Apr 16, 2007

Khairy: Malays need to make up for lost time

(NST) FOR all the thousands of words written about him, not a lot is known about Mr Khairy Jamaluddin. There are hundreds of tales, myths and gossip but few facts. And he keeps it that way by rarely giving personal interviews.

Despite this, he is one of the most recognised personalities in Malaysia. He is famously aloof but that's more likely a natural reserve when it comes to strangers. It's not difficult to see why he does not want to talk about himself.

Mr Khairy, the son-in-law of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, has been the favourite whipping boy of everyone in the past few years. He has been accused of having a domineering influence on government policy, excessive ambition and haste in his political career, meddling, and more recently, of being an overbearing champion of Malay rights. These accusations spring mostly from gossip - and some are pretty outlandish - but the last one started when he tabled the motion on the economy at the Umno general assembly two years ago.

His speech was seen as the start of a renewed push for greater Malay economic rights which provoked a rise in rhetoric on all sides. His donning the mantle of a Malay champion puzzled many. He is the son of a diplomat, schooled in Singapore and then, Oxford University followed by University College London. At a young age, he was writing for The Economist, hosting a TV talk show, and doing the things that very few Malaysians can aspire to.

Now a mere 31, he is highly articulate, and is frequently in glittering company with his wife, Nori Abdullah, the only daughter of PM Abdullah. They have been married for more than five years, and are expecting their first child in October. He is also the deputy head of Umno Youth, and now a full-time politician after he sold his stake in an investment bank last year. He plays golf and polo. His office in upscale Damansara Heights reveals an eclectic taste for elegant furniture with a colonial-style leather wingback chair paired with a gleaming Mac computer.

He does not appear to be what some would call a Malay radical. Yet critics say he is. But Mr Khairy's stand is more complex than his detractors will admit as it makes for a less exciting story when nuance comes in to complicate things.

He told The Straits Times that consciousness of Malay rights began with the realisation that there were only 13 years to 2020 when Malaysia hopes to become a developed nation. The Malays cannot be left behind. 'We realise its (the Malay agenda's) weaknesses and excesses. We are not saying, give us everything. We are saying, give us the proper opportunity and we will make sure this time, it is not squandered,' he said.

Umno, he said, was trying to motivate the Malays to finish the race but the renewed battle cry alarmed the other races. Mr Khairy acknowledged that it did sometimes sound like it was exhorting the Malays to see the other communities as rivals. 'When you want to try to motivate the political ground, your rhetoric always tends to sound a little bit like that, no matter who is saying it, whether it's Umno, MCA or MIC,' he said.

This premise explains why he and his Umno Youth colleagues can seem so unrelenting in their demands on the one hand, and support the rollback of Malay privileges in certain areas on the other. For instance, Mr Khairy supports the government's incentives for investors to south Johor's Iskandar Development Region. The government was criticised for offering foreigners a waiver of the requirements for at least 30 per cent bumiputera equity, and a certain level of Malay employment.

He argued that similar incentives had been given to the manufacturing sector and information technology companies located in the Multimedia Super Corridor. 'Other than the fact that this is being given to newer industries, it is not something that we have not given before elsewhere,' he said.

Critics have noted that the earlier measures were for specific industries where there was little Malaysian capability, while the IDR incentives extend to industries like tourism. But Mr Khairy pointed out the earlier incentives were also given to IT companies that developed content, not just software. He argued that Malaysia needed investments in the IDR, and thousands of jobs will be created, most of which would be for Malaysians.

'Of course, the feeling on the ground is still fragile,' he said. The strong feelings have already caused political pressure to build. Umno Youth Johor was among those expressing concern in private meetings. But Mr Khairy said this should not be read as a rejection of the IDR incentives. Rather, it was a call to ensure bumiputera participation.

'We don't want to be in a situation, especially Umno, where we accept the incentives which are tailor-made for foreign investors, and we don't put up a fight anymore,' he said. To investors, however, this could simply sound like mixed messages.

Says Mr Khairy: 'Political language is difficult for outsiders to understand.' That could perhaps apply to people's perception of him as well. His political language versus his personal philosophy. Personally, he thinks that affirmative action will have to end someday. And if his career trajectory goes where his ambition aims, it'll be his generation of politicians who will have to deal with the issue.

He knows that, and he also realises the difficulties. But somehow he seems optimistic. 'It's going to be politically difficult to wean the Malays off but once they realise that it will mean so much more that they can do without these quotas... the sweet taste of success will mean so much more,' he said. The goal, he said, is to 'solve this Malay problem once and for all'.

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