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Zairil: I will earn my own stripes

This article was originally published in The Edge.

Politics & Government 2013
Written by Stephanie Sta Maria of
Tuesday, 15 January 2013

It was two years ago when Zairil Khir Johari first set tongues wagging with his prodigious decision to explore a political future in DAP instead of Umno, as would have been expected. Much of the flap  evolved around a single but prominent fact – Zairil’s father, the late Tan Sri Mohd Khir Johari, was the first education minister and a senior Umno leader.

Then, as it usually happens over time, the criticism and curiosity faded, leaving only occasional but muted jibes at the “token Malay” in a predominantly Chinese party. But that token Malay went on to become press secretary to DAP secretary-general and Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, as well as CEO of Penang Institute, a state government think tank.

Under his charge, the institute hosted international conferences graced by the likes of American economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs and Swiss academic Professor Tariq Ramadan.

By making his mark, Zairil, 30, was staying true to the greatest lesson he learnt from his father. “My father taught me that no one owes you a living,” Zairil told “That we should never ever have a sense of entitlement. This is why I believe in proving myself by earning my own stripes.

“The problem with this country is that the terrible racial politics have turned a considerable section of our population into people who feel they are entitled to government help. And this has not helped our country at all.”

Racial politics certainly did not help Zairil last week after the belated discovery of a vote tabulation error during the recent DAP party election propelled him from 39th to 20th place, thus earning him a spot on the party’s central executive committee (CEC).

This time the tongue-wagging was frenetic. DAP’s detractors howled long and loud over what they insisted was an obvious political gimmick to showcase DAP’s racial inclusiveness and win support from the Malay community. But DAP’s newest and youngest candidate has refused to allow the stinging remarks to rob him of the honour he feels at being voted onto the party’s highest leadership platform.

“You need a thick skin to be in politics,” Zairil, now the assistant national publicity secretary, said wryly. “People say crazy things about me but at the end of the day, I will prove myself.”

As our conversation progressed, it became apparent that he was already well on that path. As CEO of Penang Institute, Zairil gets to grapple with policy issues that reach deep into the national development agenda.

While he has strong views on policies related to federal-state relations, economic inclusiveness and sustainable development, it is education-related polices that has him truly fired up. “Our education system needs to be decentralised,” Zairil stated. “Having Putrajaya run everything is crazy. Education all over the world is a state or local issue and that is the next model we should follow.”

He also believed that the division between the departments within the Ministry of Education (MOE) is unnecessary, not to mention the root of confusion among teachers. “The teachers get one set of orders from the director-general, another set from the secretary-general and a third set from the minister. Teachers have no idea whom to listen to. So you have a system that doesn’t work and which is also completely politicised.”

The frustration among Penang Pakatan Rakyat leaders insofar as schools are concerned is the subtle barring of any opposition leaders, including Lim, from school premises. According to Zairil, the schools were issued a memo by the ministry listing the names of leaders who are allowed on their premises. “No Pakatan leaders’ names were on that list. But we’re the government in Penang, you know!”

Zairil also bemoaned the state of the country’s universities, which he described with a grimace as “sterile”. Recalling his father’s tenure in the ministry, he said students would come out in droves to protest whenever he visited the campus.

“Chief among them was [opposition leader Datuk Seri] Anwar Ibrahim,” he said. “There was no Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) because you accepted that university students are rebellious.

“That’s how it is in the rest of the world and that’s how they learn in life and education. How do you encourage people to think in sterile universities? Now people don’t want to go to local universities anymore. It’s a bloody shame,” he said.

In Zairil’s eyes, the country’s education system fell to pieces in the 1970s when it was subjected to racial policies in a government attempt to “re-engineer society” through education. And that, he said, spelt the end of an education system that produced English-speaking Malaysians with stellar work ethics to boot.

“We killed at least three generations of Malaysians through very badly thought out policies that were made for political reasons,” said Zairil.

These are not issues that are going to be resolved over a few years and not every politician has the patience to wait out a process that barely hobbles along. Disappointment and frustration breeds disenchantment and cynicism, which often causes politicians to bow out of a battle that has no victory in sight.

And this is the precise reason why Zairil has chosen to spend his youth traversing the volatile political landscape. “I honestly think politics is for the young,” he laughed. “If you want to do this, you should do it while you’re still idealistic and energetically believe in what you want to do before you are corrupted by disenchantment.”

Zairil readily agreed that life would be easier if one were to become politically apathetic or leave Malaysia altogether as many of his friends have done and who are – as much as he hates to admit it – enjoying a better quality of life abroad. “But if everyone leaves, then there will be no country for us,” he says.