Malaysia’s sporting MP and why small states should always behave like small states (apparently).
Outside Malaysia’s National Stadium, Khairy Jamaluddin steps out of a black Toyota Vellfire and is quickly mobbed by a large crowd. Then, to a burst of Queen’s “Bicycle Race”, the country’s Lycra-wearing youth and sports minister hops on his bike and joins a 30km road race with more than 2,000 other cyclists for the first event of National Sports Day.
Malaysia is riding the wave of a successful sporting year that began with its best-ever performance in the 2016 Olympics and peaked with a table-topping turn at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games (sea Games). And Khairy (pictured), a hands-on and media-savvy politician who’s keen to get involved (he was part of the gold-medal-winning polo team at the sea Games), is also along for the ride.
National Sports Day, now in its third year, is Khairy’s idea. Popularly known as KJ, the 41-year-old spends the rest of the day travelling around Kuala Lumpur to rally support for various sporting activities. Not content with a 30km cycle ride, he also plays futsal and floorball (versions of five-a-side football and hockey, respectively) to the amusement of the watching players. At every location he’s greeted with cheers, the odd scream and a crowd of people wanting his picture.
It’s an impressive comeback for the Oxford-educated former talkshow host who battled relentless criticism at the start of his political career as an aide to former prime minister Abdullah Badawi, who became his father-in-law in 2001. These days he bats away talk about wanting the top job. “People project that onto me,” he says. “I have no personal ambition.”
Elected to parliament in 2008, Khairy became chief of the ruling party’s youth wing the next year. In 2013, he was promoted to the cabinet after keeping his seat with an even bigger majority.
The next election must be held by August 2018 and is likely to be the most hard-fought in Malaysia’s history. The opposition, which won the popular vote in 2013, aims to capitalise on allegations of corruption at state investment fund 1mdb, discontent over rising living costs and concerns about Islamic conservatism in a nation that is about 60 per cent Muslim.
In the past the minister has been accused of bias towards the ethnic nationalism of his party’s more rightwing faction but he’s also spoken out against censorship and insists he wants a more inclusive Malaysia – the kind of country united by sport.“I want Malaysia to fulfil its great potential,” he says, reaching for a sporting analogy. “We are in the Premier League but battling relegation or mid-table. We should be top three – all the time.
Spain’s regional politics are a quagmire but on a local level things run more smoothly. Recently Madrid city council set aside €100m to spend on improving the city and encouraged Madrileños to have their say – via its website, Decide Madrid – on spending it. Madrid city councilor Pablo Soto, a former hacker who spearheads the project, was recently invited to the UN to convince world leaders that the free software he has developed off the back of the scheme has the potential to re-engage disillusioned denizens; so far more than 40 cities have adopted it.
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Mahbubani ruffled a few geopolitical feathers in Singapore when he wrote in The Straits Times that small states must always behave like small states.
What does this mean?
Since the UN Charter was promulgated in 1945, fewer small states are being occupied or invaded by foreign powers. But they are still subject to pressures from great powers so they should always be prudent when dealing with them. There’s a cardinal rule for small states: don’t get involved in conflicts unless you’re directly affected.
How does this figure in soft power?
The small states that are influential are those that have succeeded in their economic or social development. When you are successful, people talk to you and try to learn from you.
How can Singapore leverage its soft power?
The 19th century was Europe’s century, with London being its obvious capital. The 20th century belonged to America and New York. But this century is Asia’s, with Singapore at the centre because it’s the only city where the four major civilisations in Asia sit well together.