Malaysia election 2022: Covid star and PM hopeful Khairy Jamaluddin faces ‘fight for political life’
- Malaysia’s health minister faces difficult task of wresting Sungai Buloh from opposing Pakatan Harapan, who won comfortably in 2018 watershed election
- Covid-19 response has boosted Khairy’s confidence, as he sets time frame of 5-10 years to become country’s prime minister
Standing on a stage in Sungai Buloh, a working-class suburb west of Kuala Lumpur, Khairy said it was the right time for him to step up and asked voters to give him a platform to get there.
The 46-year-old will take on the opposing Pakatan Harapan coalition, which won the constituency with a comfortable 26,000-vote margin in the 2018 general election.
“One day I want to be your prime minister, for us to develop this country. But I must win here first,” Khairy said, to cheers from the crowd.
Such a pronouncement, particularly in his Umno party – where the prime ministership is traditionally tied to the party presidency – is almost unheard of, given its adherence to respecting the hierarchy and toeing the party line.
Khairy said he found his confidence after leading Malaysia’s effort in managing the Covid-19 spread, first as the science and technology minister and later as health minister.
“I didn’t want to declare my aspiration before I thought that I could handle something as big as that, and I think we’ve done pretty well as a country,” said Khairy in a radio interview with BFM on Tuesday.
At 46, Khairy said he needed to chart a future for himself and set a time frame of five to 10 years to achieve his ambition.
“I’ve come to a crossroads in my political career … I have to make a decision soon whether I step up or not, and this is it,” he said to BFM.
Khairy’s casual demeanour, relaxed public persona and Oxbridge credentials make him an endearing figure among the Malaysian public. His 2001 marriage to the daughter of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the country’s fifth prime minister, helped propel his rapid rise in that decade.
“He got his job through marriage so he has a sense of political entitlement,” said political analyst Bridget Welsh. “His ambition has defined him from the start of his career.”
Khairy continues to be hailed as the one to rejuvenate Umno from being a party long encumbered with geriatric leaders who refuse to make way.
He has been at the forefront of debates on various issues, including some that go against the official party stance, such as repealing laws that stifle free press and online censorship.
In the lead-up to the November 19 election, Khairy had to relinquish his three-term seat of Rembau to Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan – who has never run for parliament before – to contest in Sungai Buloh, which is surrounded by pro-opposition constituencies.
Despite his prominent nationwide profile, observers say he faces a battle for his political life to win the seat.
The two previously butted heads contesting the party presidency after Umno’s defeat in the 2018 general election, with Khairy seeing it as an opportunity to revamp the leadership. At the time, Khairy’s loss was seen by analysts as an indication that the party was reluctant to opt for a fresher, younger outlook.
Asked about Khairy’s aspiration, Ahmad Zahid said he should win the Sungai Buloh seat first before bringing up “trivial things”.
“If we only promote ourselves, as if we are the best, the smartest and most intelligent, that means we are full of ourselves,” he said.
Khairy’s Covid-19 success might also fall flat with voters affected by the lengthy nationwide lockdown, while his vaccination drive has been labelled as “hasty” and “heavy-handed”.
“My boss had a heart attack after his booster dose. My son had three doses and caught Covid-19 three times,” said driver Fadil Fauzi, who is voting in Sungai Buloh. “I don’t trust him.”
Crystal Liam, a Sungai Buloh resident, said while Khairy was “different” from the usual cadre of Umno leaders, a vote for him was still a vote for the party.
“He is good, but he is in the wrong party. If he is not in Umno I would consider him,” Liam said.
However, Khairy has his fair share of supporters. Student Farah Aina said it would be thrilling to have a future prime minister from her constituency and it being Khairy was a massive plus.
“I’m thrilled of course, he’s one of the better ones. If he thinks he can be prime minister, we should give him a chance,” she said.
Despite Khairy’s personal popularity, surveys show Umno’s hopes of a return to its pre-2018 dominance are unlikely to materialise.
A recent forecast by Merdeka Center indicated the Umno-led Barisan Nasional would only be able to win 32 out of the total 222 seats. Opponents Perikatan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan are predicted to grab 48 and 99 seats respectively.
With Umno facing the likelihood of a bigger loss than in 2018 – when they won 79 seats – experts say the party’s internal election next year could be a bloodbath.
“The undercurrent to replace Ahmad Zahid will materialise after GE15 in Umno’s internal elections,” said political analyst Azmi Hassan. “Zahid’s position could be challenged by Khairy if he wins Sungai Buloh. It all depends on the election results.”
Khairy said there were some leaders who “need to give way”, hinting at changes within the “next couple of years”.
“This is not going to be a five- or 10-year project, it is going to happen right after the election,” he said.