A LOT has been said about Khairy Jamaluddin’s new bearded look. Probably too much – there was an actual back-and-forth on Twitter about whether it was more of a Captain America ‘do or a Walking Dead Rick Grimes style.
Love it or hate it, the new look doesn’t seem to have changed KJ one bit.
During an exclusive video interview with The Star’s R.AGE team for the latest episode of its Close Up series (which you can watch at fb.com/thestarRAGE), KJ is as straight-shooting as ever.
He tackles a variety of hot button issues head-on, from the Icerd (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) controversy and the special position of the Malays to former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s new-found social media game.
But as much as he admits to being a bit of a “maverick politician”, there is certainly more than a sense of pragmatism about his approach to politics.
“I will still say things, but I will choose my platform carefully ... I know when and how to convey my message,” he says when asked about his initial rebellious streak against his party post-GE14.
We’re talking about him refusing to participate in Barisan’s parliament walkout, his
calls for then Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to step down, and – perhaps the most spectacular of all – the #Lobakman episode.
“You can’t just have personal conviction without having the political guile to achieve it, and you certainly can’t present a political platform without believing in something,” he adds.
What he believes in, it seems, is the need for Barisan Nasional to get a new look of its own. Whether he has the political guile to achieve it, only time will tell.
R.AGE: As the results were coming in on May 9, what went through your mind?
KJ: I was very concerned that we have an orderly and smooth transition because although we emerged as losers that night, I wanted the country to come out as a winner. We wanted to demonstrate that Malaysia is not just a rapidly developing country economically, but also politically – we can handle a democratic change in government.
I was happy because that night at around 1am, I went to Najib’s house and he told the few of us who were assembled that he was going to concede the next day. To me, that was a good outcome because we had lost and we had to give the keys to the new guys.
The next morning, I woke up, turned to my wife and said, “I dreamt we lost the elections.” She said, “It’s not a dream.” (laughs)
> Do you think Barisan Nasional is moving in the right direction?
Umno is being tempted to move away from working together with our traditional coalition partners because of this rise in Malay and Muslim political consciousness, so it’s expedient right now to work with PAS. You can’t blame those who promote that kind of co-operation because it’s yielding results right now.
But for me, looking at the long term, we should not discount the Chinese and Indian electorate forever because I feel that the more stable government is one that is supported by all Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity.
> You’ve said that you will represent the new Umno. What would that look like?
One that is more professional, progressive and attracts the right talent to preserve the kind of centrist party that I work towards. Obviously there are a lot of internal dynamics within every party, but I think people know that I represent this kind of thinking.
> After all that’s happened in your career, do you still remember why you decided to join politics?
I decided to join politics when I was five years old because I was interested in the way the world worked and I wanted to make it work better.
My obsession is to look at something and see how we can tweak, change or adjust it so that things work better for the outcome that you want, which is to help as many people as possible.
I am always obsessed with seeing how certain policies or programmes are not delivering the intended outcome.
> What would the Pakatan Harapan government score on a KJ report card?
A “D”. Not an “F”, because I think there’s certain things that they’ve tried to do, but certainly not even a “C” because their manifesto promises are largely unkept.
I look after finance in the shadow Cabinet and a lot of business people tell me that they’re not making investments not only because of global economic headwinds, but because of a lack of direction and clarity from the government.
Cost of living has not improved. Although it’s been nine months, there’s not even an indication of where Pakatan wants to take the country to make the burden of the cost of living lighter on people.
People can argue that Umno and PAS stoke racial and religious tension, but you can also argue that the Pakatan government has dropped the ball in responding to this discontent on the Malay ground.
They have been found wanting on a lot of things, not just the economy but also society. The level of confidence people have in the competency of ministers is highly variable. There are some ministers who obviously do well, and there are some who I think still need a lot of help.
> Which Pakatan ministers have impressed you so far?
I can see that the Transport Minister, Anthony Loke, is getting on with his work. I judge people based on their interaction in Parliament, so when Anthony or someone like (Communications and Multimedia Minister) Gobind Singh Deo answers questions, they do it very professionally and matter-of-factly, whereas some others ramble, take pot-shots or deflect. I think after nine months, you really have to move on, you know?
> Let’s talk about something that’s close to your heart – children with special needs.
My second son is on the autism spectrum and I have a niece who lives with me and she has Down Syndrome so because of that, I am interested in policy issues that have to do with children’s special needs.
I have made it a big part of my political life to ensure that there is inclusive growth and development for everybody so that no child is left behind. I did that with the Paralympic athletes when I was at the Youth and Sports Ministry.
Every single Malaysian must fulfil their potential and I think we need to build an environment where everybody, including kids with special needs, can fulfil their potential.
> What are your thoughts about Icerd? Could it have been ratified with reservations?
It can be done, but it has to go through a lot of syndication with the public. We have to understand how the reservations work, how the review happens, whether it is time-bound – these are complex questions and unless you have a great understanding or widespread syndication with the public of what Icerd is, it will be seen through that tainted perspective as something that is completely unacceptable by a lot of Malays and Muslims.
The Pakatan government dropped the ball by not syndicating it this time around. They could have built a case towards it slowly, but the public heard about it without softening the ground at all.
I gave fair warning to the government that this would happen, but they couldn’t care less and before even the first stakeholder consultation took place, multiple demonstrations had erupted across the country. It was too late, you know? They certainly screwed up rolling it out.
> Politics aside, do you think the special position of Malays is under threat in Malaysia?
I don’t think that the special position of Malays is under threat, but there is a pronounced concern that the issues that are sensitive for the Malay community have become fair game for many people.
There is a lot more rhetoric against Islam and the Malay agenda, and this is a very real concern among the Malay community.
> What do you think about Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s surge in popularity on social media?
As a politician, he is entitled to shore up his popularity. Every politician has to remain relevant and popular because at the end of the day, we run for office based on the number of people who like us and vote for us, so obviously he is trying to rebrand and reinvent himself.
It doesn’t take away the fact that he’s got a lot of court cases that he is still up against. For me, I look at a man who is desperately trying to save his legacy, and he has every right to do so as he is a politician just like any one of us.
But ultimately, I think he has got bigger issues at hand.
> “Khairy Jamaluddin, Prime Minister of Malaysia.” The thought must have crossed your mind at some point. What kind of prime minister would you be?
If I ever became prime minister, I certainly would like to be a prime minister for all Malaysians, including those who didn’t support or didn’t vote for me, because I think this place only works if you try to get the best of everyone.
If you are divisive in terms of ethnicity, religion and politics, you don’t get the best from the people. The political divide is so pronounced and deep that solutions are almost absent and looked down upon by both sides.
So, whoever becomes prime minister must try to unite this country somehow.
Click here to watch more episodes of Close Up by The Star's award-winning R.AGE team.