Malaysia’s most happening politician Khairy Jamaluddin was a newsmaker this year, from his leading role in the SEA Games to his presence on social media where some fans call him ‘daddy’ and where his ‘flying f’ remark on Twitter is still talked about.
KHAIRY Jamaluddin had several big moments at the last Umno general assembly when his party president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak singled him out for special mention, described him as an “Umno warrior” and challenged him to raise the bar.
And raise the bar he did. Khairy has had a remarkable year and, for several weeks in August, he was the man of the moment as the medals stacked up for Malaysia at the SEA Games.
He has since jumped straight back into the TN50 or National Transformation 2050 townhall series and, earlier this week, he joined Felda chairman Tan Sri Shahrir Samad at a session for Felda youth.
As the session progressed, he found that his checklist matched what Khairy had outlined except that the Youth and Sports Minister called it “smart cities”.
“I thought to myself, this kid is not bad. He’s thinking ahead and the way he goes about it, I could see he is passionate and giving it his all,” said Shahrir.
The “kid” has certainly come a long way since the years when his father-in-law Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was Prime Minister and he was dubbed the “most powerful 28-year-old”.
The youngest member of the Cabinet turned 41 this year. He is more mature and has made a seamless transition into fatherhood.
He is into exercise and fitness and some of his female fans on social media sometimes refer to him as “daddy”. It is apparently a millennial slang for an attractive older man and has provocative connotations, and that was why his seemingly innocent question about it caused a mini eruption on the Internet.
The Umno Youth leader is the most followed politician on Twitter. He also has the widest variety of outfits among fellow politicians, going by his Instagram.
“Of course, we notice what he wears. He’s fashionable and genuinely cool,” said Shahril Hamdan, his friend and also the wing’s Young Professionals Bureau head.
You are also unlikely to catch him in those oversized linen shirts that Umno politicians are so fond of.
Khairy stands out among many Umno politicians because of his huge appeal outside of Umno.
According to Shahril, Khairy has his hands on the pulse of the youth generation because he is part of that youth trend.
“He has always struck me as an agent of change. There’s always some push-back when you try to change things because people are more comfortable with the status quo. But we have to ask ourselves how we want to see the party grow,” said Shahril.
However, politicians need a thick skin to navigate the toxic world of Malaysian politics and Khairy occasionally comes across as rather thin-skinned or what the Malays know as “kecil hati”.
There was a lot of speculation about his “Can’t give a flying f anymore” tweet which, according to a reliable source, was a veiled retort aimed at an ambitious dark horse figure in the Youth wing.
“His stock has gone up in the public eye. He is very relatable to the current generation. I think he has managed to capture the public imagination. Everyone could see how he juggled a complex challenge (the SEA Games),” said Amir Fareed Rahim, strategy director of KRA.
Critics of Khairy used to say that he is over-rated and that he came up riding on the office of his father-in-law.
But this has been a year that has proven his critics wrong. The stakes were very high, the world was watching and he pulled it off.
“He acquitted himself well, it is a real achievement for him,” said Shahrir.
Most Youth and Sports Ministers can tackle the youth part very well but Khairy is the first who is part of that generation and also an athlete himself.
The Malaysian polo squad of which he was a member took home a gold medal and it is unlikely that any other minister will be able to top that. Khairy actually fell off his horse during the match against Brunei but he climbed back on and continued playing.
In the middle of the Games, he had some problem with the Johor Crown Prince which few could make head or tail of but everyone noticed that the Sultan of Selangor turned up to present the medals for the polo team winners, and that sent out an important message.
There will be more big moments for Khairy when he steps onto the Umno stage next month. The SEA Games united Malaysians and brought national pride, and it will not go unacknowledged by his party.
Like everyone else, he thought that the last Umno general assembly would be the last before the general election and he had used the Umno Youth assembly last year to underline his legacy in the wing.
“I guess he will need to refashion the rallying cry for the general election,” said Shahril.
Those close to him indicated that he will want to expand on his previous speeches in stressing why Umno will be with the young and send out the right signals to the young voters.
Last year, Khairy made an interesting slide presentation pointing out the inconsistencies of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose party is now a threat to Umno’s Malay base.
He outlined how the former Premier said one thing previously but was now doing something else, be it joining street protests, holding hands with Lim Kit Siang and reuniting with the man he accused of committing sodomy.
“We are not going to deny his achievements when he was the PM, but I guess the party needs to take a hard look at what Tun Mahathir is doing today as the leader of the Opposition. At the same time, we also want to focus on what Najib has done, to remind the people of the government’s achievements and the development agenda ahead,” said Shahril.
Khairy has relied on his portfolio and personality to define his achievements as Umno Youth leader.
“From his speeches, to the way he stayed involved and connected throughout the SEA Games, he should be able to apply his talents to other ministries,” said Shahrir.
But, as Amir pointed out, the future of the Youth wing after Khairy is rather unclear.
It is unlike the period after Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein when there were three big names fighting for the wing’s leadership, namely Dr Khir Toyo, Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir and Khairy who were major personalities with well-defined agendas of their own.
It will be a tough act to follow for whoever comes after.
Everyone in Umno does not want to talk about the party election even though it is there at the back of their heads.
Khairy had inadvertently opened the door to the discussion when he indicated during the last Umno Youth assembly that it would be his last term as the leader of the wing.
He did not say where he was going next but the popular assumption is that he is eyeing one of the three vice-presidents (VP) post. It will not be as easy as some think because the big boys club plays by a different set of rules.
Being popular outside the party is one thing but to get to the VP level, you need the endorsement of the division chiefs and, more than that, you need the blessings of the big boss.
The accolades that Najib heaped on Khairy last year was more about making sure he did not bolt. Najib was more than aware of the rumours swirling back in 2015 that Kahiry was being courted by the other side.
The sweet words were aimed at telling the younger man: Your future lies with Umno, you are appreciated, we have plans for you and you had better stick with us.
Do those plans include a place at the VP table? It is hard to tell even though for now, the sky seems to be the limit.
Shahrir’s advice is for Khairy to stay true to himself and continue to deliver.
“If he likes coloured socks, then go on wearing them. Let him be himself,” said Shahrir, referring to the younger man’s taste for colourful socks.