A big year for Umno VP Khairy

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin speaking at the annual Umno Youth annual assembly.

When Khairy Jamaluddin swept home to a second term as Umno Youth chief last year, a few of his long-time aides were elated, yet nervous. A big win comes with big expectations and they knew that Khairy would be under pressure to deliver.

These are still early days but almost everyone one meets in Umno and that includes those who are still suspicious of him, accept that he has emerged as one of Umno's brightest stars.

It has been a big year for Khairy and he will take his place on the Umno stage next week, knowing that he has not disappointed those who voted for him or his party leaders who have entrusted responsibilities on him.

He is arguably the first Youth and Sports Minister to live up to the title - he was only 37 when he was appointed to the portfolio and he seems able to tackle almost every type of sport, be it a somersault, dribbling a basketball or a tough obstacle course. Those who follow him on Facebook would have seen his dare to take part in the Rembau Challenge next month where teams will "run, mountain-bike and kayak through my 'hood," as he puts it.

The teams will race up Gunung Datuk, bike through off-road trails of Rembau and run through the finish line in Rembau town.

It is the sort of thing that brings excitement and pride to small towns. Rembau has warmed up to him over the years. His first general election in 2008 saw him winning the Rembau seat with a majority of about 6,000 votes. In the last election, he retained the seat with a majority of some 15,000 votes.

This sort of big win is only possible if all the races come along. For instance, the Chinese family who runs a popular coffee shop in town can still be seen wearing the "Vote for Khairy" T-shirts that they had worn during the election campaign.

Basically, Rembau voters can sense that he is committed to the seat although he was born and raised all over the world.

It is convenient to say that the Cabinet post is tailor-fit for him but the Youth and Sports portfolio can sometimes be a double-edged sword. The minister gets blamed when athletes do not perform, when spectators fight in the stadium or when there is a doping scandal.

"He has managed the different stakeholders of sports quite well," said Putrajaya Umno politician Datuk Zaki Zahid.

Khairy showed maturity in his handling of the doping allegations against Malaysia's No. 1 badminton star. He understood the national sentiments surrounding Datuk Lee Chong Wei and he navigated through it with finesse, showing his concern over the allegations without humiliating the world No. 1 shuttler.

Some said his standing in Umno had less to do with his high-profile Cabinet post than with the way he has carried himself as an Umno leader in the new political landscape.

He still has his share of critics in Umno who find him too modern and too different. But he is among the leaders in Umno who has taken on opposition figures in public debates and is able to argue on issues and politics. Equally important is the ability to state one's stand on issues and to defend the party against the other side.

The nationalist in many Umno members are also mindful that he is with the Malaysian reserve army where he holds the rank of Kolonel and sends his son to national school.

"His views stand out. Politically, he did not want Umno Youth to be just another loud pressure group that only reacts to issues. He has tried to bring more content to the movement by tackling issues like jobs and meaningful wages and housing. He sees Umno Youth trying to solve problems faced by younger population rather than just pressuring the Government to do it," said Zaki.

Khairy has also gone around to every state, to get to know the division leaders and to build up the network.

Next week's Umno gathering will be some sort of test on his leadership. Khairy represents that segment of Umno which wants the party to adapt to the new political landscape. He has dared to go against the grain on many issues affecting the Malays and his party.But there are suggestions that the conservative voices in Umno will dominate in next week's party gathering.

Will the Umno Youth leader's more contemporary voice be heard or will he be overwhelmed? Khairy won big last year. Can he use his position of strength to stand his ground on issues of national unity, race and religion, issues that bring out the emotions in Umno every year?