Khairy Jamaluddin won the post of Umno Youth chief after a tough fight. Now that the buck stops with him, he has learnt that politics really is the art of the possible, he says.
IT has been about a year since Khairy Jamaluddin won the Umno Youth chief beating Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo to get the post. In an interview with Sunday Star, Khairy says closing ranks among the factions is a work still in progress. He hopes to take the Umno Youth to a more progressive direction - one that is more inclusive and middle ground. He also gives Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak top marks for his performance as Prime Minister.
Q: It has almost been a year since you have become Umno Youth chief. How has that experience been?
A: It’s been different. Obviously when you step up to the actual play, it is different from being a deputy because now the buck stops with you. So you are accountable for everything that happens (in the wing).
When I was deputy, I still had (the then Youth chief Datuk) Hisham (Hussein)around. So obviously now the responsibilities are greater and the expectations are bigger as well.
Q: Over the past year in office, what have you learnt about yourself and about Umno?
A: It’s an old saying and a cliche but I’ve learnt more than previously that politics is really is the art of the possible - about what you can do - but at the same time not losing sight of wanting to make the changes that you believe in. So it’s tough balance between pursuing the changes and making those changes possible. I don’t think you want to be somebody who has a vision and yet it comes unstuck when you are trying to try to do it because you can’t get a coalition or you can’t make it possible.
Q: And have you been able to do the possible in Umno Youth?
A: I want to look at my mandate as three years. What even the PM is doing is something that requires time. It is ironic that what we want to do requires time but we don’t have time because the elections are just three years or two years away. So we have to accelerate it. This is going to require a lot of political risk-taking but I think we should do it.
I am willing to do it. At least I hope for myself and for Umno Youth that we succeed part of the way.
Q: Interesting choice of words - political risk-taking. Have you done any of this political risk-taking since taking office?
A: I think so. I think it would be not unfair to say that my leadership of Umno Youth has not really been traditional of Umno Youth positioning. It’s very difficult to lead Umno Youth into a new outlook - in how we have responded to certain events, in wanting to appeal to a wider group of people and not just the Malays but also non-Malays. The speech I made at the general assembly was very untypical of an Umno Youth leader and how we reacted to many recent issues for instance involving religion amongst other things. It comes with a high political price and it’s something that I have to deal with.
Q: By reaching out to non-Malays and helping the (Malaysian) Indians get birth certs and MyKad and asking Malays to discard their seige mentality, won’t this make you lose Malay support?
A: To whom? I am representing the party. PM wants to make Umno a centrist party and we have to appeal to a wider group of people. As a progressive party - Umno and BN - we move to the centre. Who do we lose support to on the Malay side? We lose support to PKR and PAS? They have taken very liberal views on certain things to try and appeal to the non-Malays as well. I don’t really see who we are losing support to.
Q: But Umno is after all a Malay party?
A: But we are also the main component party of BN and we cannot win votes by appealing to Malay voters alone. And by the way it’s not just about about winning votes alone. Sometimes people say ‘you have to do this because you want to win votes so you have to appeal to non-Malays’ - but I think it’s also the right thing to do - to appeal to Malaysians as a whole. I think that is the way forward for us. It’s going to be tough because as you said the political DNA of Umno especially the Umno Youth is very Malay base. We are not abandoning that. It’s just that we have to be more inclusive and accept that this is not just the thing we need to win elections but also the right way forward.
Q: But wouldn’t you say that your call at the Umno Youth assembly for the Malays to discard the seige mentality was met with lukewarm response from the Umno Youth?
A: Well, it’s not going to be something that is immediately accepted. Sometimes the call to change takes time. Hypothetically, you can have somebody who has governed the party for 20 years asking the Malays to change and admitting at the end of it that he has failed. So what more somebody who has just done it for the first time so it’s not easy. The point I am trying to make and that is important especially for us to support the PM is that at least the leaders are going out there and trying to do it.
