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Maverick Malaysian politician tests old order

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A young Malaysian politician has thrown his hat in the race to become the country’s next deputy leader in a major test of the country’s political system where hierarchy and age rule.

Nur Jazlan Mohamed, a 42-year-old lawmaker, smiles as he speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur October 14, 2008. REUTERS/Zainal Abd Halim

Nur Jazlan Mohamed, a 42-year-old lawmaker, is drawing inspiration from 47-year-old Barrack Obama, the first-time senator who is the frontrunner for U.S. president.

Unlike in the United States, Malaysia’s atropied ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is run by people in their 60s who are struggling to fight off a challenge from youthful opposition leaders.

John F. Kennedy won the U.S. presidency at 45 and Bill Clinton at 46.

“Some people think I’m still wet behind the ears,” said Jazlan, a UK-trained accountant and an MP since 2004. “But I’m offering myself to carry the voice of the young.”

Jazlan said the March general elections, which saw the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition losing an unprecedented five states along with its hitherto ironclad two-thirds parliamentary majority, proved the government was out of touch with the voters.

Malaysia has 27 million people, with an average age of 25 years. The average age of voters in Malaysia is 40.

UMNO, which represents the ethnic Malay majority, has led the government since independence from Britain in 1957.

But Jazlan said the party was in serious danger of losing power if it failed to regenerate and move with the times by the next election due by 2013.

Already, young Malay voters have turned their back against UMNO in favour of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, run by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, or the Islamic party PAS.

“UMNO must realise it is at the crossroads -- it’s a matter of life and death. I don’t think it will have the resilience to recover if we were to lose power,” the father of three told Reuters in an interview.

Malaysia has effectively been under one-party rule since independence, with UMNO in the centre of power.

But despite its rapid modernisation, the nation is still struggling with frayed relations between the country’s religious and ethnic groups which had lately reached worrying stage.

Since March, the country has been rocked by political turmoil. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said last week he would step down in March to quell growing discontent in UMNO.

His political enemy Anwar, meanwhile, has vowed to overthrow the government and revive the economy, which has lost some of its lustre as an investment destination.

Jazlan’s surprise challenge in the race for UMNO’s deputy president -- which comes with the job of deputy prime minister -- has undoubtedly raised eyebrows even outside UMNO circles.

Malaysia’s former strongman Mahathir Mohamad said apart from Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also running, the others contesting the post were “jokers”.

“This is not a place for any Tom, Dick and Harry”, said Shahidan Kassim, another party veteran.

Jazlan’s main challenger Muhyiddin said he was not too old to appeal to the young.

“I may be 61 but I do accoMmodate and do follow. I like to think I’m receptive and that I’m not closed-minded,” the local Star newspaper on Tuesday quoted him as saying.

Analysts rated Jazlan’s chances “as thin as A4 paper” but the man said he was determine to put across his point.

“I’m old in the eyes of voters and young in the eyes of UMNO elders. I’m caught in no-man’s land,” Jazlan said. “But we need fresh ideas and fresh blood.”