Dr M wrote during a national ferment, bristling with intent; there were anglophiles to be slayed, and his people lacked steel and industry. KJ was writing at a time of Malaysia’s post-Twin Towers success and a burgeoning middle class, in terms of purchasing power, if nothing else – a time when national realities are mediated by facts of lifestyle.
Comfort is a poor crucible of ideas (albeit a ready market for ‘innovation’), but Malaysia after March 8 is a less certain or even a less comfortable place. What would a young man, if he were aspiring to the nation’s highest public office, be able to offer?
As all blog-reading Malaysians by now know, KJ is the 32-year-old Oxford-educated son-in-law of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. He is by reputation less the prodigal and more the profligate son of the family.
It was not always like this.
As the supposed architect of all that has gone right or wrong since the Abdullah-led Barisan Nasional was given its historic mandate by Malaysian voters 2004, KJ and his cohorts in government – the Fourth Floor – were associated with the dawning of a new era of public consultation, openness and transparency. Megaprojects were shelved, institutional reforms quickly announced. But as the reforms faltered in the corridors of arcane Malaysian politics, the disappointment of the people was profound. If the mandate Malaysian voters had given the Abdullah administration was historic, more momentous was the capitulation of March 8, 2008, when the BN fell like ten-pins throughout the peninsula – where it actually lost the election, thus returning the hinterlands of Sabah and Sarawak on to the political map. Who was to blame? When the pointing-fingers aligned: the Fourth Floor.
Still, Khairy does not feel he has been dropped from a great height. ‘I feel like I’ve been trampled on from a great height, from the top of the Twin Towers,’ he says. Then adds: ‘Oops, you-know-who’s office is there.’ He speaks with regret at not having seized the moment for reform, and of not fighting back hard, early on, at the allegations against him and the PM. He speaks – with relish – of being on the hustings for January’s byelection in Kuala Terengganu because ‘you know who the other side is’. The party election however is another kettle of fish.
But the diminished enthusiasm for navigating the primordial Umno soup of human desires and mixed motivations is relative; one gets the sense of someone who is still up for it, because the world is at his feet; the challenge is approached almost as a question of sport. Khairy after all is among the breed of ‘dip kids’ – diplomat kids – who have had the privilege, literally, of a worldview. Their baggage does not usually include a chip on the shoulder.
The Malaysian public’s anger at its politicians and public officers is pervasive because they are, in general, vapid, vulgar, venal and vicious (and that’s just one alphabet). Their surreal impunity makes things worse. The danger is that this anger feeds the blase bashing of politicians which passes for politics and retards meaningful public discussion: if ‘all politicians are like that’, it might be because they embody universal qualities that right-thinking members of society cannot acknowledge in themselves. How is it that we have come to be represented by such poor specimens of Malaysian-ness, let alone humanity?
Thankfully or not, the time for renewal is now. Voter demographics make it clear that this will soon be no country for old men. Can its younger politicians lead Malaysia into the future? Off The Edge talks to Khairy Jamaluddin about Dr Mahathir, the Fourth Floor, Umno, reform and the allegations of ‘extended family’ And largesse.
In the Kuala Berang by-election in 2004, your first, you were often introduced as ‘menantu Pak Lah’. That was before it became a pejorative term. Let’s start with how you got involved in politics.
I’ve been interested in politics for as long as my memory stretches. I was a peculiar kid; I actually liked to talk about politics. My distinct first memory of talking about politics was asking my late father about the implications of (Mikhail) Gorbachev taking over the Soviet Union. My late father was a diplomat, so my introduction to politics was global politics. My mother was very much involved in voluntary organisations back home. Even when she was with my father overseas, she was the one I remember talking about Umno most. I think she was an Umno member from way back when.
Because my father was a diplomat in Tokyo, London, we used to have all these politicians come over; Dr Mahathir, Tengku Razaleigh, Musa Hitam. At that time, the mid-80s, there was the whole (Umno) Team A, Team B thing. I heard a lot of these things going on around me, and it just stuck.
I read politics, philosophy and economics at university and became involved with a group of people who were writing a lot about Malaysian issues (Ethos). I got to know Hisham (Hishammuddin Hussein), when I was a university student, and got a job working for Pak Lah when I came back here. But my entry point into Umno was when Hisham appointed me to the education secretariat in Umno Youth, and then he asked me to join the exco of Umno Youth. This was before I became ‘menantu PM’, pejorative or otherwise. And then one day he (Hisham) asked me to contest for the deputy Youth leadership, which I said no to initially. But that’s how it all started.
That was around ’99?
I came back in ’99, at the height of the Reformasi movement (after the sacking and jailing of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim).
MEETING DR M
And what kind of impact did that have on you?
I joined Umno just because of that.
Principally I like to do things which other people are not doing. Everyone else my age, my profile, were joining Reformasi so I thought, ‘Buck the trend la, go and join Umno!’
At the more profound level, I thought, yes, some of the things that Reformasi was about reverberated for me – justice, equality, fighting against corruption – but I very much thought it was based on a cult of personality. When you attach very sacred principles to a personalised struggle for somebody, it’s definitely
going to end in tears at some point, someday.
That’s when I decided, ‘Well, there are clearly some problems in Umno, but it has its rich history, which my mother was talking about since I was small.’ I’ve met all these leaders; I sat on Musa Hitam’s lap, I met Dr Mahathir…
I badgered my mum to introduce me to him and I was finally properly introduced in London. I psyched myself up, an eleven-year-old kid in 1987 meeting the Prime Minister of Malaysia. I had my one shot – one shot – at asking him something so I go up to him, shake his hands and he says, ‘Hello’ and thinks that that’s the end of it. But I stuck around and he looked at me. And I said, ‘Can I ask you a question, sir?’ And he’s like, ‘What is that?’ So I said: ‘How long more are you going to be prime minister for?’ And I think our relationship went downhill from there. (laughter)
But there was this history about Umno that I was attracted to, so I said to myself, between Umno and Reformasi – for that matter, between Mahathir and Anwar, I choose Umno. I chose Mahathir, and that’s how I got started.
Why is Dr Mahathir, a man of no small national and international stature, taking up the cudgels against you? And from 1987 onwards?
