KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 2 — By surpassing its 111-gold medal target, Malaysia exerted its dominance of the 29th SEA Games in its best outing at the tournament to date.
Naturally, the entire nation is on a high and that feel-good factor has for the moment allowed Malaysians to forget their differences.
This could bode well for Khairy Jamaluddin, the youth and sports minister and Umno Youth chief who is also tipped to be a future prime minister, who did well to position himself as the man who made all of it possible.
Proof of this was there right from the get-go: from the well-calculated decision to endorse a punchy unifying theme for the Games — “Rise Together” — to publicising the fact that he is the first minister to represent the country in the biennial games' polo debut, to his well-timed appearance before cameras in key moments of victories throughout the tournament.
Take, for example, his timely appearance with Olympic bronze medalist Mohd Azizul Hasni Awang when the world keirin champion won the keirin sprint game to bag Malaysia's 111th gold, the medal that effectively made Malaysia the region's top sporting nation.
Make no mistake, Khairy is well aware of what being a media darling can do for his image.
“He knew that if he could bring people together for the Games… most importantly he knew that he had to be seen as doing so… it would definitely boost his credentials,” an Umno Youth member told Malay Mail Online.
Larger than life
In fact no sports minister in Malaysian history has enjoyed as much popularity as Khairy. One only needs to look at the 2001 SEA Games, which was also held here, to understand the extent of the Umno Youth chief's popularity.
The Malaysian contingent bagged 111 gold medals then to top the tournament's ranking, yet almost nobody attributed the success to the sports and youth minister of the time, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.
Compare it to this year's Games. One would find it almost impossible not to see or hear Malaysians mention Khairy while congratulating the athletes.
Views polled from Facebook found that there is almost a consensus among users that Khairy somehow played a role in the solid performance of the Malaysian SEA Games contingent, even in sports that our athletes and trainers already excelled at (squash, swimming, hockey and gymnastics to name a few) before Khairy became the sports minister.
“Thanks to Khairy… now our sports are getting better,” wrote a Facebook user by the name of Khairulirfan. Another female user by the name of Shura wrote “We can see so much difference in our athletes' performance… all thanks to Khairy”.
One of the crucial elements driving his popularity, especially among the youths, is what analysts describe as “constructive engagement”, a method of encouraging direct public participation — or at least the appearance of it — in the decision-making process via engagements on social media.
The result is the enormous amount of valuable data that allows him to understand how youths think.
In this sense, Khairy has made himself a household brand. No young leaders, even from the talents available on the opposing side of the political divide, have been able to match the Umno Youth chief's ability to connect with youths.
“Khairy and his team calibrate themselves to the prevailing state of young people and maximise youth volunteerism — the personal sense of purpose in people coming to terms with age — rather than explicitly dictating terms. We have never had a sports minister with this approach before,” said Praba Ganesan, chief executive of KUASA, a democracy outreach initiative who is also a sports enthusiast himself.
Boon for Barisan Nasional?
But popularity ratings alone would not mean much if the SEA Games success cannot help Khairy draw more youth support towards his party and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
While sports may have the ability to douse political animosity and discontent, the effects are often temporary; no political parties have been able to boast an uptick in support because of their sports accomplishment, not even BN, analysts said.
And the KL SEA Games has also had its fair share of gaffes and blunders; like the upside down Indonesian flag mishap, or the riot at the Shah Alam Stadium started by vexed fans, some of whom had queued from 4am to buy tickets to watch our Under 23 side dethrone reigning champion, Thailand, for the gold medal, only to be told that none were available.
As quick as they were to attribute the minister's role in the athletes' success, a survey on Facebook and Twitter also showed that fans felt Khairy was directly responsible for much of the blunders.
Yet some analysts believe this will have little impact on the Umno Youth chief's approval rating. In fact, some believe Khairy could be the first Umno Youth politician to succeed in exploiting the country's sporting success to boost his personal and political brand.
“KJ, with his considerable resources and extremely good looks, has no worry on the popularity front. TN50 is a great tool to rope in the youngsters, making them feel that their opinions matter,” Oh Ei Sun, adjunct senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said.
TN50 or National Transformation 2050 is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's initiative to “chart a new course for Malaysia” in the area of economic and social development after Malaysia achieves a fully a “high-income” nation status by 2020.
But unlike Vision 2020, which Najib and Khairy criticised as an elitist top-down policy of the previous administration, TN50 is the opposite in the sense that the government provides — or is seen providing — a more participatory platform for Malaysians to give their own input.
And the Umno Youth chief has been at the forefront in promoting TN50, ensuring that young talents are employed to act as “ambassadors” that work under his guidance.
“You need strong and vibrant leadership to keep the momentum and interest... and that’s how KJ filled the vacuum to ensure we will become the champion and provide the best service to other nations as well.
“For me, he has proven to set new expectations among ministers as he became one of them, inclusive rather than exclusive,” Sivamurugan Pandian, an analyst with Universiti Sains Malaysia, said.