Khairy Jamaluddin may or may not be the most powerful 28-year-old in the country but he was certainly the most talked about young person in Umno last week. He is under tremendous pressure to contest the No.2 post in the Youth wing, writes JOCELINE TAN.
AS THEY were leaving the grand mosque in Putrajaya after Friday prayers a week ago, two young politicians ran into each other. They were Umno Youth exco members Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Norza Zakaria.
Khairy is, of course, the Prime Minister's son-in-law and former aide, whereas Norza is the newly-appointed political secretary to the Minister of Finance II.
As they made their way through the car park, Norza told Khairy he should reconsider going for the Umno Youth vice-chief's post because there widespread support for him.
Khairy listened intently but was non-committal because he had only recently made a very public statement that he would not be contesting the post.
“I have always insisted he is the best choice. I told him this matter should be an Umno Youth affair and that I was prepared to help explain to everyone why he should be the candidate,” said Norza.
Khairy has been trying to duck the limelight since the furore over his eligibility for the COO post in Khazanah Holdings. But when you are reputedly the most powerful 28-year-old in the country, the limelight can sometimes resemble a searchlight, hounding you whether you like it or not.
Khairy has been out of the country the past week, vacationing with his in-laws, including the Prime Minister. It is possible his ears must have itched like mad for he has been the subject of some intense discussion in Umno.
This time, the issue concerned his eligibility for the Umno Youth vice-chief's post. He is apparently under pressure to contest the No.2 seat despite his decision to the contrary.
The post is up for contest because the incumbent, Datuk Aziz Sheikh Fadzir, has passed the 40-year age limit.
On Friday, the Umno Youth exco spent the entire morning discussing the issue of the second top slot. At the end of the meeting, Youth chief Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein said the movement would not impose any conditions on the post.
It is understood that many in the exco are in favour of Khairy contesting the post.
The Youth exco is also aware that Hishammuddin, who will be defending his Youth chief's post, wants Khairy as his No. 2.
It is hardly a secret that the Education Minister has not enjoyed a particularly smooth working relationship with his current deputy, Aziz. They were barely communicating at one point several years ago.
But he and Khairy are on the same wavelength on many issues and work well together.
“They're like two peas in a pod,” said Youth exco member Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh.
More important, Hishammuddin will be more than ready to give the Umno vice-president's post a shot three years down the road, and Khairy is said to be his choice to take over.
In fact, many of his supporters had wanted him to contest the vice-presidency this September.
But last year, when it transpired that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was contemplating bringing Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman back to the Cabinet, Hishammuddin's name had been floated as the next Johor MB.
The Youth chief had asked Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to allow him to stay on in Kuala Lumpur so that he could consolidate the agenda he had initiated for the Youth wing.
Having committed to Abdullah, he could not now change his mind and abandon the Youth post for a bid at the vice-presidency.
Incidentally, it is not only the Youth wing that has been “campaigning” on Khairy's behalf.
Minister of Parliament Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz told a supreme council meeting several weeks ago that he was prepared to work hard in Perak to secure the nominations and votes for Khairy.
Nazri's rather unexpected offer began with him urging the supreme council to instruct the Umno grassroots to ensure that Pak Lah and Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak secure the president's and deputy president's posts uncontested.
Nazri then went on to state that Abdullah had been unfairly criticised over his son-in-law Khairy. He claimed he could relate to what Khairy must be going through because he (Nazri) had also been condemned when Abdullah retained him as a minister.
He urged his supreme council colleagues to support Khairy for the Youth post, pointing out that Najib was only 23 when he stepped into politics and that Hishammuddin had taken a lot of flak when he rose rapidly in Umno.
“This is how talent is nurtured in Umno, Umno families producing Umno loyalists. Khairy is a fine young man, intelligent and capable. If he withdraws he is bowing to pressure from people who are nothing to Umno. Why succumb to people who indulge in SMS-slander and gossip?” said Nazri.
Another Perak supreme council member, Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also Deputy Tourism Minister, supported Nazri's proposal during the meeting. Incidentally, both men were former Umno Youth leaders albeit only briefly.
The council then suggested that Najib get in touch with Khairy to advise him as he saw fit.
A few days later, Perak Umno Youth nominated Hishammuddin and Khairy for the two top seats.
There is no doubt about it – Khairy has support from important people in Umno.
But the question that begs to be asked here is: How much of this is genuinely on Khairy's behalf and how much of it is what the Malays call bodek (apple-polishing)? Would they be as passionate about Khairy's cause had he not been related to the Prime Minister?
Umno Youth politicians insist Khairy has been an exceptional asset to the Youth wing regardless of his relationship with the Prime Minister.
Their contention is this is strictly an Umno affair, that Umno members have the right to choose whom they want to be a part of the emerging echelon of leadership.
“Umno people know that guys like Khairy come by once in a long while. It would be a shame if we failed to tap into talent like him,” said Wan Farid.
Others say all this pro-Khairy efforts may yet again work against him, giving rise to further resentment.
The contention of this group: Even with his impressive credentials, is he so extraordinary that the supreme council has to get involved in his Youth candidature?
The sort of things levelled against him in and outside of the Internet following news that he was a candidate for the Khazanah job was astonishing, even scary.
Some of it was reasonable argument, but a great deal was just mean and narrow-minded. The debate demonstrated, in a distorted sort of way, how people felt about connections and privilege in business and politics. Rightly or wrongly, people saw it as a case of ties and position being used to get ahead.
“My sense is that the grassroots is against anyone getting a post on a silver platter,” said another Youth exco member, Datuk Subahan Kamal. “I agree that the No.1 post should not be contested because Datuk Hisham has proven himself. But to avoid further aspersion, open the No.2 post to contest and let the delegates decide. Let the best man win.”
Subahan, however, stressed that the best man should be someone who can be a voice of the Malay youth generation and who can articulate their grievances and problems.
“Umno and the government go hand-in-hand but we must also check on the government to make it a better machinery for Malays and the country.
“An Umno Youth leader should be tolerant like Datuk Hisham, as well as someone who can champion issues at the grassroots level,” said Subahan, who also heads the Umno Youth complaints bureau.
The ball is in Khairy's court.
“All kinds of things are being said about Khairy. But what's important is he has the support of Umno Youth,” said Norza, a chartered accountant by training, who is also a contender for the No.2 post.
But he is a staunch Khairy supporter. Several months ago, when it appeared that Khairy would vie for the No.2 post, Norza told him: “I am also interested but if you go in, I am pulling out to support you.”
He also offered to be Khairy's campaign manager.
Last month, when Khairy decided – prematurely as it would now seem – not to contest, he called Norza to return the favour.
“Brother, if you are going for the post I will support you 100%,” he told Norza.
Although the talk now is that the three likely candidates for the No.2 slot will be Khairy, Norza and Datuk Azimi Daim, there is only one Real McCoy, as they say.
If Khairy changes his mind and agrees to contest, he may not even have to contest. Norza and Azimi are likely to pull out in his favour.
The post is Khairy's for the taking.