From 1987 onwards… (laughs) The next proper encounter we had was in 1995, or ’96, at Oxford. He came to address the Malaysian students in Oxford. It was time for question and answer. Typical Malaysian students, very reticent, so immediately I stepped in lah, and asked about Malaysia’s relationship with Burma and why we recognised Burma despite its human rights atrocities. He answered the question, I kept on asking questions and eventually he said, ‘I think you’re asking too many questions. Let other people ask questions.’ So, strike two there! (laughs) Coming back to it, yeah, this whole thing, I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s all about…
Are you as ambitious as he says?
I don’t know quite what it is that he ascribes to me in terms of ambition, but my fight is definitely not with him. I don’t even consider myself as somebody who should engage with him because he’s much, much, beyond me in terms of experience and attainment. I take whatever comes my way from him as something that comes the way of any political neophyte … There must be this sense of respect.
Certainly, but you can’t not address the questions.
I’ll address the issues – each and every one. But never in a way that is personalised. I will never question why he’s talking about it or why he’s writing about it. But the issues, that’s completely different and have nothing to do with my relationship with him.
Part of these allegations by Dr Mahathir involve you advising Pak Lah to hold the general election in March. Is there any basis for this?
No. First of all, I never advised the Prime Minister on the timing of the elections, or any other major decisions. I recall very distinctly that I never mentioned anything to him about my personal thoughts on the timing of the elections. Personally, when I was told it was going to happen then, I felt that it wasn’t the right time but obviously I didn’t say anything because it had already been decided. I was actually on my way to London the morning that it was announced and I had to cancel my trip at the last minute. I was to go for the Tun Razak Seminar at the LSE.
PROXIES, CAMPAIGNS AND MONEY
Is a political proxy war being conducted through you and Mukhriz Mahathir? Though you’re not of the same generation, you both knew each other in childhood and now you’re up against each other.
Well. it’s one of those strange coincidences of life where, somebody you knew from when you were seven years old eventually becomes your political rival but, you know, this whole proxy business is blown out of proportion.
People read into this contest a lot of Pak Lah and Dr Mahathir, but I think both of us are trying to establish ourselves as very much our own… separate entities from our respective parental units or parental-in-law units. Mukhriz is going to be Mukhriz and I am going to be myself for however long we’re going to be in politics …
What is the perception of the grassroots within the party and the general public of dynasties in politics? The Mahathirs, Razaks, Husseins…
Well, we (almost) had a Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton dynasty. Political dynasties are not unique to Malaysia; people do follow in their fathers’ footsteps and end up in politics simply because they grew up around that particular lifestyle and environment, and they feel comfortable in it.
I don’t think that matters to the Umno grassroots as long the scion proves himself. I think there is definitely a healthy realisation of merit (in Umno now). They may open the doors for you but if you fail to deliver, they’re going to make it very clear that you’re not wanted.
It shouldn’t matter that both of you are related to prime ministers, past and present. But realistically, how much does it matter?
I don’t think it matters very much today. To be very honest with you, talking to the delegates, they don’t really care who the candidates are related to or which families they come from. I think they just want to choose the best candidate. So, in a sense, this whole business of cancelling each other out is quite good, because if it was just one person who was related to a former or a sitting prime minister, then maybe there might be an advantage for that person. But two [such] people cancel each other out, so the delegates actually start looking for the merit part of it, as opposed to the ‘who is he related to?’ part of it.
Is merit going to play a big part in this campaign?
I certainly hope so.
Lim Kit Siang has called you the richest unemployed gentleman in the country. Would you like to respond to that?
(laughs) Yeah! It’s a cheap shot designed to insult me, and to elicit laughs from the Opposition benches, and that’s all I have to say about that. Apart from calling him a dinosaur in return.
But seriously, are you currently doing anything else other than being Rembau MP?
No. Presently, I’m very much exclusively attached to politics.
People are wondering about your source of income. It might be good to set the record straight.
Well, everyone knows that I worked in an investment bank after I left government service. I was in ECM Libra for three years, and a shareholder until I sold my shares. That was my source of income for that period of time. And whatever I have now, it was savings based on that (and) whatever I invested based on that. Today it’s very much the salary of an MP.
So your MP’s salary is your sole source of income?
Would you agree to all MPs declaring their assets? There was a proposal mooted for Cabinet ministers to declare their assets after the general election. Would you do that?
Absolutely, without a doubt. I think everyone should do it. I think every person holding a government post should do it. It was also a suggestion made by all the Pakatan Rakyat state governments and they have yet to do it, until today. So let’s be fair here; it’s not just one side that has not lived up to its own suggestion. I have no problems [living up to it].
How much are you worth?
(flabbergasted) I wouldn’t know exactly. My father was a government servant. Those days, government servants didn’t leave very much [to their families], but they were given a chance to buy property in nice areas. So for example, my mother, she lives in Damansara (Heights), and my dad left another piece of land somewhere near there.
THE FOURTH FLOOR
Coming back to Dr M, he seems to link you to a lot of Pak Lah’s decisions and so ‘The Fourth Floor’ was created and has now become part of the Malaysian lexicon. Say, ‘Budak Tingkat Empat’ and people know what you’re talking about. Here is your chance to set the record straight about The Fourth Floor.
(sighs) The Fourth Floor, my goodness. Where do I start? The Fourth Floor obviously has a physical explanation to it because it’s actually the fourth floor of the Prime Minister’s Office, where the Cabinet office is, and that’s actually where the decisions are made. But unfortunately, behind the Cabinet office is a set of offices which houses the press secretaries, the head of communications, and all the policy guys, including the foreign policy staff as well.
I used to work on the Fourth Floor (as Director of Policy and Communications). Many of these guys are young [but] to say that they’re my chums, friends from school or whatever – not really.
The only guy I’ve known for a long time who’s in PMO is Zaki (Ahmad Zaki Zahid, Head of Policy and Communications) who is on the Fourth Floor, and Vincent (Lim) who was political secretary, but he’s on the first floor. (Disclosure: Ahmad Zaki Zahid is a personal friend of the editor, but was not involved in this interview.)
The rest I got to know after ending up working with the PM, who is somebody who values and appreciates young talent. As I recall it, there was open recruitment for young people – not to make policy, but as researchers, press secretaries, speechwriters. That’s what the Fourth Floor did, and still does.
The reason people think it’s all-pervasive and powerful is because they see these people buzz around, but all they’re really doing is support work; we don’t make decisions. Any politician has support staff.