As long as they remember the leaders are trying to make this change and making it possible - the art of possible change, I think that is something to support. That’s why I am doing it. Sometimes I get criticism. I see pro Umno commentaries online and even some Umno Youth members are not happy with the progressive stand and things like that. I say ‘Look, this is about bringing the kind of change that the Prime Minister wants.” I am not talking about Umno Youth being emaciated in the sense that we don’t have a voice of our own and we just parroting the PM. No. But I am saying that this is the time we have to lead that change for the Prime Minister and become more progressive than anyone else and not become more radical than anyone else. This is the change I want to bring in Umno Youth. Coming back to the question of the first 11 months, a lot of it has been spent on this ideological shift which has taken a lot in terms of positioning, in terms of what we do, in trying to bring about that change and dealing with it in the political party context where there is on going rivalries and things like that. It’s a lot of work really.
Q: How have the efforts to close ranks among the (Khairy, Mukhriz & Khir Toyo) factions been in Umno Youth?
A: Like I said this ideological shift which is a bigger agenda takes place within the context of party politics which is trying to close ranks and all that.
I do open myself up to this political risk-taking because people who may not have supported me may use the progressive approach to politics that I’ve introduced as something that they can attack me with ideologically, whereas the motivation is probably pure politics.
So juggling the two is something that requires a lot of patience and a lot of wisdom - which I don’t have much of (laughs) - and I am trying to catch up.
I try to run an open Youth movement in the sense that I don’t stop them from saying anything in the right forum. During meetings, they are free to express anything they want. Sometimes we have heated views but no matter what speculation there is out there, I still think things are under control and we are moving towards the same direction. But it’s a work in progress. The Umno Youth elections were very keenly fought so the wounds are still there. I am not denying that but it’s a work in progress. We have to work on it together and keep working at it. You cannot just have one meeting among the various factions and hope everything is settled. You have to keep working at this and giving positive vibes and building confidence. That is important.
Q: But time is of the essence?
A: Yes, time is of the essence which is why this year a lot of our big programmes are going to be rolled out. I met PM (on Wed) and briefed him on our plans on having a rally on 1Malaysia, having a tour around the country bringing 1Malaysia down to the ground. So a lot of these things are taking place. Also, don’t underestimate the shift in perception that can come about just by changing the position Umno Youth adopts on issues. We’ve gone from being a “radical, right wing movement” to a very centrist movement and everyone says that I have emerged as a progressive voice in Umno Youth. I think that helps the party and we’ll continue more of that. And at a time when our friends - the components parties in Barisan Nasional - are having their own problems, I think it is important for us to go and appeal directly to the non-Malay communities.
Q: But does your exco accept your progressive stance?
A: As (Umno exco member Datuk) Zaki (Zahid) said and I said again I am not running a PTA. I am running a political organisation. Unless you are an iron fisted dictator who tolerates no dissent, these dynamics are going to be there. That’s the art of politics. It’s about trying to convince, persuade, build a coalition. That’s a much more fulfilling and rewarding process than just going in and saying ‘you do this’ and ‘you do that’ and ultimately get rejected. This is good because we have strong and healthy debates about issues. I am tested. They (my exco) ask why do you want to take this position and I have to explain to them. And we’ll see how it goes.
Q: There has been criticism that the Umno Youth secretariat and your boys are sidelining and blocking those from the other (Mukhriz and Khir Toyo) factions? And that if you remove your info chief and secretary half of the problems will be solved?
A: No that’s not true. First of all, the (Umno Youth) secretary (Datuk Megat Firdouz Megat Junid ) supported Khir Toyo during the election. I appointed him although he supported another candidate.
Look, in political parties when there are these dynamics going on, people want to focus the problem somewhere. If not a direct attack, then it’s at the secretariat or people around. As I said it is a work in progress. When you take over an organisation of 700,000 members, there are going to be shortcomings and weaknesses on the administrative side of it. It is something I have taken cognisance of and we are working at it.
There is no deliberate sidelining of anybody. If that is the perception, I’ve always told them that they are most welcome to come and see me and we’ll talk about it.
Q: There has also been grievances over the appointment of some of the Youth state chiefs and deputies and some have asked if you would consider a reshuffle?
A: Again, it’s a manifestation of people who are unhappy where they would target their grievances against state appointments.
