Oxford-educated, journalist, television show producer, and investment banker, Khairy Jamaluddin is clearly a man of many ‘talents’. But who is the real Khairy? Were he not the premier’s son-in-law, would he have much in common with Abdullah Badawi, wonders Khoo Boo Teik.
During the heady days of 1998–99, many apologists for the regime repeatedly asked, ‘Will the real Anwar Ibrahim stand up?’
The question was asked with feigned wonderment as if the possibility of an inconsistent politician had struck the questioner for the first time.
The truth of its answer, though, wasn’t important. The point of the question was to insinuate that ‘DSAI’ (Dat Sri Anwar Ibrahim) was an opportunist and to discredit Reformasi for supporting someone of dubious virtue.
Remember that. Now think how Khairy Jamaluddin (KJ) looms as a central, if shadowy, figure in the spat between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (TDM) and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Is it surprising, then, that no one from the Abdullah camp has asked, or will ask, ‘Will the real Khairy stand up?’
Looking for KJ
One supposes that ‘KJ’ himself would rather not face that question in public. After all, any unwanted publicity from the tussle between PM and TDM could be costly. Witness the forced sale of his ECM Libra shares and his tearful denial of the slur on his private affairs.
Still, having gone public and high-profile, KJ can’t avoid being split into different images, making one wish the ‘real KJ’ would stand up, if only to ease our confusion.
There’s KJ as the foreign-schooled, Oxford-educated, journalist, television show producer, and investment banker. This image of a suave, urbane, corporate-savvy and liberal KJ is easy, that is, simple and non-threatening, to behold.
There’s another KJ: rapidly rising First Son-in-Law, go-getting UMNO Youth Deputy President, and imposing tower of power possessed of an octopus-like reach of influence.
This KJ is the ‘boy wonder’ protagonist of The Khairy Chronicles whose ‘no holds barred’ producer, Raja Petra Kamarudin (RPK), has done more than anyone else to track KJ’s comings, goings, doings, and undoings. This KJ is the master manipulator Mahathir blames for ‘4th Floor’s sway over 5th Floor’.
If RPK or Mahathir is to be believed, this image of KJ must be fearsome to encounter.
Yet another image
There’s no compelling reason to accept just one of these images. A politician, as the Chinese say, speaks out of both sides of the mouth, and in mass politics an aspiring leader seeks to be all things to all men.
Yet, this much is already apparent of KJ. He seems to represent the future; yet his recent politics was stuck with a Malay nationalism that Mahathir made obsolete before he retired. KJ is careful to remain in the public eye but his ways are so self-absorbed he can’t cut a truly public figure.
Put these together and there’s KJ the ‘MyTeam’ manager, the ‘Mat Rempit’ patron, the basher of the Penang government and, not least, the ‘Out of the Cage’ columnist for the New Straits Times.
Try a different way of seeing things. Compare KJ with Anwar and Mahathir when the latter two were just immersing themselves in politics.
Beside them, KJ looks young, too young to merit a serious evaluation as a politician, and too early into his career to know just where and how things are going.
Naturally KJ and his allies will dispute the point about an obsolete Malay nationalism. After all, UMNO is strong again and many of its keris-waving leaders cling to an unfinished agenda.
KJ himself didn’t doubt UMNO’s relevance. He shopped around, politically speaking, but rejected PAS and Keadilan. ‘When all those around me in 1999 ran away,’ he wrote, he entered ‘the big tent that is UMNO’.
Five years later, KJ was deputy chief of the lesser tent of UMNO Youth in circumstances publicly related by Abdullah: ‘Hisha-muddin says, “The Youth have decided, I have decided, I want to nominate Khairy for Youth deputy head, Pak Lah don’t disturb, this is Youth affairs”.’
In UMNO Youth’s history, KJ’s rise was not as spectacular as Anwar’s defeat of Suhaimi Kamaruddin for the UMNO Youth presidency in 1982, barely a year after Anwar had joined UMNO.
But, by 1982, the ideological impact, organisational assets and popular standing Anwar had gained from leading ABIM, protesting in Baling, languishing in Kamunting, and heading the anti-Societies Act movement had made him a youth of international prominence.
KJ in 2004 was still best known as Abdullah’s son-in-law. No one really knew what he stood for other than a presumed association with his father-in-law’s reformist intentions and election promises.
