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Khairy interrupted: A nation wonders as he wanders By Praba Ganesan

Publish date: Tue, 07 Feb 2023, 09:15 AM

FEBRUARY 2 — Many danced to celebrate ex-minister, firebrand and foreign-trained Khairy Jamaluddin’s Umno expulsion. Just as many sat dumbfounded by their idol’s fall from grace.

The rest hold their breath in anticipation. In Malaysia, national upheavals usually follow major Umno exits.

Prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked 25 years ago from Umno. Reformasi happened and resulted in a game-changing party

Ex-PM Muhyiddin was axed in 2015 only to give birth to Bersatu. His nemesis Najib Razak then loses a general election in 2018.

Also shown the door with Muhyiddin, vice-president Shafie Apdal rejuvenates Sabah with his Warisan, ending 25 years of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule.

Khairy? Does a man who spent most of his formative years abroad possess the tenacity to shift the country’s trajectory? Without a safety net of his own?

The dismissal

It was brutal and without ceremony.

In his defence, Khairy says he attacked the leadership not the party. Except the invectives coincided with a general election.

Khairy eventually ended up upsetting both President Zahid Hamidi and eventually his own ex-division chief Mohamad Hasan, also the deputy president. At the year end Umno general assembly, he claimed unfairness during floor votes.

And he got thrown out.

The naïve bit about Khairy is that he assumed the party was fair.

While Umno has processes, at its core it seeks power and never shies from rocking Malaysia’s democracy to stay on top.

In fact, the laundry list of Umno’s shenanigans to interpret, leverage, tilt influences, motivate actions and encourage favours, on the fringes of legal or immoral, can fill a very thick book.

Without any sense of irony or circumspection. They did not play cricket, they played mafia.

Khairy was cool with that, until they kicked him in the groin.

All doors to Camelot

Without a solid base, he rose quickly.

At the start of 2000 he was already dating the deputy prime minister’s daughter. No, not that one. Abdullah Badawi (Pak Lah) as the heir apparent to Mahathir Mohamad after the ugly Anwar spat had to tread carefully, and Khairy came on board.

When the Pak Lah years began (2003-2009) rumours of a busy son-in-law surfaced.

Within four years, he won the deputy Youth chief position. By 2009, he was the chief. Pak Lah grants him a safe MP seat to contest ― Rembau. He wins.

The gravy grinds to a halt when Najib Razak replaced his father-in-law in 2009. Despite Khairy’s party position, Najib ignored him for Cabinet positions.

He moves to stage two of his political evolution: Khairy the orang biasa dan keras — average and relatable with a hard edge.

While raising capital as an investment banker, in his political life he is your Khairy.

He rides bikes, he shouts hoarsely together with the Umno cadres. He opposes Bersih’s efforts to bring cleaner elections. Affronts like indelible ink, transparent electoral rolls, less malapportioned seats, longer election campaigns, automatic registrations and TV space for Opposition leaders upset the now not-liberal Khairy.

In 2011, he marches in the city with his Red Shirts — Umno youths happy to be angered — to uphold democracy by threatening those who champion democracy. Bersih protestors had to evade zones where the Red Shirts were, since as Umno Youths, they are usually not restrained or indeed arrested.

In parallel developments, he forms an independent football team, MyTeam, and even becomes FAM vice-president. Joins the Territorial Army Regiment and inside four years was promoted to brigadier-general.

Too out there and still Youth chief, after GE13, Najib makes him minister. Immediately he tones down, to be respectable. In 2016, he even condemns former Red Shirt comrades when they beat up a Bersih supporter.

Every step of the way, he leads a charmed life. Even when Perikatan Nasional emerged to run the country, they named him minister despite him not having a party position.

His error? To lose the Umno presidency race to Zahid Hamidi in 2018 and to never make up with the sheriff.

In Umno, to respect the pecking order is more important than principles or ideas. Seventy years of absolute power is not endowed by principles, it comes by obliterating anyone who dares to walk through the door uninvited.

Where does he go from here?

The barrier to entry in Malaysian politics is high. There are a record number of parties but only three potent enough to form a government. Umno, Bersatu and PKR, and their leaderships originate from the same river.

Both Bersatu and PKR desire him but on their terms. Leaders live by the idiom, better to keep your enemies close. Draw his star power — win votes — but suffocate him in their party and coalition bureaucracy.

Ask Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman how it feels to be the leader of a Pakatan satellite party? Still Muar MP, allowed in for the group picture, appointments to boards and agencies for MUDA leaders but no real pathway to jolt the system. Youth in chains, that’s a good summary.

Khairy has half a mind to contest in the Selangor election.

Be careful. Last year, an ex-prime minister of 24 years led a bunch of misfits and lost every race and deposit.

But what to do with his fan appeal?

Surely, 2.9 million Twitter followers and another 1.5 million at Facebook is not chicken feed. But even with that he lost an urban race in Selangor to a first-time candidate, formerly of MIC.

Another bite at Selangor may be premature.

He has support across the federation. Unfortunately, they are evenly spread, and not going to win him a state constituency. The big three with the advantage of first past the post (FPTP) stand in his way.

Unlike Anwar and Muhyiddin at their lowest, not many will follow him out of Umno.

Decide, just not so quickly

Khairy faces buckets of questions with only a few answers in his head.

His social media numbers and name recognition pull him up.

It is barren, Malaysia today, when it comes to naming future leaders. Both Muhyiddin and Anwar are 90 in 15 years and Zahid Hamidi’s battle of attrition will catch up with him.

Pundits probably struggle to name more than fingers in one hand those under 50 and capable.

Khairy is a cohort in that waiting list. In this race, Khairy has lost his pacesetter spot but there are many kilometres left in this competition.

In the chasing pack without affiliations, he can run with greater freedom and purpose. But alone for now.

Khairy in his journey so far has been adept at all stages. Some say that’s because he will gladly change his tune to be relevant, therefore unprincipled. Others laud his dynamism to stick to it.

Luckily for the former health minister, voters and not intellectuals decide his fate.

He has to assiduously scan the terrain, and contemplate. This time, there is no father-in-law and no giant party behind him. This time, he chooses well or slips into history’s fringes. Maybe he can skip the free lunches from suitors one of these days and come see regular folks like those in Cheras, and pay for his own lunch.

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