Trailing third and last in the nomination stage of the race for UMNO Youth Head, Khairy Jamaluddin can scarcely be blamed if he feels hard done by. At the turn of the year, Khairy seemed destined to assume the top post of the wing. Charismatic, influential and able, it appeared as though UMNO – for all its conservative underpinnings – was actually ready to accept an articulate ‘bangsawan’ so long as he fought tooth and nail for the Malay cause.

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KJ

And fight for the cause he certainly did. Even from the early days of his involvement in UMNO Youth dating back to 1998, Khairy indicated that he was not out of touch with the concerns of the Malay base when he was amongst Pemuda’s representatives who negotiated with Suqiu over the latter’s demands that appeared to encroach upon the Malay special position. Over the past ten years, Khairy has led Pemuda BN to five by-election victories, protested the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and most significantly, been in frontlines of both defence ant attack for the Government in the face of persistent undermining from the Opposition.

But even his most ardent supporters would accept that Khairy’s demeanour over this period has been far from conducive to his image-building. In UMNO especially, perception trumps everything else and Khairy would have done well to be pro-active in appearing less elite. Khairy probably felt too uncomfortable trying to be what he was not, but hypocrisy is the worst of traits in all other areas of life, bar politics. To be sure, he has displayed, on occasion, a willingness to meet the UMNO game halfway in instances such as when he controversially remarked – misconstrued or otherwise – that the Chinese would take advantage of a weak UMNO, and when he unflinchingly defended Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Hussein’s Keris-wielding act at the 2007 General Assembly.

In the face of his perception-handicap, Khairy’s enemies have expectedly not been kind. With constant barrage of allegations –ranging from corruption to sex scandals – propagated from within and without the party, Khairy who for the longest of times maintained a position of ‘elegant silence’, now finds himself paying for past missteps and inaction.

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MM

And perhaps it needed a body blow like one he is receiving now for Khairy, now 32, to come down from the heights of being ‘the most powerful 27 year-old in the country’. Seeing friends turn against him can only have the effect of making him more humble, retrospective and wiser. However, in today’s context of an increasingly vocal civil society demanding for widening democratic space, it is imperative that Khairy wins the influential post now rather than later (the nature of UMNO politics prescribes that once one falls out of favour, it is almost impossible to stage a return for a long time). This is precisely because his contenders Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Dato’ Seri Dr. Khir Toyo are far from democrats at heart. Mukhriz for example, has gone on record to say that judicial reforms were unnecessary as it did not benefit the Malays – exactly the posturing that has gotten UMNO into the troubled position it is in now.

In fact, studying the nomination figures for the top positions in UMNO, one cannot help but see the looming return of Razak, Hussein and Mahathir in the shape of their respective sons. Dato’ Seri Najib has been swept into power uncontested, Hishammuddin is sitting pretty in the race for Vice-Presidency and Mukhriz is leading the nominations for UMNO Youth. It did not take long for the media to pick up on the trends and speculate on mystifying stories of successions – Syed Nadzri of the NST wrote today that we could well have “Najib-Hishammuddin-Mukhriz as UMNO’s seventh, eighth and ninth president following exactly the perfect order of their fathers Razak-Hussein-Mahathir as third, fourth and fifth presidents”.

Premature as that forecast may be, it sheds light on the monumental challenges that Khairy now faces. Already cast by some as a political pariah in the making, he must find a way to turn his fortunes around by March. Malaysia awaits the outcome, and it would be in the interest of those wishing to see substantial reforms within UMNO and the BN government, as opposed to a return to the authoritarian days of Mahathir, that Khairy rides on his platform of “Setiakawan” to victory.

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