Khairy Jamaluddin stands out from the pack: The Star columnist

Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin giving speech during Umno's general assembly on Dec 9, 2015.
Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin giving speech during Umno's general assembly on Dec 9, 2015. PHOTO: THE STAR

Joceline Tan

The Star/Asia News Network

Once touted as the 'most powerful 28-year-old', the Khairy Jamaluddin of today is more grounded, focused and disciplined and the Umno Youth wing has grown along with him.

Mr Khairy Jamaluddin turned 40 in January. His hair is starting to turn a little salt and pepper, his eyes are still as droopy as ever but Mr Khairy has been Malaysia's most happening Youth and Sports Minister.

It has been a tremendous year for him and Mr Khairy will face the Umno Youth assembly next week riding a crest of popularity.

He has emerged as the face of Umno's future and some are hoping that he will use his policy speech this year to articulate some sort of vision for the youth cohort.

He has probably done some thinking in this area but those familiar with him say that he does not want to be perceived as being over-ambitious.

Ambitions are normal in politics but being over-ambitious, that is something else.

Regardless of whether he decides to do the vision speech, his policy speeches have always been well-researched, informative, relatively low on rhetoric, easy to absorb and, on one or two occasions, quite inspiring.

This is Mr Khairy's second term as Umno Youth chief and his third year as a minister.

For many Umno politicians, the government post defines the party post and the Youth and Sports portfolio has helped define his leadership of Umno Youth.

"His first term in the Youth wing was largely about earning his street creds and laying the foundation. His appointment to the Cabinet in his second term allowed him to showcase what he can bring as a minister," said Mr Amir Fareed Rahim, a political risk analyst for the KRA Group.

Malaysia's success in the Olympics and Paralympics has been a high point of his ministership. His predecessor laid the groundwork for Rio, but Mr Khairy handled the expectations, the highs and lows experienced by Malaysian athletes with maturity and savvy.

He has 1.6 million followers on Twitter and his tweets soared when the medals came in. When the medals fell short, he tackled it with the right touch of encouraging and comforting words.

The ministry's Fit Malaysia programme has caught on with the millennials in a big way. He has been able to connect with them by how he uses social media, the way he talks and dresses and, most of all, by the fact that he seems able to play any kind of sport.

He is part of the online generation and has adapted much better than his senior colleagues to the challenge of the Internet era.

"His portfolio allows him to do the things that millennials identify with - fun things like sports, Snapchat, contemporary thinking. Moreover, he looks the part," said Mr Amir.

Football has always been his big love, but he also runs, jumps, cycles and he may be on the Malaysian polo squad in the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur next year.

Next week is likely to be Mr Khairy's last time addressing the Umno Youth wing as the Youth chief.

He told The Star in an interview that this will be his last term as Umno Youth chief although he stopped short at confirming that he will go for one of the three Umno vice-president posts.

He has spent four terms in the wing, the first as a committee member, the second as the deputy chief and the last two terms as the Youth chief. It is time to make way and move on to the big league.

But, as recent history has shown, Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak calls the shots on this. If he does not give the green light, you are unlikely to make it.

The relationship between Mr Khairy and his president hit a rough patch last year.

Mr Najib was disappointed that the younger man detached himself and did not come out in a big way to defend him at the height of the 1MDB issue. There was even talk that Mr Khairy was being courted by the other side.

However, the Prime Minister's appointment of Mr Khairy as the dialogue initiator for the vision plan, TN50 or Transformasi Nasional 2050, has changed a lot of things for Mr Khairy. The horizon has suddenly broadened for him.

Mr Najib understands that the young generation of today will lead the country 30 years or so down the road and as the youngest member of the Cabinet, Mr Khairy is in the right place, at the right time and at the right age.

"It distinguishes Khairy from the rest of the pack. It is a vote of confidence in Khairy's ability to work and handle complicated issues," said Mr Amir.

The Prime Minister's move is also seen as a sort of acknowledgement of the steadfast support he has received from Mr Khairy's father-in-law, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

When Mr Khairy started out as an officer in Mr Abdullah's administration, he was cocky, impatient and, like offsprings of famous families, there was this sense of entitlement.

There have been tough knocks along the way and he spent time on the backbench.

He has remade himself from the early days and the Mr Khairy of today is more mature and less full of himself. He is also disciplined, focused and he stands out from the rest.

Mr Khairy was once known as the "most powerful 28-year-old" and some of the crazier blogs had claimed he wanted to be Prime Minister by the age of 40.

Politicians dream of being the Prime Minister but going up in Umno is like climbing a greasy pole.

He has hit the big four-0, but is still a long way from the other target. He needs to ensure that Umno and the ruling coalition survives if he wishes to reach the other target.

This year has been major for him and next year will be even bigger. Malaysia will be hosting the SEA Games, which may find the minister taking part as a competitor.

But more than that, his ideas for the dialogue on the TN50 project will showcase his ability to look ahead and think out of the box.

If he pulls it off, he will be the face of the future.