Life is quite different for Umno Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin now that he is no longer a Prime Minister’s son-in-law but he has worked to put the Youth wing in a fresh direction.
THERE have been several sightings of Khairy Jamaluddin in the economy class of MAS flights.
And no, it is not a joke. The Umno Youth chief flies economy nowadays when on party programmes.
Coming down to earth: The former high-flier has had a hard landing but he has not crashed. Instead, Khairy Jamaluddin, seen here at a BN Youth press conference, has worked at mapping out a new direction for the Umno Youth wing.
“He carries his own bag, checks in himself. You can see the surprise on people’s faces when they see him in economy. He chats with them, they say hello and shake his hand,” said Umno Youth secretary Megat Firdouz Megat Junid.
According to Megat Firdouz, it is economy class from now on for all the wing’s officials, including the Youth chief.
In the old days, this would have made the news but Khairy has not been much in the news since winning the Umno Youth leadership.
When asked about his “low profile” in an interview with a Chinese daily, he said the media was “not interested in me”.
Actually, he is still a newsmaker. He is the Umno Youth chief and one of Umno’s more controversial faces. But he is no longer a Prime Minister’s son-in-law and his boys complain that supporters do not wait for him at airports and that the VIP treatment is gone.
The goal posts have shifted, as they say, and he has to compete on a more level playing field these days.
The former high-flier has had to come down to earth. It has been a tough landing but he has not crashed.
"Programmes cannot be ‘syiok sendiri’ and we have to adopt new methods" - Megat Firdouz Megat Junid.
And despite the “low profile,” he has been serious and diligent about his duties as Umno Youth leader. His new team has put into place the new course of direction and action for the wing. The challenge now is to translate it on the ground.
At their retreat three months ago, the team took a hard look at themselves, at their failures and achievements, at how the ground had shifted under their feet and how they have to change or end up as the next political opposition.
“The opinion was that the old style of doing things had not worked, we have to listen to the ground, programmes cannot be ‘syiok sendiri’ (self-serving) and we have to adopt new methods,” said Megat Firdouz.
Khairy, said Megat Firdouz, has since revamped the wing’s focus areas, setting up new secretariats and units to cope with the new political landscape.
For instance, a secretariat on urban affairs headed by Bukit Bintang Youth head Tengku Azman Tengku Zainal Abidin will tackle issues facing young urban Malays.
Umno does not have many seats to contest in Kuala Lumpur but Tengku Azman feels the party has to reach out to this overlooked social enclave who live and work in the city but whose base is still in their kampung in other states.
Umno Youth exco member Tun Faizal Ismail is heading the new media unit, where Umno badly trailed its opponents and which will be a frontline area in the next general election.
There are also committees dealing with young professionals, government servants, young workers, psychological warfare, involvement with NGOs and training and education. All these were areas where Umno lost out to their opponents in the last general election.
Recently, Nasir Hussin Akhtar Hussin, who heads the young workers secretariat, went up to Penang to meet workers who had been retrenched from a factory.
“We cannot sit and wait for people to come to us, we want to go to them,” said Tun Faizal.
Another exco member Lokman Nor Adam is heading a unit on oratory skills and public discourse because a politician’s message is more effective if he speaks well.
Khairy has come up with some sort of road map for the wing in his first three months.
“We’ve put the new foundation in place, we have to make it happen,” said Megat Firdouz.
Tun Faizal, a supporter of Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, admits that Khairy has “brought in some transformation”.
“There is new thinking and the work is spread out to empower people,” he added.
Khairy is an on-the-ball sort of guy and sends text messages to his officials late at night to remind them of things to do especially when there are programmes the next day.
Treasurer Datuk Rozabil Abdul Rahman said it is not uncommon to get instructions and reminders via text messages from Khairy at 1am or 2 am.
They joke that he caught the “disease” from his predecessor Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein who is still doing it to his staff.
It has not been an easy inception period for Khairy especially after being left out from Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s Cabinet set-up.
The positive side to this is that he is able to be a full-time Youth chief. The minus side is that he lacks the clout of a government post and the perks that come with it.
“People should not under-rate the Umno Youth position. It is a powerful post and he can do things even without being a deputy minister. Party leaders need the cooperation of the three wings,” said Wanita exco member Suraya Yaakob.
The disappointment has passed but the frustration is probably still there.
The advantage of reduced media coverage is that it averts attention and leaves people with less to say or gossip about him. He has also been able to campaign in Manek Urai whereas he had to stay away from the earlier by-elections because of image issues.
“He seems to have passed a critical point in this because he is leading the by-election campaign,” said Subang Youth head Harrison Hassan.
The wing had a Pemuda Masuk Kampung programme in Manek Urai where they put up overnight in the homes of local residents.
His image problem aside, Khairy’s biggest challenge remains his struggle to consolidate his support in the wing.
He won only 40% of the votes in the three-way fight to lead the wing and his detractors call him the “minority leader”.
His win was controversial and the scene outside the Dewan Tun Hussein the night he won, when police had to be called in to control the crowd, is something that journalists will remember for a long time.
“People are still trying to close ranks. It is not easy because of the battle scars,” said Harrison.
Few were surprised when Khairy appointed his loyalists as key office-bearers and as Youth state chiefs. However, the appointment of Megat Firdouz to the crucial secretary post initially puzzled people because he had supported Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo in the Youth chief fight.
It was a strategic decision because Khairy is hoping that Megat Firdouz will help to rally Dr Khir’s supporters. Moreover, Megat Firdouz is also the son of the late Umno strongman Tan Sri Megat Junid Megat Ayob.
Khairy will probably have more problems winning over the Mukhriz camp because their rivalry ran deeper and was more personal than that between him and Dr Khir. It was also complicated by the very public fall-out between their respective father-in-law and father. Khairy is probably relying on his deputy Youth chief Datuk Razali Ibrahim, who is aligned to Mukhriz, to do his part in winning over the Mukhriz boys.
“Khairy really wants to engage everyone. I pray to God we will come together in the spirit of Umno,” said Rozabil.
But members talk about the difficulty that some of the state Youth chiefs he appointed are having on the ground especially in states like Selangor where the urbanised membership has clear-cut opinions about who is the more worthy leader.
Being censured for money politics at the height of the Umno election campaign still hangs on him like a black mark.
At the PAS muktamar last month, speakers made disparaging remarks about him and recently a shouting match erupted in Parliament when Bukit Gelugor MP Karpal Singh kept shouting “Rembau, corrupt!”
Khairy is still weighed down by his political baggage. But his edge is that he is smart, has contemporary ideas and those who come into contact with him can see that he is a cut above.
In Manek Urai, young people gaped at him wherever he went, asked to have their photographs taken with him and milled around to hear what he had to say.
“He has charisma, he is still tall, dark and handsome even if he does not have the same kind of clout he had before,” said Suraya.
Khairy has mapped out the road ahead for the Youth wing but his own political path is still cluttered with hurdles.