Obviously, I have appointed people whom I can work with and I think can deliver but at the same time I told them they must adhere to performance standards. If they can’t perform - since these are not an elected but appointed posts - I am free to change the state line up when I think it is necessary to do so. I do embrace both views. I have picked those who can deliver for me but if they can’t deliver, they’d have to go.
Q: Umno Youth has always been at the forefront during by-elections but the state machinery has asked you to keep a low profile as they feel you are counter-productive and would affect Barisan’s chances of winning?
A: I think that (report) was inaccurate. I have only heard this once and it didn’t come from Umno. It came from some government agency during one by-election which Umno decided wasn’t an accurate report. I’ve campaigned at every single by-election. I’ve spoken at ceramahs with hundreds and thousands of people - at a by-election that we won - Bagan Pinang - and a by-election that we almost won - in Kuala Krai. I have no problems when I go down (for by-elections). This comes from a certain source within the party and in the government which obviously have something personal against me.
Q: Do you mean there has not been advice for you to keep a low profile during by-elections?
A: No. Otherwise why would I be down there leading (the Youth) so to speak.
Q: But you weren’t in-your-face or that kind of thing during the by-elections as you were previously?
A: I’m Umno Youth chief now so got maturity a bit lah. I am still there doing house to house campaigns, doing ceramahs at night. I also don’t get much play in the press anymore maybe that’s why.
Q: Some say your image is still a problem as you climbed up the political ranks so fast when your father-in-law (Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) was PM and you were found guilty of money politics in Umno and yet allowed to contest and won?
A: First of all, other people have gone up quicker in Umno. I don’t want to name names but many people have gone up much quicker in Umno than I have.
If it is a factor of Pak Lah, maybe you could have said that when I was deputy. But I won in very difficult circumstances when he was going out. It was certainly not an advantage anymore. Had I landed this position without contest, then I can accept that argument. But I won a contest in a very hard fought party elections and I have still survived till today - which I know upsets some people. But here I am for now - don’t know for how long.
As far as the (Umno) disciplinary commmitee is concerned, there are options in the party’s guidelines where you suspend somebody, give them a warning or they are let off. This whole business of warning but can contest is in the guidelines. It’s not something they made up especially for me.
The provision exists. There were many other people in previous Umno polls - about 40 other people - who were given warnings and not suspended. But of course it’s a big deal because it’s me. I defended myself for one-and-a-half hours before the (Umno) tribunal. I still maintain my innocence till today but I accept that is the decision meted out by the disciplinary board.
Q: But your image has suffered hasn’t it from the money politics thingy? How are you handling the rebuilding of your image?
A: Well, you have to move forward and look ahead to other things. People go through very difficult decisions that go against them, in politics especially.
As I said, I maintain my innocence but that (finding me guilty) is the decision of the disciplinary board and I have to move on with politics. There have been many people who have been found guilty internally and yet they carry on and are given second chances or they are allowed to continue with their government positions. And I think it is important to note that the burden of proof in party cases is different (from the courts). It is not beyond reasonable doubt. It is on the balance of probability. There is no law of evidence involved (in the party process). It is not a court of law. It is a political process. People have to remember that.
Q: People have looked at the fact that you were not given a government post while your Youth deputy Datuk Razali Ibrahim and (your challenger) Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir were made deputy ministers as signals from the PM. I know you said you don’t mind and your role is to strengthen the youth wing but honestly doesn’t it hurt?
A: Not really. It doesn’t bother me. I respect that it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister and he should be free to choose his Cabinet ministers and deputy ministers. All of us have a role to play. I have my role to play. I like to think that I have a role to play in the party and I hope to work hard in what I have been given. To me really it’s not a big deal.
Q: So you don’t see it as a sort of a vote of no confidence from the PM or a sign of his lack of trust of your integrity by not giving you a post and giving the other two posts?
A: First of all, I don’t like the comparison because I think everybody has a role to play. I don’t begrudge anybody of their cabinet appointments whether it is my deputy. I am happy that he is in government or even Mukhriz. I think for the Prime Minister, he feels that they have a role to play in government and that’s good. I don’t begrudge them at all. I don’t feel the comparison question is something that is to me relevant. Secondly, I have to work hard if it is so that the Prime Minister wants to consider me in the future, I have to prove that I am deserving of that trust.
