Still no serious challenger in sight for Khairy

MALAYSIA - Khairy Jamaluddin has been keeping mum on his Umno Youth leadership post and his silence has been interpreted by some to mean that he is seeking a bigger post in the Umno elections.

But the Youth and Sports Minister has his feet quite firmly on the ground and is said to be preparing to hold on to his Youth chief post. He has told people that contests in the Youth wing and the party's main body are two different ball games and he is not prepared for the senior game as yet.

Besides, he wants to focus on his ministry work and also to finish what he had set out to do during his first term as Youth chief.

The boy who used to be in such a hurry has matured into a man who is more willing to wait for his turn.

But the most interesting thing about his situation is that until today, there is no sign of anyone planning to challenge him for the post. His team had put its antenna out on who might be their man's possible contender the last couple of months.

"Nothing so far," said one of them.

Khairy's situation is a stark contrast to that of the Wanita and Puteri wings. A big fight is looming between Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil and Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said for the Wanita leadership while it will be another free-for-all in the Puteri wing.

More than that, the scene around Khairy is a far cry from what he went through during the 2009 contest. The three-way fight between him, Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir was a riveting national drama.

The scars are still there as evident from the recent remark by the former Selangor Mentri Besar that Umno Youth needs a new leader because Khairy had failed to win over young voters, especially Chinese youths, in the general election. It was an odd argument and it tasted of sour grapes.

As for Khairy and Mukhriz, there is still no love lost between them although they try to keep up a civil front.

The period after the 2009 party polls was the low point of his political life.

Although Khairy won, he was not given a government post whereas his deputy Youth chief Datuk Razali Ibrahim and Mukhriz were appointed deputy ministers. He went from being one of the powerful Fourth Floor boys to being out of the loop.

But Khairy has bounced back. And that is politics - being down there does not mean you cannot get up again and being up there cannot be taken for granted.

This time Khairy is coming in as a minister and as someone with ideas and plans that are relevant to the youth population.

During his term of office, his Youth team came up with programmes and proposals on jobs, training and even housing for the youth, some of which have been incorporated as government policy.

When he started out on the back bench after the 2008 general election, the opposition MPs used to mock him as the "richest unemployed in the country".

The "son-in-law" label was great when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was Prime Minister but it became an albatross around his neck after Abdullah stepped down. It was a tough time for him and at one stage he even felt like throwing in the towel.

Nevertheless, he stood out as a government backbencher in Parliament. Some said the turning point for Khairy was when his Youth Lab project got the attention of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak. But there were a number of tipping points that added up to a big one.

The Umno rank and file saw a different side of him when he and his Umno Youth group braved tear gas and water cannons to show opposition to Bersih's street protests. He took the hits on behalf of the party and he gained respect for that.

But machismo and gamesmanship aside, it was his public debates with his political opponents that gained him real respect from many in Umno. He has shown an ability to think on his feet, to argue factual­ly and to take on his opponents on a variety of issues, something very few in Umno have been able to do.

Khairy, now 37, was also the youngest person to ever win the Youth chief post. The oldest was Tan Sri Syed Jaafar Albar who was in his 60s when he won the post and died mid-term.

His deputy Razali, 42, was a potential challenger earlier on and was seen as being backed by a powerful figure. But Razali, who is Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, knows that he has been outflanked and has indicated that he would not be going for the Youth leadership.

Mukhriz has his hands full as Mentri Besar of Kedah. Some have suggested that he takes a stab at the vice-president post but to do that would be seen as being over-ambitious and trying to chew off more than he can swallow. Mukhriz is likely to try out for a spot in the supreme council.

As for Dr Khir, he is still grappling with a messy graft trial, the party still blames him for the fall of Selangor and his political career is as good as over.

The big names may be out of the way, but the new Umno election rules has democratised contest for all posts and there is no stopping any Tom, Dick or Harry from jumping into the ring on Sept 7 when candidates eyeing posts file their nominations.

But Khairy has paid his dues and he can look forward to an easier ride even if there are contenders.