In response to the Ambassador’s question, Khairy said he believed UMNO would not provide live transmission of its 2007 convention in order to avoid the controversy of last year (when live broadcast of UMNO’s chauvinistic rhetoric provoked concerns among non-Malays). He explained that UMNO and the other parties had to be seen as aggressively defending the interests of their respective ethnic groups, but behind closed doors “the parties don’t talk like that to each other.”


Raja Petra Kamarudin

Classified By: Ambassador Christopher J. LaFleur for reasons 1.4 (b and d).


1.  (C) Khairy Jamaluddin, influential son-in-law of PM Abdullah, underscored his oft-publicized concerns about the FTA, in particular regarding agriculture and government procurement, during the Ambassador’s July 18 lunch for leaders of UMNO Youth, an important component of the dominant United Malays National Organization party. 

Khairy took exception to any attempt to adjust long-standing government preference policies for ethnic Malays and argued that an FTA would tip the terms of trade unfairly in the U.S. favor.  The Ambassador attempted to dispel misconceptions about the rice trade and impact on Malay preferences, while encouraging Khairy to focus on an FTA’s long term positive effects to the Malaysian economy.  Khairy described the Malay grassroots concern over Palestine.  He also explained UMNO’s process for selecting candidates.  Another leader confirmed current UMNO Youth Chief Hishammuddin’s intention to seek an UMNO vice president position. 

UMNO Youth leaders expressed their support for U.S. Embassy public affairs programming, such as the English language teaching assistants, joint cultural activities and the International Visitor Program.  If PM Abdullah remains in office long enough, the astute and palpably ambitious Khairy may well be able to consolidate his political position and become a long-term force in Malaysian politics.  End Summary.

Lunch for Youth Leaders

2.  (SBU) The Ambassador hosted a lunch on July 18 for UMNO Youth leaders, led by UMNO Deputy Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin, the ambitious and influential advisor to his father-in-law PM Abdullah Badawi.  UMNO Youth Secretary Abdul Rahman Dahlan and seven other Youth leaders accompanied Khairy, while A/DCM, polchief, econoff and FSN political specialist joined the Ambassador.

Khairy Highlights FTA Concerns

3.  (SBU) Much of the lunch conversation revolved around the proposed U.S.-Malaysia free trade agreement (FTA).  Khairy underscored his oft-publicized concerns about the FTA, in particular regarding agriculture and government procurement. He said Malaysian rice farmers remained anxious about the possibility of increased competition from U.S. rice imports.

The Ambassador countered that an FTA was unlikely to make U.S. rice much more competitive in Malaysia, given Malaysia’s preference for rice varieties not typically grown in the U.S., as well as continued strong competition from other Asian suppliers.  He added that the U.S. and Malaysian agriculture sectors were largely complementary and thus should both benefit from an FTA. 

Responding to Khairy’s concern that U.S. sanitary/phytosanitary measures constituted a non-tariff barrier that would impede Malaysian agricultural exports, the Ambassador assured him that negotiators were working to ensure the harmonization of such measures under the FTA to the benefit of exporters in both countries.

4.  (C) Khairy underscored the particular sensitivity within Malaysia on the inclusion of government procurement in the FTA.  Long-standing preference policies for ethnic Malays were a key component of such procurement, and the government could not accept any attempt by the U.S. to limit such policies.  The Ambassador responded that the oft-repeated assertion that the U.S. intended to seek changes or even abolishment of the preference policies was not true, adding that the U.S. also incorporated preference policies within its own federal government procurement programs that it would seek to preserve under the FTA.  He asserted that Malaysia could benefit substantially from access to the significant U.S. government procurement market that would come with an FTA.

5.  (C) Khairy briefly raised a number of other concerns about the FTA.  He claimed U.S. investors would have a leg up on Malaysians under the FTA in any potential investment dispute; econoff countered that the FTA would include dispute settlement provisions that would be similar to those used by the WTO, and that were designed to be impartial and applied infrequently.  Khairy alleged that an FTA would turn the terms of trade in the U.S.’s favor, and attract U.S. investors who would reap substantial profits on the backs of ordinary Malaysians, similar to what he claimed had occurred in Singapore following implementation of its FTA with the U.S. 

The Ambassador encouraged Khairy to focus instead on the long term positive effects to the Malaysian economy from an FTA with the U.S, such as the growth of higher-paying jobs and the training of young Malaysians in the new, higher-value-added industries that were precisely those Malaysia needed to attract in the face of growing competition from rapidly developing Asian neighbors.  While Khairy signaled he remained skeptical, he concluded that he could agree to an FTA “in principle” but insisted that the details of any agreement would be critical.

Grassroots Concerns about Palestine, Middle East

6.  (C) Beyond the FTA, Khairy explained that at the UMNO grassroots constituents continued to be concerned about events and trends in the Middle East, with Palestine and Iraq as key issues, along with the War on Terror and U.S policies.

He said he had read the latest National Intelligence Estimate report on Iraq and added the report contends that Iraq war has increased Islamic radicalism, and has made the terror threat around the world worse contrary to U.S. policy objectives.  UMNO members believe Malaysia, as OIC Chairman, should play a more “influential” role in the Middle East. Khairy, however, expressed his disappointment that, “Washington does not seem to consider and take note of Malaysia as a moderate voice.” 

