Friday, June 19, 2009

Khairy: Barisan must go beyond race-based politics

KUALA LUMPUR, June 19 - Last week, when grandmother M. Amara made her first-ever trip out of her hometown of Malacca, it was to go to Putrajaya, the federal administrative centre, to collect birth certificates for her four grandchildren.

"This is like help from God," said the ethnic Indian woman. Amara's children and grandchildren all grew up without official documents, so they had no access to schools or jobs.

Her case is far from rare. There are thousands of such cases, involving Indian families living in plantation estates.

The difference here is that Umno Youth helped her find a solution.

Previously, Umno's youth wing did not bother itself with non-Malay issues. Like the youth wings of other Barisan Nasional (BN) component parties, it was the most radical over communal sentiments.

But its new chief, the controversial Khairy Jamaluddin, 33, is pushing it along a different path. He calls his new approach the "politics of empathy".

He wants to encourage Umno Youth members to become more sensitive to the sentiments of minority groups by taking part in community service for all races.

"I don't want to coast along with the old model because, clearly, it has been rejected. That is why I made it a point, when we set up our community complaints bureau, that some of the first cases we solved would be for non-Malays.

"It is to give a signal that we are transforming," he told The Straits Times in an interview.

Sounds insignificant? Not to Umno.

Umno is still loath to admit that the old BN model of a dominant Umno aligned with subservient partners no longer works. It looks tired and outdated when contrasted with the opposition's platform of equality.

Khairy believes Umno should still be at the heart of the BN coalition, but it has to overhaul its relationship with minorities. It should not dominate.

He said this would create a more solid foundation than the fluid set-up adopted by the opposition alliance, the three-party Pakatan Rakyat (PR).

"The PR may seem more meaningful because there doesn't seem to be a first among equals, but this is precisely the weakness that will see the unravelling of the opposition," he said.

The alliance has been embroiled in a series of internal squabbles, the latest of which has seen the leaders of PAS at loggerheads over its junior role in the coalition.

Khairy wants to see the BN model evolve. "We will learn to solve one another's problems, rather than be confined to our own communities," he said.

He recently held a dialogue with Chinese youth groups to discuss Chinese issues. His MCA counterpart, Wee Ka Siong, met Malay non-governmental organisations.

BN Youth, which Khairy heads, will start rotating its meeting venues. Before, it met at Umno's headquarters.

That is just for starters. Khairy wants to go much further - by reviving the idea of direct membership into BN.

The idea, proposed by former premier Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, never took off because the component parties feared it would dilute their numbers.

The plan was aimed at attracting those who did support BN but did not identify with the individual race-based parties.

"My point is that we should look 20 to 30 years into the future, when race-based parties may become obsolete," said Khairy. "If this grows among a certain age group, we know that is the future."

His biggest problem is that much of what he outlines sounds too good to be true. The Oxford-educated son-in-law of Abdullah still garners immense scepticism, having courted heavy controversy because of his meteoric rise and strong Malay rhetoric.

"There is some way to go before voters will take these attempts seriously," said political analyst Ong Kian Ming.

The real test will come when a sensitive issue arises that forces Umno Youth to respond in a communal manner.

Already, one date could be worth watching - Oct 13. That is when Umno Youth will hold its next annual assembly, with Khairy in the chair for the first time.

Will he wield the keris as his predecessor so controversially did? "Wait and see," he said.


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