (Singapore)
July 20, 2004
Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, better known as K.J. to his friends, has experienced a meteoric rise in his political career.
After resigning as deputy chief of staff to Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi - who is also his father-in-law - the 28-year-old received an overwhelming 172 nominations to win the No. 2 seat in the youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the party led by Datuk Seri Abdullah and the dominant force in the National Front ruling coalition. His closest challenger, Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, son of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, received only six nominations.
The strongest support for Mr Khairy - whom I have known since 1997 when we were both students in England, he at Oxford and I at Cambridge - is not from Datuk Seri Abdullah, however. Rather, it is from Mr Hishamuddin Hussein who also won the the Umno Youth presidency uncontested. During the run-up to the nominations, Mr Hishamuddin let it be known that he enjoyed a professional and dynamic partnership with Mr Khairy.
Detractors see Mr Khairy as a young upstart who talks too much and too fast. They are also quick to point out his relationship to the prime minister. The Tasik Gelugor Umno division in Penang chose not to nominate Mr Khairy as a candidate for the No. 2 post, to send the message to other divisions that Mr Khairy should not be nominated simply because he was Datuk Seri Abdullah's son-in-law.
Although some have sneered at Mr Khairy's phenomenal rise since he joined Umno Youth in 1999, he is nonetheless respected for his strategic thinking. As it is, the 'K.J. factor' is making an impact in a tangible way.
Last Wednesday, upon news that Mr Khairy might soon join ECM Libra, a company co-owned by Mr Kallimulah Hassan, currently editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times, ECM Libra shares rose from RM0.11 (5 Singapore cents) to RM1.90 on a volume of 561,000 shares.
Some have affirmed that Mr Khairy will be placed in ECM Libra as Datuk Seri Abdullah's frontman in the financial sector. Indeed, his placement will serve to reinforce Datuk Seri Abdullah's position in that domain, given that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak already has a leg in the financial community via his younger brother Nazir who is CEO of CIMB Malaysia, one of Malaysia's leading financial firms.
Despite his increasing stature, Mr Khairy deserves some credit for not leveraging his connections, something often ignored by his detractors.
He played a leading role in organising the campaign on behalf of Datuk Seri Abdullah during the last general election. Together with a few 'comrades' from his days at Oxford, he served ably as a chief strategist.
He himself did not contest. By opting out, he helped Datuk Seri Abdullah avoid accusations of nepotism at a time when the campaign was based on the prime minister's integrity.
Although he has been called the 'most powerful 28-year-old' in Malaysia, his views are firmly practical, yet idealistic - indeed, quite representative of modern Malaysia.
Educated at United World College in Singapore before he went to Oxford University, and then to University College London for his master's degree in legal and political theory, he embraces a progressive, cosmopolitan outlook.
His views are just as deeply influenced by the Singapore success story, especially the achievements of the People's Action Party (PAP). He has been among those helping to strengthen relations between Umno Youth and the PAP youth wing.
JUSTICE AND FREEDOM
ALTHOUGH he comes from a good family background - his father once served as the Malaysian ambassador to Japan, a country where Mr Khairy briefly stayed and quietly admires - he is a firm believer in justice and freedom. However, he strenuously stays away from garnishing issues with ideological rhetoric, unlike former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and his cohort, whom Mr Khairy clearly detested as early as 1997.
At one stage, his e-mail domain was Hang Jebat, a 15th-century Malay figure who believed in the importance of truth, rather than blind faith in the establishment.
The original idealism that burns in Mr Khairy has not changed, nor his attempts to translate this idealism into political beliefs. From a distance, some naturally continue to view him as impatient and abrasive.
He is not daunted. He has given himself three years to run Umno Youth well, barring which the members, as he puts it, 'can throw him out'. It is this combative style that irks his opponents.
Yet, if Malaysia is to take a turn towards greater economic growth, his views are almost inevitable. For one, he believes the 'subsidy mentality' that has plagued the Malay mindset is a bane, especially in an age of globalisation.
According to this mindset - exemplified by the National Economic Policy that began in 1970 - every Malay is entitled to every form of government support, from securing places at the local university to getting fertiliser, from receiving a scholarship to go abroad to getting a discount on homes and property.
Having received a top-notch education without the help of the Malaysian government, indeed only by virtue of what his mother, Datin Rahmah Abdul Hamid, was able to provide, he went through life by a different route.
He believes the privileges and benefits that have helped the advancement of the Malay cause since 1970 must eventually cease. The goal, he says, is to prevent Malays from relying on government crutches all the time. These are views which can be traced to his writings in Ethos, a magazine he co-founded at Oxford with several progressive Malaysians.
At the height of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, he resolutely affirmed the importance of free trade and the need for Malaysia to be competitive in the world economy. Such a position was brave, as Malaysia, led then by Tun Dr Mahathir, was adamant in the belief that the depreciation of the ringgit was due to currency manipulation. Mr Khairy would have none of that, and offered an alternative analysis based on the weakness of the Malaysian economy rather than one due to international financial forces.
TENDENCY TO FLAUNT
DURING the heyday of the Internet economy, some criticised Mr Khairy for going into the Malay villages armed with sophisticated cellphones and other technological gizmos. These acts were lambasted as his tendency to flaunt. His reply: The idea is to get Malay fishermen and farmers more in touch with the knowledge economy.
On corruption, he is clearly against it. When he began to date Ms Nori - the daughter of Datuk Seri Abdullah - in 2001, their conversations often focused on what Malaysia can do to eliminate the scourge. So even from that early stage, Mr Khairy's philosophy already gelled with Datuk Seri Abdullah's. It was not surprising then that Datuk Seri Abdullah referred to him often as 'my Khairy'.
Mr Khairy's view of Islam is both moderate and modern. Perhaps echoing the moderate Islam promoted by Datuk Seri Abdullah, he can understand that Malaysia is a multicultural country whose standing in the international system is dependent on preserving a progressive and liberal form of Islam.
His brief stint as a journalist for The Economist brought him to Pakistan and Afghanistan for a short assignment. There, the wretched living conditions reinforced his view that it is important to maintain a forward-looking form of Islam in Malaysia.
Datuk Seri Abdullah has often said younger leaders are needed to take over Malaysia by 2020. It is in this context that he has been quietly supportive of Mr Khairy's political pursuits, knowing full well that it is the likes of Mr Khairy who will inherit the mantle of leadership.
There are now at least five people whom Mr Khairy has brought into Datuk Seri Abdullah's government to serve as one of his 15 political secretaries, or his special assistant. These are Mr Omar Mustapha, Mr Vincent Lim, Mr Mustapha Kamal, Mr Izadraya and Mr Ahmad Zaki.
As for Mr Khairy, he showed his talent in helping Datuk Seri Abdullah win the election in March. Now he has to show he can win more campaigns on his own. Only then will his detractors be silenced, or join him in droves.
The writer, Phar Kim Beng, a Malaysian, is a PhD student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and will join the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur in September.