The Ambassador explained U.S. policy toward Palestine, and highlighted the importance of responsible governments assisting countries like Afghanistan and Iraq to overcome their formidable difficulties.  He emphasized that as a successful Muslim-majority country, Malaysia could assume an important role in this regard.

UMNO Internal Developments

7.  (C) Khairy explained that UMNO Youth leaders are currently involved in the UMNO divisional meetings that would elect delegates to the annual UMNO general assembly in November.  Fortunately, UMNO did not face the same contentious issues as last year, Khairy said, a clear reference to Mahathir’s challenge in 2006.  In response to the Ambassador’s question, Khairy said he believed UMNO would not provide live transmission of its 2007 convention in order to avoid the controversy of last year (when live broadcast of UMNO’s chauvinistic rhetoric provoked concerns among non-Malays).  He explained that UMNO and the other parties had to be seen as aggressively defending the interests of their respective ethnic groups, but behind closed doors “the parties don’t talk like that to each other.”

8.  (C) Khairy explained UMNO’s internal procedures for selecting national and state-level candidates, describing a process of bargaining between UMNO divisions, chief ministers in each state, and the Prime Minister/UMNO President who holds the final say.  He commented that there would not be much “horse trading over seats” among UMNO’s coalition partners for the coming general election as all parties would adhere to the seat allocations from the 2004 general election.  He argued that UMNO’s concessions to its non-Malay coalition partners, such as nominating a Malaysian Indian Congress party member to run in a Malay majority area, represented laudable inter-ethnic politics, but this went largely unappreciated by outside observers.

9.  (C) Youth secretary Abdul Rahman Dahlan stated that current UMNO Youth Chief Hishammuddin Tun Hussein would very likely vie for a seat as one of three UMNO vice presidents, thus vacating the top position in UMNO Youth.  Hishammuddin currently is making the rounds to officiate at UMNO divisional meetings to better establish his credentials for a vice presidential slot.

Interest in Public Affairs Programming

10.  (U) The Youth leaders expressed interest in the Embassy’s successful English Language Teaching Assistant program in the state of Terengganu, and hoped the program could be expanded to other states.  They also valued the U.S. International Visitor Program and appreciated that the Embassy had sent a number of their members to the United States for under this mechanism.  They recalled U.S. Embassy support for a recent cultural event and hoped for more joint cultural activities in the future.  The Ambassador encouraged close contacts between UMNO Youth and Embassy offices, and the Youth leaders said they wished to continue the dialogue with U.S. diplomats.


11.  (C) UMNO Youth represents a pivotal group in Malaysian politics, as it serves as the springboard for most future UMNO leaders and acts as the party’s most aggressive defender of Malay rights and privileges.  This was our first meeting with Khairy since he led a rambunctious street demonstration against Secretary Rice’s visit nearly one year ago. 

Khairy’s well-publicized opposition to some US policies notwithstanding, the reality is that our scheduling of this event was delayed by his extended vacation in the United States this summer (and his wife, the PM’s daughter, remained behind to take a seminar).  There is no question that this classic son of the cosmopolitan Malay elite is carefully shaping his political profile to bolster his efforts to take over the UMNO Youth leadership, faux street radicalism included.  In this, he follows the well-worn course of other ambitious young Malay politicians, including Hishammuddin and past UMNO Youth President, and now Deputy PM, Najib.

However, Khairy has even greater need to reinforce his street cred with the Malay grassroots to counter the enmity of many more senior UMNO politicians resentful of Khairy’s meteoric rise and oft-rumored manipulation of his father-in-law.  In this respect, it was obvious that UMNO Youth officials did not include Mukhriz Mahathir in their delegation, despite his position as international relations bureau chief, owing to the rivalry between Khairy and Mahathir’s son.  Mukhriz’ absence was further evidence that the Mahathir family’s political strength has waned following the former-PM’s failure to depose his successor last year.

12. (c) Although Khairy unquestionably owes the speed of his ascent largely to his marriage, the fact remains that he is one of the most articulate and politically astute operators of his generation.  The Oxford-educated Khairy comes across as well-spoken and well-read, but also as sharp-edged and unnecessarily acerbic,especially in addressing familiar targets of Malay intellectuals (such as U.S. Middle East policy).  At the same time, he frequently voices admiration about U.S. democracy and closely follows U.S. political developments (as well as other facets of American life; his most recent newspaper column was a paean to the Apple iPhone he acquired in LA last month).  However, at 31, Khairy has yet to acquire the ease, self-confidence and political polish exuded by current Youth Chief (and Education Minister) Hishammuddin.  If PM Abdullah continues in office for several more years, as now appears likely, Khairy may well have enough time to consolidate his position.  If so, this palpably ambitious young man could be a major factor in Malaysian politics for decades to come.

13.  (C) Not surprisingly, Khairy approaches the FTA with an eye on the potential near-term implications to his political ambition, rather than the more intangible long-term benefits that an FTA would bring to Malaysia.  His skepticism about the FTA is politically popular, and contrasts with the government’s infrequent and somewhat hapless attempts to promote the FTA (leaving the Embassy in the position of having to explain to Malaysians why the FTA will benefit Malaysia).  Although we do not expect Khairy to abandon his public skepticism, we believe he will be more amenable to standing aside following the next elections and we will continue to push our views with this influential group of UMNO Youth leaders.

LAFLEUR (July 2007)