If political tribalism defeated KJ, what political tribe does Anwar lead?

LET’S put it out there that I am a regular follower of Keluar Sekejap – the podcast started by expelled former UMNO youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin (KJ) and suspended former information chief Shahril Hamdan.

Just when UMNO thought they have cast out the undesirables who dared to rock their already shaky boat, both KJ and Shahril seem to have new-found fame with a growing audience of followers, especially among young Malaysians.

According to the online dictionary, a podcast is a digital audio or video file or recording, usually part of a themed series that can be downloaded from a website to a media player or computer.

Keluar Sekejap has been consistently ranked as Malaysia’s No. 1 podcast on Spotify and Apple. In an Instagram post on having achieved more than 100,000 subscribers on the its Youtube channel, KJ posted;

“We were inspired by a political podcast in the UK called @restispolitics. We felt that a similar podcast could be useful in Malaysia to present issues from all sides in simple terms. With politics becoming so tribal, we wanted ideas to thrive in a centre ground free from spin, manipulation and post-truth.”

Tribal politics

Indeed, the Keluar Sekejap podcast is a magnet for those who seek to understand realpolitik – a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations – in Malaysia.

Listeners appreciate the intelligent discussions, sometimes with guests who are down to earth, analytical and critical minus the chest-thumping rhetoric of a political rally.

Khairy Jamaluddin (left) and Shahril Hamdan

Coming from two young political outcasts of UMNO, their insights and opinions are both eye opening and – at times – mind blowing. Even if you don’t agree with everything, it’s nice to know another point of view.

In Episode 54 in a collaboration with TIBER, a podcast hosted by Astro Awani’s anchors Luqman Hariz, Najib Aroff and Ibrahim Sani, KJ was asked if he was disillusioned and might leave politics for good.

To which KJ replied that politics had taken a toll on his physical and mental health. He said this could also be because he and Shahril had not cultivated a tribe of followers who were pentaksub (obsessed) as they were both centrists (a political moderate).

Asked if there was no room for centrists in Malaysia, KJ said he didn’t know “because tribalism defeated him”. Tribalism is defined as designating, characterised by or relating to a strong sense of loyalty to one’s own tribe, party or group.

The best explanation for political tribalism that I could find was by Shiao Chong, a Christian pastor who is the editor-in-chief of The Banner.

Chong explains that “political tribalism is where loyalty to the political tribe is more important than loyalty to anything else. It means that tribe members will go to any lengths to defend their tribe’s leader”.

“Tribalism means the tribe never concedes an inch to other tribes. It is an ‘us versus them’ mentality where ‘them’ are seen as morally suspect and morally dangerous while ‘us’ are saints by comparison.”

That is spot on for many political parties in Malaysia. What KJ refers to as tribalism in this sense would probably be UMNO loyalists.

Personality cult

In Malaysian politics, there used to be the cult of personality defined as “an excessive public admiration for or devotion to a famous person, especially a political leader” around Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad (Tun M).

Considering that he was prime minister (PM) for 22 years – from 1981 to 2003 – Tun M held considerable influence. His second term as PM lasted only 22 months – from 2018 to 2020 – when he lost much of the adulation.

During good times: Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahin (left) and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Instead, the personality cult built around his former deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim whom he sacked in 1998 had grown into the formidable Reformasi movement that later became a political party – now known as PKR.

PKR would later join up with other parties such as DAP to form the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition that would even include Tun M’s former party BERSATU prior to the 14th general elections (GE14). Anwar would be made 10th PM (PMX) in 2022 after GE15.

Has Anwar’s personality cult lost some lustre since he became PMX?

It would be difficult to pin Anwar to a political “tribe” besides PKR because he is now PM of the unity government (PH joined up with UMNO, DAP and other parties) when no single party won a simple majority in GE15.

The DAP would certainly qualify as a tribal political party as its secretary-general Anthony Loke Siew Fook pledged unconditional support to PH to ensure that Anwar could become PM.

Has Anwar taken over the role of tribal leader for UMNO now that its president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is the Deputy PM? Does being a political tribal leader make Anwar more appealing to the elusive Malay support?

That remains to be seen. – Oct 3, 2023


Niza Shimi was a former journo with a leading mainstream English media.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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