Did you have a hand in picking the Fourth Floor?
Zaki, yeah. He was working for Hisham at that time and I was really stretched as the only special assistant for Pak Lah when he was DPM. So I said, hey, why don’t you think of joining. He subsequently went to see the DPM on his own, that was it. The rest were, you know, recruited by the office.
Is there a process by which this is done?
As I know it, candidates wrote in with their CVs and were interviewed by senior officers and the PM himself. There was an ad in the paper but it was [discreetly worded].
Why do you think Dr M continues to harp on this issue?
This is my view… (gingerly) He thought he had a personal perspective of who Pak Lah was. Obviously, when Pak Lah became prime minister, he had his own ideas. He had his own approach and style of governance, which probably wasn’t what Dr Mahathir thought.
Obviously, when you become a leader, you approach things differently because you have become the person in that seat. So maybe – this is my view lah – maybe he thinks that, ‘That’s not the Pak Lah that I remember, the Pak Lah I remember wouldn’t have done this, wouldn’t have been thinking this way, wouldn’t be opening up for more discussion and freer debate in society. This is not what I remember of this guy, so it mustn’t be him, it must be somebody else pulling the strings behind him.’
But, sad to disappoint him, that’s actually who Pak Lah is. And obviously he was waiting for his chance to leave his mark on Malaysian politics – he can’t be a clone of Dr Mahathir. He was part of [Umno] Team B in the late-Eighties that went against Dr Mahathir, so he’s clearly somebody with his own mind.
Perhaps he was a good deputy, and maybe that’s how Dr Mahathir thought he was going to be like (as PM). He must have thought, ‘This isn’t the Pak Lah I knew, this is somebody else.’
Of course, the Fourth Floor myth was not originated by Dr Mahathir. It started off with (the late journalist) MGG Pillai saying that there were ‘scholars and ninjas’ in the office, and then it became the Fourth Floor in the (Khairy) Chronicles; Dr Mahathir sort of popularised it.
How much of an influence does the Fourth Floor have on policy…
Not very much.
…if you could quantify it at all.
I wouldn’t be able to quantify it, but I don’t think it has very much influence on policy. It’s there as a backup for the PM. It provides research and background work.
A sort of intellectual resource.
I wouldn’t want to flatter my ex-colleagues by describing them as an intellectual resource, but yeah, they are… backroom boys lah (laughs).
MARCH 8, THE PM, EXTENDED FAMILY
Moving on from the Fourth Floor… Were you in favour of Pak Lah not defending his position?
He actually didn’t ask me; this was one of the occasions when I went up to him. I said, ‘This is a very personal decision. It’s up to you. I will support you whatever you decide. Whether you decide to stand down or whether you decide to continue, it’s entirely up to you.’
But I also said, ‘Don’t leave it too late, because, it’s important to the party that there is certainty, but I’ll go with whatever it is that you decide because it’s your decision entirely.’
Only Pak Lah would understand the enormity of the decision. I don’t think it was in anybody’s place to give their views; it was a very personal decision. Some people say he was pressured, but I remember going to see him the morning before the [Umno] Supreme Council meeting. I didn’t ask him directly, but we talked around [his retirement], and he said, ‘I’m fine, I’m happy.’
There is a perception outside that he was pushed out but I think he decided it on his own terms – because, this man, for whatever Umno has done to him, loves his party. He loves his party more than he cares for himself. That’s why he did it.
Was it always on the cards that he was going to resign after the March 8 general election?
Well, strangely enough, I asked him – and I have to make this clear so that that there’s no [allegation of] pre-decision interference by KJ – long after the decision was made, ‘Just out of interest, had the election results been good, how long more would you have stayed for?’
And he said, ‘Probably not that much longer because I’m going to be 70 next year, and I’ve always talked about grooming young people and human capital, so it would be a tad hypocritical for me to stay on much longer than I should be around for.’
So I thought he meant, ‘I’ll go soon’. He said, ‘Yeah, I never planned to stay for decades. When your time’s up, your time’s up. Don’t fight that.’
A personal question: how did the family feel when he brought the retirement forward (from June 2010 to March 2009)?
We were very supportive, all of us – my wife, my brother-in-law, Aunty Jean, everyone. Some people say, ‘Oh there was pressure from the family for him to continue’ which is complete BS – I can’t begin to say how inaccurate that is. For us, what was important was him, and he was very happy that he had the family’s support for whatever it was he wanted to do. Again, we feel he’s decided it for the right reasons. There’s no sense of sadness or bitterness because this is politics – this is the life we choose and you have to play by the rules of the game.
There’s a widespread perception that the family’s involvement in business is one reason to delay retirement.
Delay? It went from the next elections, to 2010, to next year so that’s not a delay, that’s an acceleration of the retirement!
There is this perception of an extended family – a large circle of friends, like Patrick Lim.
Especially with projects in Penang, the Monsoon Cup. What are your thoughts on the matter?
It’s tough to fight public perception, but any ruling government or individual is almost always associated with many different people, and public perception is woven around these relationships. It’s nothing new to Malaysian leadership, as you may appreciate.
Yes, there were people who were seen or perceived to be close to the family who had businesses but I can assure you that I don’t think that anything was done in a manner that would be anything less than appropriate for the conduct of the prime minister. But perception, of course, is different; perception is that Patrick was close to the Prime Minister, that he got a lot of business deals. That’s something difficult to fight…
Well, the controversy over the Penang Global City Centre project didn’t help matters. Neither did the whole incident with the Monsoon Cup.
I don’t know the exact details, but the Penang project was, as far as I know, submitted by Patrick to the state government for approval and it’s not gone ahead. All I know is that, when I asked, there was nothing underhanded to it and again it was a question of perception. As for the Monsoon Cup, I’m not quite sure what the problem is.
There were rumours and questions about where the money to stage the Monsoon Cup came from, and that the Sultan (of Terengganu) wasn’t happy.
I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of the royal household, but the Monsoon Cup is a sporting/tourist event just like many other events in Malaysia which get the support of the Government. I don’t know exactly how much but I’m not quite sure what the…
It’s a general criticism of opportunity cost and the fact that it was a glamorous project…
So are a lot of things. I mean, everything has an opportunity cost whether it’s the Monsoon Cup or F1. Even a school has an opportunity cost… because you can build low-cost houses. If that’s the criticism, then fine. But we have to drill it down to what the criticism is about because people say it in very generalised terms – the Monsoon Cup, the Fourth Floor… So let’s talk about it, I mean, what is it about them that you’re not happy about?
