The short-sleeved white shirt was a dead giveaway. It’s marked out Mr Zairil Khir Johari as an active member of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), as it is the attire favoured by this Chinese-based party.
‘I’m just an ordinary member,’ he said.
But he already devotes a substantial amount of time to party work. The 28-year-old businessman had made his maiden political appearance last month when he gave a well-received speech at the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) convention in Penang. The DAP is one of the parties making up the opposition PR alliance.
His speech raised a few eyebrows for two reasons: one, he is a Malay who has joined this Chinese-led party; and two, he is the son of an illustrious Umno politician, Tan Sri Khir Johari.
As his late father had served in the Cabinet of the first three prime ministers in a career spanning almost 30 years, the decision not to join Umno sent an uncomfortable signal to the dominant Malay party.
But it was his choice of DAP that caused the greatest stir. It is rare for a Malay to join this party seen by many Malays to be a Chinese chauvinist party.
He is not the first Malay to do so. Three years ago, Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim, a former vice-chairman of anti-graft organisation Transparency International, also made waves when he joined the DAP.
There have been other Malays within the party as well, but none as high-profile as Mr Zairil.
The DAP hopes these high-profile members can help allay the anxiety among Malays about it. The Malay acceptance of the DAP, as Mr Zairil puts it, ‘is at its lowest point’.
This is not good news when the Malay population is growing much faster than the non-Malays, and as more seats become mixed constituencies. In the 2008 general election, the DAP won the Malay votes because of the backlash against Umno but it won’t be able to count on this in the next general election, widely believed to be called this year.
Political analyst Ibrahim Suffian, who runs the pollster Merdeka Centre, said the DAP must transform from being operationally a Chinese party into a true national party for its survival.
Mr Zairil said it was unfortunate that DAP is saddled with an anti-Malay image, recalling how he was asked by a well-to-do Malay woman recently if Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng – who is also DAP’s secretary-general – was anti-Malay.
Flabbergasted, he pointed out that the authorities in Penang are so meticulous that the island even separates its revenues from halal and non-halal sources. Islamic activities are funded only from halal sources.
‘It’s all vicious spin,’ he said.
But he realised this perception is far-reaching when some Malays accused him of betraying his race by joining the DAP. Fortunately, his friends and family were wholly supportive.
He, however, does not believe that the DAP should try to recruit more Malays as part of its efforts to shed its anti-Malay image. Instead, he believes it should work on issues affecting the Malay working class, such as jobs, housing and transportation.
These issues are, in fact, the concerns of the urban poor of all races. He warned that the DAP must avoid playing to the ruling Barisan Nasional’s mould of racial politics. ‘That would be silly,’ he said.
In a bid to attract more Malays into its fold, the party has set up several Malay-led branches in Kuala Lumpur.
So far, it’s still an uphill battle. But the party is banking on the younger generation to be more open, its strategist Liew Chin Tong said.
[Source: Singapore Straits Times]