DAP golden boy Zairil Khir Johari is learning that a famous family name can be a double-edged sword in the game of politics.
ZAIRIL Khir Johari is not in a good place right now. He parachuted into DAP on the strength of a famous family name but the very same fame has now put him on the defensive.
The last few days have found Zairil having to explain his status as the son of the late Tan Sri Khir Johari. It was weird that he had to defend his status as the son of his father but that sort of thing does happen when one drives on the fast lane of the political highway.
A well-known family name is great in politics but as Zairil and others before him have learnt, it can also backfire. Google Zairil’s name and one will be bombarded by items questioning whether he is a real Malay or the real son of Khir. The Internet gossip about him has almost completely eclipsed his role as the Malay face of DAP.
He told a business publication recently: “People say crazy things about me but at the end of the day, I will prove myself.”
His defenders have condemned accusations about his lineage as “gutter politics”. They say it is petty, irrelevant and vicious.
What does his lineage have to do with his politics? they ask.
Quite a lot, actually. DAP leaders went to town with the news that Tan Sri Khir Johari’s son had joined the party. It was the chance for them to thumb their nose at Umno.
Zairil was given the red carpet treatment and a “direct flight ticket” to the 28th floor of Komtar. He joined the party in September 2010 and was appointed political secretary to Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng five months later.
“We appointed him not because of his race but because of his attributes and qualifications. He is also learned, especially in international relations and diplomacy. He just happens to be a Malay,” Lim had said then.
However, not everyone was as bowled over as Lim.
“He was like the wind blowing in. The grassroots had never heard of him but the top decided he was a political advantage and suddenly he was up there,” said a Penang DAP worker.
By the end of 2011, Zairil was Special Officer to the Chief Minister. Three months later, he was promoted to CEO of the state think-tank, the Penang Institute, overseeing experts who had decades of experience in their respective fields. Very few people in the party were happy for him because he was only 29 and a rookie politician with little to show in terms of contribution.
As one DAP veteran put it: “The best kind of curry puff, you have to make from scratch. But nowadays they buy the ready-made curry puff from the supermarket. You have to defrost it, it looks nice and puffs up when you cook it but the ingredients are not there and it doesn’t taste right.”
Most people would not have given a hoot as to whether Zairil was the biological son or otherwise of Khir, but DAP made such a song and dance about the Khir Johari name that the Umno bloggers hit back with a vengeance.
The end result is that truth and fiction have become all mixed up.
The botched DAP polls that saw Zairil go from a loser to a winner did him more harm than good. Very few people bought the story that it was a computing glitch and it was seen as yet another attempt to push the Chief Minister’s golden boy up the political ladder.
The resentment has swelled on news that the party is looking for a safe seat for him in the general election. A few months ago, Zairil had to deny that he was being slated for the Sungai Pinang state seat. His name also popped up as the replacement for Bukit Bendera MP Liew Chin Tong who is reportedly hopping over to his home state Johor.
But the rumour mill now has him going to Pulau Tikus after assemblyman Koay Teng Hai was slapped with a six-month suspension earlier this week for not attending a crucial State Legislative Assembly sitting.
The speculation is that the party is using this as an excuse to ditch Koay and make the seat available for Zairil. Pulau Tikus, populated mainly by middle-class Chinese, is tailor-made for him because party people say that they cannot see Zairil dealing with a working-class populace. Their impression of him is that he mingles only with the big names.
Zairil is basically a rather shy and introverted personality. The most successful politicians are those who can strike up a conversation with anyone, friend or stranger, big name or small fry – Zairil has yet to master this.
He is not aggressive or pushy and his detractors admit that his fast-track path in the party is because the boss likes him.
They used to call him “teacher’s pet” behind his back but now they call him “Tokong’s boy”.
During last month’s DAP Congress in Penang, he stood out like a sore thumb among the traditional DAP grassroots. He was seen sitting apart from the rest, fiddling with his handphone and iPad.
The party’s annual gathering was the golden opportunity to meet delegates from all over the country and he could have milked the occasion by moving around and introducing himself to the delegates, to mingle and make small talk.
The feel-good factor over Zairil has worn off.
The family name opened some very big doors for him but credibility is not ascribed, it has to be earned.
Gossip about him will continue and will only dissipate when he is able to show that the family name is secondary to what he can do on his own.