At the last elections, there was a campaign booklet ostensibly published by Kelantan BN that turned out to contain pictures of a private function…
…in Sri Perdana, of Jean Todt, Michelle Yeoh, and the Prime Minister. How did it come to be that such photos at a private function turned up in the public domain and what are your feelings about this?
I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t the one who leaked the photographs! I don’t even know they were there.
Of course, Patrick was in there, and it didn’t look good.
No… It’s very intrusive and it’s very, it’s very…
Effective (for the Opposition) as well.
It’s effective because there are a lot of insinuations to the photographs, whereas it was a private function with family friends; with a well-known Malaysian actor, her fiancé, who was there because he happens to be involved in Formula 1, and somebody who knows them, i.e. Patrick.
It’s effective within a particular context that has been popularised, that has been mythified, for the last two, three years. But in and of itself, what is the problem?
… I’m just trying to deconstruct this to show the ridiculousness of this perception. When you isolate this event, as what is the problem with it? What is it that made you ask this particular question? You did it in a context, and which I have taken that context aside. But in and of itself, what is the problem?
It’s really a question about the effectiveness of such a tactic…
… and the people you can and cannot trust, even within a private function.
You can’t trust anybody. You can’t trust caterers, you can’t trust photographers – you can’t trust anybody. People are there with camera phones; everybody wants to leak something today, everybody wants to be the next Raja Petra, the next guy who breaks something on a blog to show that ‘I’ve been in the so-called corridors of power and I’ve seen it!’ Yes, in that sense it’s effective, because everybody wants to show the inner lives of the politicians which are larger than life. But when you actually deconstruct it as an event, as people….
But public perception does not deconstruct…
I’m trying to talk about the event itself. Ultimately, in trying to tackle perception, you have to go to the crux of the issue. Public perception is always moulded when people don’t drill down to ‘what actually is the problem with this?’
Certainly. As you say, it enlarged the myth and ties you and the office of the Prime Minister, and the family, with glamorous, larger than life associations – that sort of image. Are you comfortable with that?
It was very effective. All I’m trying to tell you now is what actually… was.
And it’s necessary that you do that. The question then is about the image that you have and how that is going to play out in your career.
Well, public perception is fickle. Images are fleeting. And it’s how you present yourself consistently over the years that’s going to matter. It’s not going to be one night of dinner with Jean Todt and Michelle Yeoh that’s going to define me or the legacy of this Prime Minister. I don’t think so. I don’t think people are that cheap.
Do you think Pak Lah’s early retirement will hurt your chances in March? How has it affected you since – are the doors which used to open, closing?
Maybe. I don’t know because I don’t particularly, pay much stock to that kind of privilege or access anymore. I think it’s all about what you have to offer yourself.
It matters very little now to me what the effects and implications are. Whatever the implications, they are reality, and it doesn’t feature much more than that for me.
LEFT, RIGHT AND CENTRE
What do you see yourself offering to Youth at this point in Umno’s history that’s different from a very conservative Khir Toyo, going by his blog, and Mukhriz [Mahathir] who seems to be moving along the same lines with his remarks about vernacular education. What is your stand on vernacular schools?
Let me take the first part of the question first. I think that the operative term of my campaign has been inclusivity. I want Umno Youth to be inclusive – for Umno members and Umno Youth members. I want it to be inclusive for other BN component youth parties and I want it to be inclusive for Malaysian youth in general.
I don’t want Umno Youth to have this elitist, exclusivist image. I want it to really work for everyone. That’s why I said from the start – I’m not just contesting as a Malay, I’m contesting as a Malaysian.
That to me is very important. During a very heated Umno Youth contest, people rush to the (conservative, communal) right immediately, and I want to make a point that you can contest in the centre. And I want to make sure that I can win from the centre – to show that you don’t have to present yourself as this exclusivist, communal champion to win an Umno Youth contest.
I want to show that you can change Umno Youth – as difficult as it may seem, as ludicrous as people may find that notion. I don’t want to leave this particular part of my political life not trying, even if I have to go down trying to do something that I believe is right.
The difference between me and the other two [candidates] is a generational difference. One’s 44, the other is 43, and I’m 32. Of course many people say age is a state of mind, but I think it helps when you are able to actually appreciate the sort of challenges that many young people go through.
Apart from that, I really want to drive inclusiveness home because that’s the future. I think it would be important if I can pull this off, not just personally, but for the entire Umno Youth – to move it away from that particular, exclusivist outlook to something that is more grounded in a Malaysian reality.
Looking at characters like Datuk Ahmad Ismail, how hard is your task? Is Umno Youth ready to move towards the centre?
It’s not an easy sell, I must admit but there are many members who are rational and understand it.
The way you approach it, talking about the intrinsic value of inclusivity even, of course, talking about the instrumental benefits of being inclusive – for example, that you can’t win an election without votes from Chinese and Indians. As well as the intrinsic value; that this is just the right thing to do. Both of these have to be sold together, and I think they (the members) will come around to it.
Speaking of inclusivity, how would you characterise Umno, as political party?
Umno is a big tent for Malays. You have a smorgasbord of Malays from the very liberal – one has just been kicked out (Zaid Ibrahim) – to the extremely conservative, to the ultras, the fake ultras and the vets.
And that’s the beauty of Umno: there was not a single organisation then which represented all of the Malays. We forgot about that, and suddenly Umno became very exclusivist – if you don’t conform to political stripes, then you’re not going to find a place in the leadership.
Now we have to recreate that sense of coming together – of all Malays, no matter what your theological, ideological bent. You’re there because this was something that united the Malays, and also within the Alliance and the Barisan Nasional that brought everyone else together.
It’s simplistic to describe Malaysian parties as racially-based but how would you describe Umno otherwise?
It should be a centrist party and if I were to stake claim, probably presumptuously, to a political lineage, I would stake claim to the lineage of the classic nationalist, in the form of Tun Razak and Tun Dr Ismail, who saw the need for active engagement to uplift the Malay community, but always in the context of a greater Malaysian family. I saw that very much in Pak Lah, actually, which is what attracted me to work with him in the first place. No, I didn’t work with him after I became his son-in-law; that came subsequently – I married the boss’s daughter.
