Khairy hints at stepping down as Umno Youth head

As delegates from the minor wings of Malaysia's ruling party met yesterday, one of the party's rising stars hinted that he may be eyeing a more senior position soon.

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin hinted this could be his last time at the post, prompting speculation that he may contest a spot in the main wing in the next party election in three years.

Umno, Malaysia's biggest party with 3.4 million members, is divided into a youth wing for young men, a young women's wing, a women's wing and the main party for men over 40 years of age.

Current party president and Prime Minister Najib Razak and vice-president Hishammuddin Hussein are among previous Umno Youth leaders who moved up to become Supreme Council members or vice-president afterwards.

Mr Khairy, who is also the youth and sports minister, has been a rising star in Umno for several years at a time when many worry that Umno lacks fresh, young leaders to appeal to young voters.

He has helmed the youth chief position since 2008 and recently renewed his mandate in a five-way fight at Umno party elections in October.

"I will not be here forever... I am already 37," he told reporters at a media conference at the Putra World Trade Centre. "This is a bit sad for me, but this is the start of a transition of the next leadership of Umno Youth."

Under him, Umno Youth has gone from being a Malay pressure group known for its right-wing rhetoric to a centrist, service-oriented body, running job, housing and education fairs.

He said it was too early to name a successor but signalled that he wanted the youth wing to continue on its centrist path. "If it is only me that is progressive, Umno Youth's direction may not be the same after I leave."

Professor Shamsul Adabi Mamat, a political analyst at National University of Malaysia, said the time is ripe for Mr Khairy to prepare for life beyond Umno Youth.

"The next three years will be a time for Umno leaders to assess Mr Khairy's capability as minister and party leader and so, he should start preparing," he told The Straits Times yesterday.

Not that Umno Youth has completely ditched its fiery rhetoric. At yesterday's meeting, Mr Khairy accused non-Malay firms of discriminating against Malays.

In some cases, Malays get paid less than non-Malays despite similar qualifications, he said.

Meanwhile, at the young women's wing, Puteri Umno chief Mas Ermiyati Samsudin said she planned to raise membership to 500,000 in a few years from 368,481 members currently.

Over at the women's wing, president Shahrizat Abdul Jalil appeared to have recovered from a scandal involving her family and a failed RM250 million (S$97 million) cow-rearing project.

She called on the government to appoint more Malay women to head government-linked companies. She also asked the central leadership to appoint more women as senior party leaders.

The main Umno wing meets today.

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