Wednesday, February 18, 2009

All about the youth

With just over 30 days to the National UMNO Elections, the contests for posts from Deputy President to the last Puteri Exco seat are heating up. But for many, one to particularly watch out for is that for Youth Head of the party.

Amongst the three candidates vying for the prize that has been occupied by no less a figure than incoming President Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak, one individual stands out through his age, character and campaign platform.

Khairy Jamaluddin has just turned 33, and is the only candidate under the age of 40. Some have said that this fact may not be relevant for UMNO Youth, seeing as to how the wing has traditionally been headed by persons over 40. But recent trends suggest that there has been a substantive change in how the party is perceived by younger voters – a change that calls for, among others, a generational rejuvenation. Without this generational shift in the leadership of UMNO Youth, then clearly the thirst for change have yet to reach the doors of the wing.

Some elaboration is necessary. Khairy has on occasions argued that it takes a youth to bestunderstand the aspirations and concerns of the below-40 segment. Whilst this may be a valid argument, it does not capture the more fundamental need to move away from the generation of outgoing Youth Head Dato' Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein – Hishammuddin has done much to rebuild the wing from the ashes of 1999 but the demands of the day require a new approach to how UMNO Youth operates. A young face would send all the right signals to the younger generation that UMNO is serious in rebranding itself to becoming a party that no longer preaches to the youth, but elevates one of them. The slogan Pemuda untuk Pemuda is thus, quite fitting.

They say age is just a number; at least in this case though, Khairy's non-political personality and character exudes youth-ness puts some doubt into that cliché. Having a penchant for contemporary music, football and even fashion, he represents much of what UMNO Youth should look like if it intends to woo the post-Merdeka generation of young voters who yearn for a movement they can identify with. Who else in the race but Khairy can even come close to being 'one of us'?

But perhaps what encapsulates Khairy's synonymy with Malaysia's youth is his campaign message of inclusivity and empathy. Tired of years of zero-sum, communal-centric politics of confrontation, Khairy's"Setiakawan" message promises to bring about a radical shift in the UMNO Youth narrative, a movement traditionally associated with being the right-wing conscience of the larger party. Voting figures show that chest-thumping Malay ultraism simply will not work anymore amongst young Malaysians who have grown up in relative peace and prosperity; UMNO Youth under the helm of Khairy will stand a better chance of recapturing the imagination of young Malaysians who have no guilt for feeling Malaysian first and foremost, or for sanctifying the ideals of justice and democracy. This last point was best demonstrated during the program Hujah at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka on 18 February when Khairy stuck to a centrist position on matters such as ISA and race relations whereas the two other candidates competed with one another to portray a traditional ultra Malay face. Khairy also displayed maturity in his critique of the government – defending the institution's fundamental strengths whilst acknowledging there was room for improvement vis a vis implementation of policies. Such sophistication was lacking in both other candidates who felt no shame in slamming UMNO, BN and the Government on national television.

This contest is no less than a contest for the party's future. The delegates must wise up to the reality that UMNO no longer commands the support of the majority of under-40s and elect the man with the right age and right message to ensure UMNO's survival.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Pakatan Hypocrisy, like a stick in the mud.

The takeover of the Perak State Government by the Barisan Nasional has exposed many things: the value of stealth in politics, the political operator in Prime Minister-to-be Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak, but most of all, the hypocrisy within the Pakatan Rakyat ranks.

One would have thought that a coalition fashioning itself as a credible alternative to the current Government would bite the bullet and accept that after an extended honeymoon since the 12th General Elections, it was finally outdone in this battle. That Pakatan's figurehead Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim indulged in months of trumpeting September 16th and the toppling of the Federal Government via defections by Barisan Parliamentarians surely made what transpired in Perak all the more painful to swallow.

Instead of pondering about where its missteps have been, Pakatan has cried foul over a legitimate grab – a paradox it may be, but a legitimate government is a government nonetheless. And whilst the Pakatan crowd have been incessantly calling for there to be a special sitting of the State Assembly to unseat the (former) Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Nizar Jamaludin, claiming that the Sultan of Perak has no power to decree that Nizar and his EXCO resign, it is useful to note that had Anwar Ibrahim obtained the magic number of 30 defectors in Parliament, he would merely have to seek an audience with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to prove to the latter that he has the confidence of the majority of Parliamentarians – Anwar himself hinted on more than one occasion that that was precisely what he intended to do!

The above, can still of course be described as a necessary political positioning – though it does show Pakatan to be no better than what it accuses Barisan of. What is most troubling and most irresponsible is the Pakatan's hypocrisy with regards to the power and role of the monarchy. If during the BERSIH demonstrations – and the circus that followed it – they were more than willing to fake having the tacit support of the monarchy, it is simply inconsistent for them to now criticise the Sultan for utilising His Highness's 'reserve' political (and constitutional) power. If during the Idris Jusoh – Ahmad Said controversy in Terengganu Pakatan members were championing the right of the Sultan with glee as the Prime Minister was humiliated, how is it that they find it fit to question the right of the Sultan to declare a government fallen? Regardless, Nizar's refusal to yield to the Sultan's decree is plainly an act of trampling upon the the institution of Malay Rulers and with that, very legitimate and understandable Malay sensitivities. It isarguably this extreme posturing that has led even UMNO leaders like Khairy Jamaluddin; some what ill at ease with the manner in which Perak was won, to call for Nizar to be banished. Unorthodox perhaps – when has Khairy been anything otherwise? – but the point to be made is that what ever grievances Pakatan may have with what has transpired, it must never channel it in ways that convey disrespect to the Sultan. Certain things are meant to be beyond the sphere of political gamesmanship.

And at the very least, in Barisan there are the likes of Khairy, Tengku Razaleigh and even Tun Dr. Mahathir – three individuals hardly in love with one another – that make their discomfort with defections quite clear and public. The public will ultimately decide whether what Barisan did was politically wise – democracy always decides, in the end. But until Perak is again put to the vote, Pakatan will have to eat some humble pie and back down from their position of extreme hypocrisy that threatens to drag the monarchy further into the mix of what is already a vicious environment.