But I saw in him what my parents taught me: that there was this Malay nationalism movement which was benevolent, which was not threatening, demeaning or belittling of the other communities.
It was a Malay leadership that was generous as it was sensitive; that was caring, as it was for the Malays, as it was for others. That’s what we have to go back to. It’s not like we’ve never had it, it’s not like there isn’t this tradition in Umno itself. It’s just that … we lost our way.
But how do you get there when people like Datuk Zaid [Ibrahim] are sacked for pitching a message similar to yours?
The problem with Zaid was not his message, the problem was his conduct. Political parties have their own unique set of discipline. I can’t speak for others, but my interpretation of Zaid’s sacking is that it was not for what he believed in, more for his conduct of appearing at Opposition party congresses. That’s different from meeting the Opposition at Parliament. If he was sacked for his beliefs, then some of us would have to be sacked as well.
Do you agree with his message, his observations about the party going out of control…
Look, his observations about the party are less important compared to his thoughts of the bigger challenges facing our country today. And I don’t think for one moment that he was sacked because he wanted to reform the judiciary or because he wanted to strengthen press freedom.
I was just wondering what sort of resonance his observations have in order to get an idea of what your chances are of reforming Umno into a centrist party. What kind of resonance does that kind of message (by Zaid) have for the party members?
(pause) It depends on the messenger as well.
I think the problem with Zaid was that he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way within Umno. And the unfortunate corollary to that was that the message got hit as well.
You may not like him, but don’t punish the message as well. Making the party more democratic, uprooting the scourge of money politics, committing this party to judicial reform, to strengthening anti-corruption enforcement – these are real things that should exist independently whether or not Zaid Ibrahim is inside the party.
And it’s something that we (Umno) must all talk about. If we want to be on the same page with the rest of Malaysia, then this is what we have to do. The great problem with Umno today is that there is a disconnect between what Umno feels and what the rest of the country feels. In bringing the party back to the centre, we reconnect it to the rest of Malaysia. This party cannot exist like an island unto itself, arms akimbo saying, ‘we know best’.
That’s what Zaid was trying to do with a particular segment of the population – that message captured the zeitgeist of urban middle Malaysia, today. And if we cannot connect with that, then we’re going to be in serious trouble. Not in ten years, but in four years.
What does inclusivity entail? What’s your stand on the NEP? Umno Youth is traditionally very right wing when it comes to subjects like the NEP. How do you reconcile that with trying to be inclusive?
A lot of these positions are in very strong need of nuances and finesse. Take the NEP, although it’s technically not called that anymore. I believe that the NEP is something good for this country. Its objective of eradication of poverty regardless of race, no right-thinking Malaysian would go against that. Its second objective of redistribution of income, growth with equity, eliminating economic function with racial identification, no one can quarrel with that – you wouldn’t want to see any sectors of the economy monopolised by one race, or the public sector monopolised by one community; but you want a Malaysia where every single sector is reflective of the general population.
The issue here is not the spirit or the objectives of the NEP. The issue has always been about the implementation and how you get it right – you must make sure that the NEP serves its purpose and reaches its target [recipients]. A great concern today is not just inter-ethnic, but also intra-ethnic, disparities in income. Any measure of income disparity, for example, the Gini coefficients, will show you that intra-ethnic disparities in income have worsened, and this lends credence to the fact that there’s relative deprivation. That’s why there’s a general acceptance of the idea of Umnoputras and the NEP only benefitting a small segment of the Malay community. We have to make sure the implementation of the NEP justifies the policy.
One thing that separates Anwar [Ibrahim, with his National Economic Agenda] from me is, Anwar always says, when he wants to cover himself with the Malay community, ‘We will help the Malays, but we will help the poor Malays,’ in trying to justify that he’s not going to leave the Malays behind (by proposing the National Economic Agenda).
My difference with Anwar is that there must be some form of empowerment throughout for the Malays; and my difference with the traditional Umno view is that there must be a graduated maxim – when you reach a certain stage [of economic independence], you must be weaned off this life-long, lifeline called the NEP, or a dependency syndrome becomes a collective consciousness. When the entire community becomes dependent on the NEP, it becomes conflated with terms like Ketuanan Melayu and Article 153 (of the Federal Constitution, which grants privileges to the Malays).
People can’t distinguish between what is policy and what is an ephemeral term that’s not even in the Constitution, so it becomes this thing that is so difficult to wean ourselves off. I’m different from Anwar in that I want the NEP to benefit most of the Malay community, but there must be a point where you say, ‘I wanna do it on my own, because I’m there already.’
You see, I dream of a day where we have 60 percent Malay kids in public universities – not because they’re there on quotas, but on merit. I say to university students, ‘Fine, many of you are here because of quotas or because of matriculation, entry point and the like, but we should feel a little slighted we’re here because of that. We feel good when we’re there on merit.’
That’s what it’s all about. You have to transform the collective consciousness to one of empowerment, rather than one of dependency. There must be a point where the government says, look, you can’t possibly ask scholarships for your kids because you just don’t qualify for it.
How do you address problems with the NEP’s implementation?
There are things that you can do; it all comes down to efficacy of implementation. There are many statistical tools in policy-making, from means testing to greater scrutiny of applications, to make sure that you’re not caught up by political pressure, and that aid goes to people who deserve it.
If we just go the means testing way then there would be no need for the NEP.
Not really, and that’s where Anwar and I differ. I say that there’s still a need for a system for the Malays, because the NEP was rooted in – I’m not conflating it – things such (Article) 153 and the notion that Malays should be assisted in this grand affirmative action programme.
Yes, if you do use means testing, there shouldn’t be a need for the NEP because at the end of the day most people who would be assisted would be Malays anyway.
But to move from the NEP, which is communally defined, to a cold, hard, means testing would be too much of a shock for the Malays. You have to gradually move there. We have not reached that stage where we are willing to move away from this comfort zone of a communally defined policy to one that is more clinical and defined according to need. But we’ll have to get there eventually.
We can’t help but agree with you. What are you up against? Vested interests? The whole culture? Some would and have said that you’re up against a patronage machine, and people who have made their careers by the party. How are you going to not just convince them but get past the system?
