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.