IN Kuala Lumpur last week, a young man gave one of the bravest and riskiest speeches of his political career.
Khairy Jamaluddin, 34, spoke at the annual assembly of Malaysia’s dominant party, the United Malays National Organisation.
To address this assembly and attack party canons and threaten the privileges of fellow members might be seen as political suicide; but Khairy did it last Wednesday – and thank God he did.
Let me tell you a bit about him. I first met Khairy back in 1996, when he was on holiday from studying politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, in the United Kingdom.
Despite his youthful joie de vivre, Khairy did not waste his long university breaks on zen and the art of carousing, seducing and cavorting at the seaside.
For him, it was an opportunity to develop contacts in the party, in academia, in business, and in the media to establish a solid base for his political career.
He called me to say he’d heard I was one of the more informed foreign correspondents and he wanted to know how I felt about the situation in Malaysia and especially in UMNO. We lunched at the Crown Princess Hotel on Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, named after the nation’s second prime minister and father of the current prime minister, Najib Razak.
There, he peppered me about who was up and down in the UMNO and whether then-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s boys were taking over the party and trying to ease out then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
As I answered, Khairy would cut in excitedly on some point or probe suspiciously on another. The guy was relentless.
But I liked him, especially his boyish shrieks of laughter and his funky reddish-blonde hairstyle, which, as I noticed when I met him again in Hanoi a decade later, has been long ditched.
At Oxford, Khairy befriended fellow Malaysians Omar Mustapha and Vincent Lim, and together they founded the progressive current affairs magazine Ethos.
Omar and Vincent later became political advisers in the prime minister’s office, while Khairy took a master’s degree in legal and political theory at University College London.
He then worked as a journalist for The Economist, travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan on assignment.
It was there, observing the abject living conditions and suffocating influence of the mullahs, that he solidified his belief that Malaysia should practice a forward-looking, tolerant form of Islam.
Returning home, he entered politics, won a seat in parliament and was elected head of the UMNO youth wing last year.
He is well on the way to becoming a prime minister.
So now we come to his speech last week. In a nutshell, it called for reform of the landmark policy brought in by Najib’s father in 1970 to enable the indigenous Malays to catch up with the other races, notably the Malaysian Chinese, who dominated the economy.
It gives the Malays benefits that extend from share allocations to scholarships to civil service jobs to discounts on homes.
Khairy said it was time for these privileges, widely regarded as sacrosanct to cease because they have caused the majority Malays to become lazy and greedy.
They have led to many Malays seeking to acquire “the luxurious bungalow, Mercedes and young wife” that they felt befitted their annointed
And the discriminatory pro-Malay policy made other races feel left out.
“What of the feelings of poor non-Malay students denied a scholarship despite achieving outstanding results?” said Khairy. “And are we to believe that there are few non-Malays qualified to hold senior posts in the civil service?”
It was a bombshell, but it needed to be said – and said by a Malay leader. In the short term, Khairy’s words may lose him support, but in the long run his view must prevail.
It will ensure that Malaysia remains an economic success story, a moderate Islamic society and a harmonious multiracial democracy.