Look, it’s very much easier said than done. But as I’ve said, I don’t want to not try.
You’ve got to try. And the only thing that I can tell them (Umno members) is, we’re faced with a very stark reality of political survival. If you don’t listen to what the rest of the country says, then the bottom line is political death.
Unfortunately, some of them say that, actually, this isn’t the way to go, and the reason why we did so badly at the last election wasn’t anything to do with the fact that Umno is disconnected from the rest of the country – it is because Umno is not the centralised power, and that this power is not being exercised by the Prime Minister anymore; we must clamp down on the media, use more of the ISA; Pak Lah’s too weak because he didn’t jail people, he didn’t whack people with sticks…
If you want to go down that way, fine. My crystal ball-gazing shows that you had then better get used to (being in) the other side of the Parliamentary chamber because that’s exactly where you’re going to end up.
If we don’t go down that way (of authoritarianism) first…
So what would you say is at stake in the coming Umno elections? Should we be worried about what the results are going to be?
Yeah. The future of this country is at stake. Simple as that. Two thousand people decide the future of this country; 800 people decide on the future of the youth of this country. Beat that for a restricted suffrage.
People are blaming Umno for causing disunity among the races, especially when you have characters like the guy in Penang.
Well, he’s a hero.
How can you change that?
I want to bring a political culture that is sorely needed within the party, and in the country itself, in general. And I don’t want to single out Umno because I think we’re all guilty of this, and to single out Umno would be very unfair. Each political party is guilty to some extent of playing to certain communal sensitivities. Some may be multi-racial in name, but I think they are all guilty of that.
It’s part of the game.
It’s part of the game. What I do want to bring about is what I call the politics of empathy; to try to see things not as they are according to you, but as they are according to others. I’ve thought long and hard about this. The country may still be dictated along communal lines because that’s the reality of Malaysian society but we place the national agenda far and above everything else.
Politics of empathy simply means that when I talk to the Malay community in my constituency, I say to them, ‘Look, how would you feel if a mosque was demolished three days before Hari Raya, just as a temple was demolished three days before Deepavali? Don’t you think you’d be up in arms? Don’t you think you’ll set up, you know, some NGO which will march down the capital, tens and hundreds and thousands of people demanding some changes?’
Politics of empathy means that the non-Malays have to look at the Malay community and understand that when Malay rights, the Malay rulers, this ephemeral thing called Ketuanan Melayu are touched on, they feel angry and hurt. You may think that, ‘Oh, it’s an overreaction by Umno people,’ but it’s a serious feeling of disappointment among the Malay community …
For the non-Malay, he must understand that, even for a Malay like me, although I don’t have this historical baggage, I still have this sense of where this civilisation was from, the Malay civilisation was from, the rulers, the development of culture, Malay culture, and the attachment that we still have to that Malay culture.
It doesn’t mean that we believe in a master-slave relationship, that there should be an economic apartheid – it just means that we understand and appreciate our culture in our civilisational context.
But it must be in this national conversation. I’m not just contesting for the leadership of Umno Youth; the leadership of Umno Youth means the leadership of BN Youth as well. Your first port of call may be Umno in terms of politics, but when you go to the elections, you’re contesting under a BN banner. And there must be more than coming together only during the elections – it must be about shared principles which are rooted in each other’s own collective consciousness – this is the empathy that I speak of.
Can you win the Umno elections with the message that you have? Can you put this politics of empathy into practice, realistically speaking?
I’m sure that you think people who read this interview and who want to give me the benefit of the doubt would think that this is very quixotic, out there, and ‘he’s obviously chosen to reinvent himself at the wrong time.’
But that’s precisely what I want to demonstrate – that this is for real. What benefit, conventionally, would I have from ‘reinventing myself’ quote unquote? That’s what you guys think it is. Surely, if I am a strategic politician, this is not the time to do it.
(emphatic) But I want to demonstrate to Malaysia that this is for real, that’s why I want to do it now. I want to try and win on this message to show that it is possible to change this party.
This isn’t just a message for party members; I’m saying to the rest of the country that if I can do this and show that we can win on this ticket, that means that we can yet save this party. We can yet connect this party with the rest of the country.
Yes, we can. (laughs)
And what is your analysis of what could happen, for Umno? Basically, you know, whether it veers right, left, goes to the middle.
Right now, it’s having a very long holiday on the right. I hope that when this election season is over, we’re going to come back to the centre. From what I know of him, and from what I’ve seen of him, I think that Datuk Seri Najib is somebody who is well aware of the challenges. I think he’ll bring the party to the centre. He understands the realities of politics and has been in politics his whole life and I think his instinct is very much one of that classic nationalism that I was talking about.
And the reforms. Will they go through?
I don’t mean to say this in a derogatory way, but even if they go through simply because Umno is giving face to Pak Lah because these are so-called his last few acts as Prime Minister, we’ll take it.
That’s better than nothing.
The establishing of the Judicial Appointments Commission and the restructuring of the ACA into the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission is perhaps the most important institution-building exercise in recent Malaysian history. It’s hard to tell today, but in the future, people will say this was the first step towards strengthening democratic government in Malaysia. And I for one, cannot understand why one of my fellow Umno Youth chief aspirants said that this judicial appointment commission is not important as it is the Opposition’s agenda and that it doesn’t benefit the Malays. I can’t even begin to tell you how that offends me personally.
Your offer to have a public debate with your rivals was not taken up. Is that an indication of the kind of culture that you have to work through?
Look, my reason for wanting this debate, was not for purposes of grandstanding. [A debate] is a great leveller of the playing field; Mukhriz can’t bring his dad, I can’t bring my father-in-law, Khir Toyo can’t bring his think-tank. It’s unscripted; a politician cannot be assessed when he follows a script. Secondly, this may be a contest for Umno Youth, (but) I’m not talking to just Umno Youth members, or the eight hundred delegates. You’ve got to talk to the rest of the country, because the rest of the country knows that whoever becomes the president of Umno is going to become Prime Minister. The Umno Youth leader is going to be a key player in the government party.
Whether you like it or not, the rest of the country is reading about the Umno Youth contest. So show them what we’re all about. Why are you scared of articulating your vision to the rest of the country?