Young man Mahathir, using the pseudonym of C.H.E. Det, wrote a number of essays for the Straits Times. The C.H.E. Det essays explored the Malay world, noted its changes, explained its problems, and argued its case. One notable piece outlined what Mahathir later called the ‘Malay dilemma’.
Reading those essays, one wouldn’t learn the writer’s identity. But one encountered a coherent Malay worldview and an articulate young voice of Malay nationalism. The C.H.E. Det essays ended a quarter of a century before KJ was born.
A regular reader of ‘Out of the Cage’ will soon notice that KJ’s column in NST is mostly about KJ – how he’s grown up in politics, his sponsorship of MyTeam, his problems with Mahathir, and so on.
In his piece on MyTeam, for example, KJ spoke of feeling ‘pumped up’ as if ‘I was ordering a battalion into war’; scolding ‘pea-brained political opportunists who suggested that MyTeam supporters were unpatriotic’; never allowing MyTeam to ‘challenge the Football Association of Malaysia or turn Malaysians against the national team’; and believing ‘MyTeam has succeeded’.
In another essay, he said of himself: ‘You choose this life less ordinary because you want to stand up and be counted. You took the plunge because you have something to say. Say it. Do it. And never stop fighting until the fight is done. Light the fire.’
Such a homily might more suitably have been delivered by an older person. Here it’s part of KJ’s defending his decision to be a politician with no sense of irony: ‘We owe it to this great profession [sic] to make it the career of choice for the best, brightest and most principled.’
Whereas C.H.E. Det’s essays were original, refreshing and bold, KJ’s insights in ‘Out of the Cage’ scarcely rise above platitudes: ‘Politics is not about power, position or personal wealth. Politics is a process in which we can make a difference to others. Politics is that fire in your belly that makes you want to change the world. Politics is about the contestation of ideas.’
Evidently, one can stay out of the cage without thinking outside the box.
Style mesti ada
To say that ‘Out of the Cage’ reveals a KJ wrapped up in himself is not to take sides in UMNO’s old or current battles.
It’s to show a widening gulf between KJ’s concerns and the substance and style of his Malay nationalism when the pressure from The Spat mounted. To be precise, his responses to the pressure showed little substance but style of a sort ill suited to the contexts.
KJ baited the Barisan Nasional’s Chinese-based component parties by warning UMNO that the non-Malays would take advantage of ‘Malay disunity’. He contrived this although Chinese parties and organisations, save Matthias Chang who represented himself, had steered clear of The Spat.
Next, and aided by the Penang UMNO Youth, KJ bashed the Gerakan-led government in Penang for ‘marginalizing the Malays’. Again, this was contrivance.
Didn’t KJ know that UMNO is more powerful than Gerakan even in the state government?
Couldn’t he reason that if Malay economic parity with non-Malays was Penang’s problem, Gerakan had no more failed here than UMNO had in the whole country despite UMNO’s control of the Federal government, state governments and incomparably greater resources?
A sandiwara predictably followed. An apology was demanded of KJ.
He shrugged it off in the imperious manner of George Bush, Sr who in 1988 said, ‘I will never apologise for the United States, ever. I don’t care what the facts are.’
KJ’s response was, ‘It never crossed my mind to apologise to those who are hurt by what I said in Kedah last week. For me, if we truly fight for our race, one should not apologise.’
Power means never…
Does that sound like ‘My bangsa, right or wrong’? Don’t be deceived. It was ‘Myself, like it or not’.
Compare that with KJ’s reflection on his maturation: ‘You don’t say the first thing that comes to your mind but say the right thing …You are more mindful of others and think about consequences that are three or four times removed from your action.’
Although UMNO habitually and aggressively demanded apologies for any imagined hurt to ‘Malay dignity’, no UMNO elder scolded KJ for not being ‘more mindful of others’.
On the contrary, PM, himself a veteran MP from Penang, instructed the Penang government to review its plans so that Malays aren’t neglected in the state. Najib Tun Razak advised Koh Tsu Koon to be ‘Chief Minister of all races’. And Hishamuddin Hussein, too, was there for KJ – to scowl at MCA (‘Do not challenge us!’) and lecture Gerakan (‘Something must be not right if the Penang UMNO Youth made such a statement.’).