Q: How’s your relationship with Mukhriz?
A: Okay, I saw him recently in his constituency. I invited him for a function. I chose to have a function there so we went together to repair some houses so it’s okay.
Q: And with Dr Khir Toyo?
Q: So it’s okay with the two of them but not chummy chummy?
A: Well, I don’t hang out with them but I don’t hang out with a lot of people either. It’s not like I ignore them or I avoid them or bad mouth them. It’s cordial lah. We are all in the same party. If I see them I chat with them. People might think Mukhriz and I don’t talk to each other or avoid each other but when I see him we say hi or chat. It’s no big deal.
Q: How do you respond to some who say you are not the legitimate Umno Youth chief because the total votes for the other two contenders (Mukhriz and Khir Toyo) combined is more than what you got to win the post?
A: Then nobody can win! The one who get the most votes is the one who wins. Don’t be so immature lah. (The Puteri chief Datuk) Rosnah (Shirlin) won by 8 votes and no one is saying that about her. All I am saying is that it is the one who gets the most votes. Obviously when you win with a minority situation, you have challenges. But it doesn’t mean you are not legit. That’s ridiculous(laughs). (In that case) I might as well not assume the post “oh I didn’t get the majority and leave it empty. That’s crazy.”
Q: At the Jan 28 Umno Youth exco meeting, what did (exco member) Hishamuddin Yahya (who purportedly called for Khairy to step down) actually say at the meeting?
A: For the record, what he said was that we have to come together. We have to move to be more effective. And if we can’t be more effective then we should let other people do it. If the chief can’t be effective, he should resign and if the exco can’t be effective, we should all resign. It’s a pretty general statement. But of course if you want to just take the isolated sentence - for political purposes - then you are free to do so. I am not saying there are no issues within Umno Youth. As I said before, it is a political movement with its own dynamics and it requires its own political skills. That is what politics is all about. But did he ask me point blank to resign? No.
Q: Why did it take so long for the Umno Youth exco to pay the courtesy call on PM?
A: We didn’t do it because a month after we were elected, he came up for our retreat in Janda Baik so we saw him. So I thought we had already seen him and spent some time with him so why would you want to go and bother him with another courtesy call. He’s a busy man. He had just assumed the highest office in the country. We just saw him. After that there were by-elections, the Umno general assembly so I wanted to do it at the end of the year or the beginning of the year. That’s all. Also PM is travelling. He is a busy guy. We finally got the date (Feb 17). I don’t think Wanita or Puteri have called on him (yet) so I don’t think it’s a big deal.
Q: What do you think is one very important quality in a Youth chief?
A: Relevance to young people. If you don’t get young people you are not a Youth chief. I am not saying I get them young people but I am trying to get them. I spend a lot of time on the social media. I try to understand how they think and I try to understand what’s important to them. I think that more than anything else is what’s crucial because if you look at youth movements in Malaysia it has always suffered from a lack of relevance. It is run by people who are not young or not peer. Even if it is run by somebody who is older as long they get it and are with it, it’s not a problem. But if you ask average Malaysians what do they think of Youth clubs and organisations here they say they are out of touch. So I think relevance is the key here.
Q: What do you say to those who think you are still wet behind the ears to lead Umno Youth especially at such a crucial time for Barisan?
A: I don’t know how to dry my ears because I have been in politics for 10 years already. If after 10 years, I am still wet behind the ears, there must be something wrong (laughs). I think I have learnt quite a bit. I wouldn’t say I am an experienced politician - not by the stretch of the imagination - but I wouldn’t exactly say I am new to this. I do know a little about the tricks of the trade already. And secondly - I hate to do self evaluation because by nature I don’t like to do that - but I don’t think I have made any major misstep since I have been BN Youth chief. If you flip the question around and ask have there been any achievements, I think there have - in terms of broadening the appeal. That’s what I came in promising to do, not withstanding there are still some issues, I think the appeal has been broadened. I have tried to make it relevant. I have done a short film - things which are out of the box - to show that not just me the person but the institution I represent - we are capable of changing and becoming more relevant to young people.
Q: What has been the feedback on that clip of you playing taxi driver?