There’s the view that Mukhriz is Datuk Seri Najib’s choice for Youth Chief. Is that a concern to you?
Obviously as a politician, you tend to read a lot into these things. (Najib’s Pekan Umno division nominated Mukhriz for Umno Youth Chief.) Whatever said and done, Umno, and to a large extent many other political parties in Malaysia and around the world, are parties of patronage.
Datuk Seri Najib, as incoming Prime Minister, obviously is the faction that people have to be aligned to. But, as far as I know, Datuk Seri Najib has been fair to each candidate, and I don’t think he’s actively shown preference and I think that’s very gracious of him, to allow us an equal chance to prove ourselves to the delegates. And I think with his long experience and wisdom in Umno, he’ll allow for that equal access and equal opportunity for each candidate.
What would you do if you don’t make it?
That’s a great question… If I don’t make it then I have more time to spend in my constituency, more time to work as a backbencher, more time with my family – which would be great because by then I would have two young kids. (Khairy now has two boys.) And yeah, maybe write a book. Maybe I’ll write a book which never gets past the first page. (laughs)
Have you ever thought of an alternative career to politics?
Yeah. War correspondent. I interned at the Economist before I came back (to Malaysia) and my last assignment was actually at the front lines of Afghanistan. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is it. This is what it’s all about.’
With two kids?
Yeah I suppose, that’s not the Nori-correct thing to say… be a war correspondent (laughs).
Would you go back into investment banking?
Yeah, maybe [but] not at this time. I suppose if my father-in-law was not the Prime Minister, yeah, I probably would go back into it. But it’s such a dirty profession. I mean, all the investment banks are going bust (laughs).
The Political Education of KJ: Questioning Khairy Jamaluddin via email
* These questions were sent subsequent to the face-to-face interview
How did you come to be involved in the negotiations with Suqiu in 1999?
That was a time of heightened ethnic tensions. There was an Umno Youth demonstration outside the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (the demonstrators had threatened to torch the Hall – Ed) in response to the Suqiu memorandum which contained demands that touched directly on constitutional rights of the bumiputera. There was a sense of unease across the country. Some Malays felt that this was an attempt to extract concessions ahead of the elections while some non-Malays felt these were legitimate grievances.
This tension festered for some time until Hisham and Pak Lah had a discussion about engaging Suqiu rather than confronting them which would only escalate animosity further. I think Pak Lah then went to clear it with Dr Mahathir. Once he got the green light, I was asked to be part of the team tasked to engage Suqiu.
There were four of us. It was led by Azim Zabidi, now Umno Treasurer, together with Zaki Zahid, who was an aide to Hisham at the time; a lawyer by the name of Munir Aziz, who was my senior at Oxford; and myself. We spent a total of 26 hours discussing the demands with Suqiu. We pointed out to the gentlemen representing Suqiu that out of their 83 demands, we only had problems with seven, which were sensitive to the Malay/bumiputera community. The rest, which were about good governance, justice and fairness, were all things that we could talk about. But the seven points touched on things that we considered sacrosanct.
The discussions were tough and, at times, tense. One of the Suqiu guys threw a Malay pantun and I shot back a Chinese proverb. That broke the ice somewhat during a particularly tense session. We debated the Social Contract and the finer points of the Constitution. We started at different ends but ended in the middle with a healthy dose of empathy for one another. All of us at the table realised that confrontation wasn’t worth it and we have to live with each other, even if it means compromising on what we ideally want for our communities. We got them to drop the seven sensitive points and that’s when the rest of Umno Youth stepped in for the photo op and the triumphant conclusion of good sense prevailing.
How has the experience informed your views of Malaysian politics, particularly in regards to education and ‘Ketuanan Melayu’?
It was an eye opener. I felt both a dose of empathy for some of the Suqiu concerns and a sense of pride that I was defending the Malay perspective in a rational, balanced and intellectually rigorous manner. I understood better the importance that the Chinese community attaches to its schools not just in terms of the quality of teaching but as a focal point for its community and culture. I became more confident in articulating the Malay position in a way that wasn’t threatening or demeaning to others, but in the context of what we believe to be our legitimate rights and aspirations.
At the resolution of the talks, I saw how there was this dynamic centre in Malaysian politics and society that is so difficult to preserve. It’s easy living on the extreme, communal fringes because you appeal to a base, jingoistic identity politics which can rile up many in their respective communities. But it is difficult and brave to occupy and protect that dynamic, radical centre where you craft a position that protects everyone’s rights, that respects everyone’s aspirations even though nobody gets all that they want.
Does it sound like a compromise? Maybe. But I prefer to see it as the only choice we have. People in Umno told me I was brave when I made certain statements that appeared to pander to the right of the party. But in hindsight, I now think it takes much more guts to occupy this dynamic centre because this is where you have to fight the baser instincts which tend to be more populist. The centre must hold and it takes strength of character to stay here.
Fear and the R-word
What would you say have been some of the obstacles along the way for reform; institutional political culture, perhaps?
There is certainly institutional inertia. The political culture of the ruling elite has been very much one of control. Institutions of governance need to be controlled, the media needs to be controlled, laws must enable control over potential enemies and also the public. Control is power and when push comes to shove you wield that power to stay in power. That’s more or less how it worked and how some still feel it should work.
When talk of reforms begins, it threatens this status quo, this rule by power and control. Many would naturally want to stall these reforms because they believe it will result in a loss of control. We just passed two landmark bills in Parliament; the Prime Minister’s signature reform bills on an anti-corruption and a judicial appointments commission and there was tremendous institutional resistance to these initiatives. Again the issue was loss of control – can we allow Parliament to have oversight over the anti-corruption commission? Why does the PM need a commission to recommend names to him for judicial appointments? One senior cabinet minister with designs on higher office was even heard saying that the judicial appointments commission would not only dilute the Prime Minister’s prerogative but also sideline Malay judges and therefore must be rejected. This is all indicative of the command and control mindset which is outdated.
The public today can no longer be overwhelmed into submission by the apparatus of the state, draconian laws or ethnic scaremongering that was the hallmark of a bygone era. Politics today is based on trust and respect. If the voters trust and respect you, they will support you.
When outgoing Umno Youth chief Hishammuddin Hussein again wielded the keris at the Umno assembly in November 2007, you were photographed with him and others at the frontline. Presumably, this keris-wielding was a collective decision by the Umno Youth leadership. What informed this decision, especially when the first ‘keris’ episode attracted such an adverse response from the general public, and why you went along?
