REPORTERS have been quite puzzled about Khairy Jamaluddin’s campaign in the Umno Youth election.
The incumbent chief has been keeping a relatively low profile at a time when Umno politicians are elbowing each other to get into the news.
The media people were watching out for him on nominations day last weekend because he usually gives good copy but he was a no-show at the PWTC.
Khairy seems rather sanguine as he prepares to defend his party post.
But the incumbent always enjoys an advantage and this time around, he is coming from a position of strength.
He is a minister, has a track record to speak of and has built a political network over the past four years.
During an interview with The Star a couple of weeks ago, he spoke extensively about his work as a minister and his plans for the Youth wing.
It was a different Khairy from four years ago. He is more mature, his ideas have acquired depth and originality and it is clear that he is not one of the run-of-mill politicians we are used to.
And important for any politician who is in for the long haul, he is learning to have a thick skin.
Politics can be a cruel sport and it is not the place for those who cannot take the heat.
Khairy is up against four challengers but only one, Akhramsyah Sanusi, is seen as a credible contender.
Akhram, as he is known to friends, is well-educated, has impressive work credentials and established in the NGO network.
He also has a famous family name – his father is Tan Sri Sanusi Junid, a former Kedah mentri besar and ex-minister.
Akhram described himself as “an underdog who is up against a mountain”.
But this underdog is making ripples and he has been deluged by calls from people wishing him luck and urging him on.
“There is a sizeable group out there who feel there is a need for change. Just how big, we will see on polling day,” he said.
Akhram’s most appealing pitch is that he intends to run a campaign based on the values he was brought up on.
Until recently, few people had heard of the other contenders – Syed Rosli Syed Jamalullail, Irwan Ambak and Abd Karim Ali.
Syed Rosli made news during the nominations for the wrong reasons.
He arrived with a copy of the Holy Quran and went into a tirade against money politics.
It was all aimed at Khairy whom he allegedly likened to a “Bangla” (Bangladeshi) simply because Khairy, whose father was a diplomat, had spent a large part of his boyhood and academic years abroad.
Syed Rosli achieved his 15 seconds of fame.
The challengers all appear to be going on the “agama, bangsa dan negara (faith, race and nation)” platform.
It is their way of opposing Khairy’s contemporary voice and his efforts to take the wing to a more centrist position.
They want Umno Youth to return to its traditional path of defending Islam and the Malay race.
People outside Umno think that voices like Akhram’s belong to the past but Umno is home to many Malays who adhere to right-wing and nationalist views and he will get their support.
There is still a sizeable group in the wing who are loyal to Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, who had lost in a three-way fight that also involved ex-Selangor MB Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo for the Youth leadership in 2009.
Akhram is aligned to this group.
On top of this, he will get the usual protest votes that exist in any contest.
“Akhram cannot be taken lightly if you count all these factors,” said a Malay journalist.
Khairy’s dilemma is not unlike that of senior Umno leaders – they have to represent the Malay voice in Umno yet, at the same time, project themselves as Malaysian leaders.
Khairy’s years abroad is being used against him but that experience has given him a broad world view that is evident when he speaks.
He has spent a lot of time engaging young professionals of all races.
The audience is sometimes critical and asks tough questions.
But as the above journalist pointed out, “dia berani berdepan”.
He is not afraid to face his critics and they end up listening to what he has to say.
While Khairy can sometimes come across as cocky, many in Umno acknowledge that he is clever, thinks on his feet and not afraid to take on anyone from the other side of the fence.
His series of debates with key figures from Pakatan Rakyat is often held as proof that he has “brains and balls”.
He has his share of critics in the party but a growing circle admits that Khairy is Prime Minister material.
He has the self-confidence, the intellect and the ambition.
But it is a slippery ladder from where he is to the dream job.
There are many steps to climb and Malay politics is much about moving up one step at a time.
Khairy’s concern for now is to take a second term as Umno Youth leader.
He wants to finish what he had started and to win back the young voters and fence-sitters.
He intends to groom the next echelon and help the Government realise the aspirations of the new Malay generation and, beyond that, the Malaysian generation.
- The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.