Looking at the real Khairy Jamaluddin

COMMENT by Oon Yeoh*
From Malaysia Today of November 23, 2005

EVERYBODY in Malaysia knows the name Khairy Jamaluddin. He's the country's most famous son-in-law (the Prime Minister's), and - as we are constantly reminded by the local media - the most powerful person under 30 in Malaysia.
Yet, how many people really know who the real Khairy is? It's hard to tell when he's so inconsistent.
He is said to despise nepotism. Yet, at last year's United Malays National Organisation (Umno) General Assembly, he accepted the position of Deputy Youth Chief uncontested. Lest anyone thinks this reflected the delegates' wishes, remember all the booing when he was introduced to the crowd?
He's said to despise cronyism, yet last year, when he quit his job as Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister (and de facto Chief of Staff), the first job he aimed for was that of Chief Operating Officer of Khazanah Nasional, the government's investment arm. That plan fell through after the Wall Street Journal ran a story on it, sparking a public outcry.
Following this, Mr Khairy became a director at ECM Libra - a financial services company partly-owned by Mr Kallimullah Hassan, editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times and a close ally of his father-in-law, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
He's said to champion meritocracy. Mr Phar Kim Beng, who knew him from his student days in the UK, last year wrote an article for the New Straits Times which said: "... he believes the 'subsidy mentality' that has plagued the Malay mindset is a bane, especially in an age of globalisation".
Yet, at this year's Umno summit - even as Mr Abdullah was warning that the government cannot continue to play the role of Santa Claus - Mr Khairy was calling for a revival of the New Economic Policy (NEP) with its 30-per-cent equity quota for Malays.
He's said to decry blind loyalty. According to Mr Phar, at one stage, Mr Khairy's email domain name was Hang Jebat, referring to a 15th-century Malay figure who believed in the importance of truth, rather than blind faith in the establishment. Yet, that didn't stop Mr Khairy from echoing Umno Youth Chief Hishammuddin Hussein in calling for a revival of the NEP, as well as pledging his unwavering support for his leadership.
He's said to value a critical press. He even worked briefly as a journalist for The Economist, well-known for its biting commentaries. During the height of the Asian economic crisis, he co-hosted a TV talk show called Dateline Malaysia, where he grilled his guest with tough questions. Yet, today, he avoids the press altogether, with his standard reply: "I don't do interviews".
Although he doesn't give interviews, sources close to him say he feels he has to live up to Umno Youth's reputation of being outspoken, provocative rebels.
In September, he challenged opposition leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) to debate a particular issue in Parliament.
Veteran politician Lim knocked him down a few pegs, telling him not to challenge anyone to a debate in Parliament until he has become an MP himself.
Mr Khairy claims he never challenged Mr Lim to a debate but rather intended for Mr Lim to raise the issue in Parliament so MPs can debate the matter. He ended up with egg on his face as everyone paid attention to Mr Lim's rebuke, especially when he told Mr Khairy to stop being a "political ultra", or extremist.
"Playing to the gallery is what politicians do in order to get what they want," said Mr Khoo Kay Peng, executive director of Sedar Institute, a government-linked think tank. "I see in Khairy an old-school Umno politician and not a post-racialism politician who can bring a new dimension to the Malaysian political scene."
When you look at Mr Khairy today, do you see shades of a young Dr Mahathir or an Anwar Ibrahim? This is a question I posed to DAP's Lim, who first entered Parliament in 1969 and saw the two men rise from obscurity to become the two most powerful men in the country at one point.
"In the case of Mahathir and Anwar, they both rose to prominence on their own steam," Mr Lim said. "With Khairy, the power is entirely derivative. What is he without Abdullah?"
What is he indeed? A liberal or a conservative? A champion of meritocracy or a proponent of the quota system? Someone who pushes the envelope or plays it safe?
The answer, it seems, is all of these and none, depending on the situation. So, just how dynamic or progressive is this guy?

*Oon Yeoh is a current affairs writer and commentator based in Kuala Lumpur.

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