A: This is the first time I opened YouTube and saw unending positive comments (about me) (laughs). It was good, It was spontaneous and unscripted. I think that and my engagement on social media - once facebook and now facebook is out of control - on twitter - that shapes a lot of new opinion not just for me but for BN in general. At least young people out there who are party less, with no affliations, at least they know that at least there are some people out there in BN who do stuff they can relate to.
Q: How do you see the political landscape with regards to the next general election?
A: I think Malaysian politics has become relatively volatile and I think it might continue with the dynamics. Not volatility because volatility is always a bad word but rather the dynamic process back and forth. I think the dynamism is good because it shows a healthy democracy working. And I think prevailing and winning in this environment is much more impressive than in a different environment. We have made a lot of gains over the past year but I think we are not out of the woods yet. We can’t rely on the opposition’s weakness to say that things (for BN) have improved. Your enemy’s weakness is not your strength. Your strength is something that comes from yourself. So the process of change and reform that PM has tried to bring is something that must continue.
Q: How would you rank Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s performance as PM?
A: I think he’s done a very good job within the present environment which is hostile. We had an economic crisis last year and to navigate the party and government during this time has been difficult. He has done a very good job at doing that.
Q: What grade would you give him?
A: An ‘A’ of course.
Q: Wow. Really?
A: I can back that. I am not just saying that because I am brown nosing him. Like I said, he has come in at a time of global economic crisis and at a time when he has to make decisions and tough calls like subsidies and GSTs and things like that and a time when public confidence is at a low for the government and when the BN component parties are having problems. It is not easy to triangulate all these problems and he has done it well. By triangulate, I mean the government, party and people and I think he has done a good job by reaching out and rolling up his sleeves. So far so good.
Q: An “A” for Najib, so how would you rate Pak Lah as PM?
A: That’s an unfair question so I am not going to answer that (laughs). I have an objective answer as well but people will say he’s the son-in-law. It’s easier for me to rate somebody whom I am not related to.
Q: Since Umno Youth is now moving into broader issues, what does Umno Youth think of the caning of the three women for illicit sex?
A: I have not discussed this with my exco and they want me to discuss heavy issues with them nowadays. I read a report that the men were caned as well. My personal view is that I am a little bit disturbed actually. The question needs to be asked why is this being done now after so many years. I know the answer is to reform, teach and educate them but I do think there are other ways of approaching this.
Even if you want to force the law, there must be other ways of “punishing” them because let’s face it this isn’t going to sit easy with a lot of people here and abroad as well. And I don’t want to give the impression that we have not thought this through. It has been a surprise. I am surprised and I do hope we can look into other forms of punishment before you go and cane someone. Although the provision is there and people would say I am questioning Islamic law and all that, I am questioning the punishment and why now. Are you telling me this is the first time people have had illicit sex in this country? I am quite sure that ‘no’.
Q: What worries you about the country?
A: We still seem to go in very different directions as far as Malaysians are concerned. In any country you have a myriad of views but the problem is that things are so polarised here not just ethnically- although this is true - but politically as well. There’s no middle ground. Everyone has so strong feelings one way or another. Say on the Anwar (Ibrahim) case, everyone has strong feelings about that. Any issue is always politicised. If someone from BN says it, it’s never going to be acceptable on the other side. And if someone from the other side says it it’s never going to be acceptable to BN. That’s worrying because when you can’t have bi-partisan solutions to certain things and everything including the torching of the church is politicised. (PKR’s) Azmin (Ali) said Umno did this (torching of the church) and all that. This is a time of serious national crisis and you want to politicise something like that?
That is why I reached over to the other side and said let’s have a joint statement by BN and Pakatan Youth. It’s important. At least the young people show we can rise above it. Even if it’s a small gesture and just a statement, at least to me it meant a lot because it meant we were able to put aside our differences. But it worries me that we cannot fashion a national consensus. I am not saying everyone has to agree but there must be a middle ground on many of these issues. Take for example the Allah issue or the caning issue, there are a lot of issues that are going to push Malaysians apart. Then you have guys like (Pasir Mas MP Datuk) Ibrahim Ali taking the far right view - of course it resonates with a few people. But all I am saying is that when you have radical extremes at the edges and you don’t have a radical centre, then society gets torn apart. The problem is we don’t have a strong centre. That’s where the PM is going. I saw him (PM) privately two weeks ago and I told him “Sir, I am there because naturally I feel an affinity to what you are doing personally. That’s where I want to take Umno Youth.” My greatest concern is that we cannot strengthen the centre. And when the centre cannot hold, it just falls apart.