Is it any wonder that The Khairy Chronicles are full of episodes detailing how KJ calls the shots in UMNO and the government to everyone else’s consternation?
Perhaps panicked by Mahathir, KJ lashed out against soft targets. Clearly KJ didn’t think he behaved like a ‘little Napoleon’ who, still ‘wet behind his ears’, to use his own words, had violated his ‘probationary licence’ by ‘shaking the tree when there was no wind’.
Perhaps fearful of UMNO’s own discord, KJ wouldn’t risk opening another front in an intra-Malay battle. If not, why didn’t he go after PAS for fishing in UMNO’s troubled waters? Why didn’t he attack Keadilan when Anwar called for an end to NEP?
Times change and youth may think differently but KJ’s capers have nothing to do with Malay nationalism, as C.H.E. Det or Anwar or Musa Hitam or Tengku Razaleigh knew it. We only flatter KJ to mention him with them.
KJ is no C.H.E. Det who, planted on Malay soil, framed a view of Malay society and economy and formulated a basic solution to the ‘Malay dilemma’. Nor is KJ the young Anwar who drew upon Islam and a firm footing in civil society as the sources of social criticism and activism.
In contrast, KJ riles his BN partners and bashes Penang as if he’s staging media events and publicity stunts on par with sponsoring socceroos and mingling with bikies. His is an approach that passes off theatrics for politics.
No doubt many Malaysian politicians reach for the ethnic card when they’re in trouble. This time around, Mahathir flashed the ethnic card just as opportunistically, for instance, by attacking ‘non-Malay editors’ in NST and elsewhere.
But did KJ expect his tactics to succeed in mending ‘Malay disunity’ where Mahathir’s diversionary attack on Suqiu had failed in 2000? If so, KJ is nowhere near having the substance to confront the one target that matters – Mahathir.
Listen to this: ‘When defining moments come along, by all means define that [sic] moment … But beware how you define it … And avoid trying to define the moment so much and without any thought that in the end, it defines you.’
Is this philosophic wisdom dumbing itself down for the rakyat, or plain gobbledygook?
In fact, it was KJ’s pondering Zizou’s self-destructive World Cup Final head-butting, and Peter Costello’s self-defeating claim of a ‘secret agreement’ between him and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.
Actually it was a most oblique attack on Mahathir’s allegation that Abdullah had reneged on their ‘gentleman’s agreement’ made before Mahathir’s retirement.
But if that’s an indication that KJ won’t face Mahathir squarely the way Mahathir engages his opponents, there’s no point in further wondering whether KJ will ‘out-Malay’ Mahathir. He won’t, because he can’t.
Beyond the spat
The mainstream media has it that Mahathir has reached the end of his mission. He failed to be elected a delegate from Kubang Pasu to UMNO’s next annual general assembly. It’s said that he’d lowered his martabat for nothing.
The pro-Mahathir online media thinks Abdullah’s television interview was flawed and KJ’s been wounded and had to retreat. He was heckled at Titiwangsa UMNO Youth Division, and Abdullah, Najib and Hisha-muddin have had to come to his defence more than once.
Whatever is the present score in The Spat, we don’t need more personalised images of KJ.
But we should note that KJ stands at this juncture for a social type, namely, an NEP-created Melayu Baru
In class terms, this urban, yuppie and corporate class feels superior not only to the masses but the Asian crisis-humiliated tokoh korporat of Mahathir-Daim sponsorship and the older and humbler UMNO ‘grassroots’ as well.
This class now operates in the borders between state and market. It would prefer not to be overly dependent on the state, but it’s unwilling to face the market frontally.
Hence, for all the talk of removing crutches and creating towering personalities, the social type of this class resents being ‘backward’ at home and fears being ‘uncompetitive’ abroad.
Socially, this class has detached itself from the rural Malays, the lower-level civil servants and the self-employed in small business. But, politically, this class must stay connected to them via UMNO and ‘Malay nationalism’.
Were he not the PM’s son-in-law, KJ’s urban, yuppie, corporate and liberal inclinations would not have much in common with his father-in-law’s small-town, civil service and religious intuitions.
That each of them comforts the other amidst Mahathir’s onslaught lends a sharp edge to The Spat which is no less than a political ‘disorder’ that has erupted between the slow passing of the Mahathir era and the unsecured birth of Abdullah’s.
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