Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Q&A: All out to alter Umno Youth's political DNA

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin tells Malaysiakini that he wants to go further in his call for Malays to do away with their siege mentality and build a "civilisational confidence" among themselves.

Were you surprised by the result of the Umno Youth election?

It was hard fought. I had a good run-in towards the end. The day of the voting, when each of our names were mentioned, I had really good applause. At that time, I thought I had a chance.

But were you surprised?

By the time the results came out, I thought I had a decent chance. Of course, I was surprised - I didn't think it would be by such a margin - 50 votes from Khir Toyo. I thought it could be much closer than that.

You were not appointed by Najib into the cabinet. That must have hurt - after all, it's a tradition for the Umno Youth chief to be a minister.

No, I'm not hurt. May be it is a tradition, (but) I had an opportunity to see the PM (Najib Abdul Razak) before he announced the cabinet. I went to see him and he explained.

Did he call you in?

He called me a day before the announcement was made. He explained to me what his expectations were for Umno Youth. And he said the task was quite big in terms of party work - reuniting the party, especially because of the factions during the party elections and also to try to come up with some strategy to win younger voters.

So he said, focus on that first. And I said, that would be best because when you have a government position too early on, then you are distracted from actual party matters. I took it in good faith.

He didn't say it was because of the fact that Mahathir wasn't happy about it?

No, no, no. He didn't say that.

Your predecessor, Hishammuddin Hussein, he also went through a difficult period when he took over Umno Youth during the reformasi period. Mahathir didn't tell him to focus only on his work to rebuild Umno Youth - he was made a minister.

I cannot compare the leadership decisions of the previous prime minister and the present prime minister. All I know is that the present prime minister has given me a specific task for the party, to do party work and come up with strategies for young voters, and that is what I'm focusing on at the moment.

And the fact that your deputy, and even Mukhriz (Mahathir) - who lost in the election - were appointed...

As far as I'm concerned, my deputy being appointed is a good thing because at least it is a recognition for Umno Youth. It is the institution, not the person, and I think with Razali (Ibrahim) in becoming deputy minister, it means that Umno Youth is not completely without any government representation. So that's good for the institution.

As far as Mukhriz (centre) is concerned, he has moved on from Umno Youth. He is no longer with Umno Youth because of his age. I think that he can contribute to the government. There is nothing wrong with that. Just because you lose in the party elections doesn't mean that you cannot contribute in government.

I think we shouldn't be too obsessed with linking party positions with government positions. The prime minister should take whoever he thinks is most suitable to handle government matters and to leave those he thinks most suitable to handle party matters... And if they can combine both, fine.

Najib did manage to stand up to, or at least say no, to Mahathir. Take Isa Samad - the fact that Mahathir fought against his candidacy and yet Najib picked him (as candidate for Bagan Pinang). But not when it came to you.

No, the prime minister has his own mind, (he) clearly has his own vision, clearly has his own priorities. I think he will decide based on what he thinks is right for the country and right for the party. There may be certain decisions people publicly pressured him to decide one way and he's decided another way. I think some of his decisions has proven right.

Like Isa Samad?

Well, that's one, but there are many other decisions - economic decisions, policy decisions that have made sense.

How do you feel about Isa Samad?

As far as I'm concerned, he is an elected representative now. He won with a overwhelming majority. That speaks for itself. Why do people need to say anything more than that? There were thousands of people who voted for him in an overwhelming manner. They knew what his history and track record were. Not just his track record in the disciplinary case in Umno, but also his many years of service.

So I think people evaluate politicians in totality. They don't take an isolated period in that politician's life and say this will define him forever. I think Malaysians can understand that once you paid your dues or you served your punishment, then there must be a second chance.

But with Isa Samad being elected, there's going to be problems for Negeri Sembilan Umno. Will he be appointed state exco?

Well, this is beyond me. I just hope that his victory in Bagan Pinang would strengthen Negeri Sembilan. Negeri Sembilan has long been seen as a safe state but in the last election, it has become a marginal state for us.

I hope his victory would lead to Umno and BN closing ranks, especially Umno Negeri Sembilan so that we can face the next election more united.

But some argue that it will split Negeri Sembilan Umno.

No, that is the theory, but we will have to deal with the situation, and I think the mood in Umno Negeri Sembilan is very positive and there is good understanding among all the senior leaders.

Let's move on to Umno Youth general assembly. There was a lukewarm response from the delegates to your speech. Did you expect that?

You mean the part about...

The part about Malays being more confident, which is actually the gist of your speech.

It wasn't going to be an easy message to sell because it requires Umno Youth looking at things differently and it was a little bit going against the grain. It is what I believe we have to do in terms of changing the way we look at things and I didn't expect when I said those things for them to give me raptures of applause. That is a very difficult message. But as a leader, you don't want your speeches to get applause all the time.

It wasn't going to be an easy message to sell because it requires Umno Youth looking at things differently and it was a little bit going against the grain. It is what I believe we have to do in terms of changing the way we look at things and I didn't expect when I said those things for them to give me raptures of applause. That is a very difficult message. But as a leader, you don't want your speeches to get applause all the time.

There appeared to be lukewarm response, a bit of it. I said, look, the fact that after I spoke, during the debate, during the speeches by the delegates, even if they didn't touch directly on what I said, the fact that they didn't say anything inflammatory (and) incendiary, is a message that they may not fully understand or appreciate yet, but the chief has said something so you got to toe the line.