Q: That’s a scary scenario.
A: But it’s true. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying it can happen but I am saying that is the concern. Malaysians, by default, when push comes to shove, we rise above it anyway. The whole church arson and mosque desecration hasn’t led to riots, hasn’t led to May 13 or anything like that because Malaysians generally can rise above it. But the rising above it is more by default than anything else like ‘let’s just chill out’. It’s not really saying ‘let’s rise above it for Malaysia’ but rather ‘we better not get ourselves into trouble’. That’s different. We need more of the positive vibe of trying to create a centre middle ground.
Q: On the church issue, you did criticise Umno saying that the party was becoming more hardline?
A: That’s why I always stress on the centrist agenda which the Prime Minister is pursuing. We must resist this temptation, this pressure to only appeal to very parochial politics and we must continue to fight for the new politics. Remember Umno may be Malay in membership but it’s the leading component of BN. To some extent, what is happening right now is an internal realignment for the soul for our party and whether or not what emerges is this inclusive, progressive party that can appeal to Malays as well as to non-Malays or whether we retract and appeal to just our base which is very ethnocentric and very conservative. I belong ,of course, to the former. That’s where the PM is taking us. That’s why it is important for us to stake our claim and say “I am there” with whatever risks that come with it.
Q: Some say that you are a chameleon and that you change colours and what you say according to the audience?
A: After the elections people were saying that. I was at a student conference in Aug last year and somebody asked me that question from the floor. And I think I was with Tian Chua (at that time). They asked who is the real Khairy and will the real Khairy to stand up - that kind of stuff. I said that’s a fair question because some people have asked that. I can always give you the normal answer saying that politicians don’t necessarily say different things but it is how it gets reported and all that but I didn’t say that.
By then I was already the Umno Youth leader and I was talking in front of a very urbane multi racial audience - students who are quite liberal in their thinking and they listen to what I have to say which is why they ask me that question. Now the test to see whether or not I am a chameleon is to see what I say in front of the Umno general assembly, in front of my Umno Youth assembly because that is traditionally where we have to strut our stuff. And I said if I say what I said here there (at the Umno assembly) and take all the risks that come with that, you’ll know that this is not a chameleon. So I did (at the Umno assembly in Oct). That is, for me, my proof that I am not just saying this when I meet with The Star or Chinese newspapers or online news portals. I’ve been saying it in front of my (Umno) guys. Fine, some of them give me a lukewarm response but the point is that I am saying it there. That’s important and that’s consistency. You can follow me anywhere and have hidden recorders and I will never betray the line that I have taken.
Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about you?
A: I don’t like the question because I don’t like talking about myself. It’s not for me either to answer a question like that. It’s for other people to tell me.
Q: Do you think you are misunderstood at all?
A: Obviously, I am (laughs). Clearly yah but I couldn’t pinpoint what it is. Some people don’t like me. What it is I don’t know. Whatever people say I am not a particularly ambitious person in politics. I made it very clear that I am happy to carry on for as long as - I wouldn’t say as long as I am needed because that is so old school - but for as long as this lasts. I don’t harbour any long term ambitions or anything like that. If it is good for the country it is good for the party.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
A: If I am not in politics, then obviously I would be doing something else.
Q: That is such a general answer.
A: The answer is not a general answer. When I give you that answer it means that I don’t exclusively see myself in politics in 10 years time. I could be doing something else. But if you ask me that and I gave you some answer saying that I hope to be a third term MP and still trying to make changes in politics that means that I am wedded to politics. I am not.
Q: So it’s like for as long as it lasts?
A: Yeah sure. And people should approach politics like that. As long as you are in there you should work hard to change and all that. But if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, you shouldn’t outstay the welcome.