The keris is a symbol of Malay culture (see also, OTE Merdeka 50 Years commemorative issue). It is not a symbol of aggression. When we were rebranding Umno Youth, someone thought that we should add a little pomp and circumstance to the proceedings of the annual congress. There was a suggestion that some burly guys decked in full Malay pahlawan (warrior) regalia bring in a cokmar (mace) like in Parliament. Then there was a suggestion that it should be a keris since that was more reflective of Malay culture than a cokmar. After all, the Yang Dipertuan Agong unsheathes and kisses a keris during his coronation as did Tunku Abdul Rahman when he came back from London to announce independence in Melaka. Most Malay guys who get married carry a keris to their weddings, not to stab their bride or in-laws, but rather as a part of the outfit that is reflective of Malay culture.
So the suggestion to have this procession bringing in the keris was made very much with this spirit in mind. The problem was not the keris per se; it was that the keris was introduced in a context where Malay rhetoric was perceived to have intensified in the Umno party congress. The keris then became a symbol that defined this perception of aggression and confrontation towards others.
I believe if the keris was not accompanied with the aggressive rhetoric, it would not be much of an issue. Imagine if the speeches made extolled unity and called for better cooperation among ethnic communities in Malaysia. Would unsheathing a keris then be a problem? I don’t think so. We have to identify the root cause of the uneasiness and anger. I think we have learned from this experience.
You have called for the abolishing of annual licensing requirements for newspapers and magazines. Would you advocate for this and a more liberal media as Umno Youth chief?
Yes. Many delegates tell me that they want the good old days of media control. They are worried that press freedom unnecessarily excites people into having certain perceptions, usually negative, towards Umno. I tell them that if the mainstream media don’t report these issues, it’s going to be carried in online news portals, blogs and smaller, more sensational tabloids anyway. So if the mainstream media does an old-fashioned blackout, they are just going to lose more credibility and enhance the stature of the alternative sources of news.
What is important is not the control bit – again a sacred cow of the past which is so difficult to slay – but rather how we exercise our communications strategy. Umno must be more media savvy – not in barking orders and threats at the editors but in engaging with frontline journalists, crafting a position, backing up that position with facts and rigorous analysis. That’s the way forward.
Of course freedom must come with responsibility. No one questions that. There must be curbs against racial and religious incitement. There must be recourse to the courts for those who have been defamed. But otherwise we must accept and adapt to a more open and free media, another important legacy of this administration.
UMNO and the R-word
Conventional wisdom has it that one needs very deep pockets and alliances of sheer expedience in order to secure a win at the Umno elections. The talk is also of the most well-funded party elections since 1993, when the self-declared ‘Wawasan’ team swept the board. What would you say you are up against in running for the position of Umno Youth chief?
If a delegate wants to sell his support for a price, I am not that guy. But if he wants ideas, conviction, commitment and inclusivity, give me a chance to present my views. I may be up against an entrenched culture but I am not going to play by those rules. I want to appeal to the delegates’ hearts and minds so that they make an informed decision based on issues and principles rather than basing their decision on material reward. They must understand that their choice has an implication on the rest of the country and not just Umno. It’s that important.
How do you fund your Umno election campaign?
I do a low-cost, no frills campaign. I go house to house. No fancy hotels and restaurants but good, old fashioned canvassing at the delegates’ homes. They give me a chance to speak then bombard me with questions and comments. I ask them to meet all candidates and decide after they have had a chance to size each one of us up personally. We eat whatever their wives have prepared in the kitchen. So, it’s really no frills.
It is now almost de rigueur to speak of Umno reform. Can you spell out what you think this reform means; and what are the implications for the general public if Umno fails to do so, and loses power at the next general election?
Yes, many speak of change and reforms but they have no idea what it means. They speak of going back to basics, going back to the people but can’t offer much more than say, for instance, proposing to make it easier for party members to get business loans. Some reform that is.
Of course, the back to basics stuff is important – being more rakyat-friendly, less arrogant, less materialistic.
But reform goes beyond that. It means getting rid of the power and control mindset that I spoke of earlier. It means empowering the rakyat and not feeling scared that this empowerment will come back and haunt you because if you govern well, the rakyat will not punish you.
It means reforming governance to strengthen institutions and amend oppressive legislation. It means reforming economic management to curb and eliminate pork barreling, gravy trains, rentier capitalism and excessive patronage. Is this going to diminish Umno’s strength? Yes, of course. But that diminished strength defined by control will be more than offset by the strength defined by credibility that you will get from the rakyat who are crying out for such reforms. Never underestimate people-power. Look at what happened in March. The rakyat was sending a signal that we didn’t reform fast enough.
I am an Umno man just as much as anyone in the leadership but look at the mathematics: Umno has just over three million members. There will possibly be 17 million voters in the next general elections. Are you going to pander to party interests and squander the support of the majority of voters? Are you going to be held ransom to a system of patronage that doesn’t benefit the man on the street? This is partly what happened between 2004 and 2008. We pandered to the party and forgot the people. And we paid a heavy price for that.
That is what reform means. I believe we can reform Umno along these lines. Contrary to what people may think, there are those in Umno who believe in these changes. Of course Pak Lah will be retiring in March and he’s very much the doyen of the reformists, if I can use the term for those who are like-minded. But there are others, within the Cabinet and also outside, who see this case for reform as crucial for our survival and, more importantly, believe that the original spirit and character of Umno that was desecrated along the way are very much consistent with this reform.
What does Malaysia’s Generation Next want?
They want economic security and opportunity just like preceding generations. But they also want more freedom. They are unshackled from historical baggage and not easily spooked by communal scaremongering that used to divide and rule. They aspire to regional, even global, standards and are not content to be jaguh kampung – even the Mat Rempits aspire to be the best illegal street racers in the region and not just on the Federal Highway! They want to exercise their rights as voters, citizens, consumers and stakeholders. They want to be comfortable with their plural identities – Malaysians but also Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Iban, etc.
They are modern yet rooted in their cultural milieu. They can be daytime conservatives and evening liberals. They want political stability but crave for open debate and freer electoral contests. Most importantly, they don’t want politicians to speak down to them like they are little children.