So that's a start and now where do I take this? I have to take it into our party political education programme, training programmes and change the whole curriculum of how our young Umno members are trained so that their political DNA would be different from before.

That's going to be tough.

Sure it is going to be tough, but at least it is a game plan. At least, it is not a speech and after that nothing more. So I have to move from the speech and operationalise it by putting it into a training programme - moving the training (of Youth leaders) away from siege mentality, fear factor, us and them, to a more inclusive, and a believe in your civilisational confidence.

You called Anwar Ibrahim a chameleon in your speech. You started off very much a liberal until you joined Umno Youth. Then you, more or less, parrot Hishammuddin. You've been a very loyal deputy all these years and have said things that a lot of people may not agree with.

I don't think it is a sort of metamorphosis or a big shift. I think it is, one, on personal level of course, there's a certain political evolution or maturing process that takes place. Secondly, I don't view my position today as completely divorced from before. May be the difference is in rhetoric.

(There are) certain things that were picked up before, (and) certain things that were stressed before, but I have never gone out to alienate any particular segment of the non-Malay community.

Maybe a lot of it got lost in translation - the coverage, the keris and so forth. It was all put together and it became something that gave a wrong perception. But I'd like to think, now that I speak as a leader, that people would recognise my worth.

So this is the real Khairy?

I don't want to say that. It is as though whatever was there before was not. I mean, it's always me. It's not been anybody else. But now that I have been thrust into position of leadership, at least you don't look at symbols or "more symbolic superficial things". You actually look at the substance of it.

As a I said before, I may have said one thing, but one sentence was quoted that was attached to the keris, that was attached to some other speeches made at Umno general assembly, speeches by other people, so it gave that kind of impression.

It was hard to fight that perception but now that things have settled down, and people are willing to look at things with a fresh perspective, especially I'm no longer seen as a son-in-law of the prime minister and all that. With that perspective, I hope people can have better appreciation of whatever I have been.

The Umno general assembly has been able to inject a certain kind of spirit. The rank and file have been roused to take the fight to the opposition. The opposition is having problems within. So how do you see BN and Pakatan if there is election in one or two years' time.

A lot can happen in one or two years. One or two years is eternity in politics. I think things are getting better for BN. Bagan Pinang, was considered a relatively safe seat, but the margin of victory was such that it gave us a lot of much-needed confidence and encouragement.

I think it is very important psychologically that Umno members witnessed the win. Najib has a clear direction of where he's taking Umno, which is very good. And it helps that things seem to get from bad to worse with Pakatan, but I'm not delusional.

I don't think just because we won in Bagan Pinang, it means that we are out of the woods. We're definitely not out of the woods. In urban areas, the non-Malays, the younger voters - these are still very very serious areas of concern for us.

If we play our cards right, and if we most importantly deliver on our promises, specifically KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and the NKRAs (National Key Result Areas), then I think we can go into the 13th general election with some confidence of retaining power and improving our performance. But if we repeat the same mistakes, if we don't deliver, then we are in serious trouble.

The main thing I want to say is that we cannot, and we must not, rely on the opposition's weakness to win. That is not how you win. You win because you are better, not because they are worse. So we must step up our game to show that we are better than the opposition.

And yes, to some extent the trouble is in the opposition, so we attack them. That's fine. To some extent, it works. But at the end of the day, people are going to ask, what about you? So when asked, we don't want to repeat the mistakes that the opposition is doing.

Are you saying that the opposition is just playing on BN's weakness?

I think a lot of people are saying that. I'm not alone in saying that. I think a lot of people who are even on the fence, or voted for opposition, are saying that.

Get on with it. Don't just attack BN. I think people are saying that now you are in government you have to hold different standards. So don't make the same mistake, BN, and now the opposition, is in trouble.

There are some people who compare Najib with Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. You can't run away from it. Najib looks like he's giving a clear sense of direction (to Umno) while this is not the case with Abdullah despite a lot of promises being made.

I think both gave a sense of direction. I'm happy because Najib as PM, the trajectory that he's going towards was something that I think Pak Lah (Abdullah) also believed in. That reform started in 2004.

It is all about giving the right support to the leader to execute decisions. Maybe during Pak Lah's time as PM and president of Umno that the support was not there. I hope the same problem does not arise. That's why I gave my undivided support to the reforms (espoused by Najib) as Umno Youth leader.

It wasn't easy to make the speech (at the Umno Youth general assembly), but I did it because I don't want him (Najib) to have the same big problem that Pak Lah had. He is the conductor who is conducting the masterpiece. (But) the orchestra's playing the same old symphony.

It is important to me in my limited role as Umno Youth chief that I show I'll be there, and I'll take the risk of pushing the message even though it's alien to some people.

There is talk about a cabinet reshuffle. Do you think that you have a better chance this time around?

I don't know. To me, it is not important.

You don't think so?

I don't know about other people. To me, it is not important. I have a lot of work in front of me. I would take whatever responsibility that comes my way with great sense of dedication because I think now it's time to work.

We only have three years. This is a matter of survival of BN. If people are too worried about thinking about their positions, their own futures, then we are not going to win over the people. This is the time for us to roll out.

(Source: Malaysiakini)


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