Interview with Malay Mail
The Malay Mail: After the UMNO general assembly, are you more confident today that you have managed to consolidate the party in time for the elections, you know, all the various “factions”?
Najib: I believe UMNO is a much more reinvigorated party. The clarion call I made about four years ago that we need to do a process of self analysis, self criticism to know what we need to do to overcome the weaknesses and shortcomings that led to the political tsunami of 2008.
And also for us to consolidate ourselves and work on a plan to strengthen and revive UMNO. And I see that coming to a head, so to speak. All the work we’ve done over the last four years have come to fruition at this assembly because I see UMNO with renewed vigor and a much more united UMNO.
Of course we still need to look at some of the internal challenges we have. But that goes with every political party, there will always be differences of opinion. But by and large, people want to work together to achieve a big victory for UMNO and Barisan Nasional.
So you see more seriousness in UMNO this time (in responding to your calls to change and face new realities)?
I do! I do see a stronger spirit. And they’re heeding my call, for example we should be more inclusive; UMNO should lead the way; we should take care of the Malays as well as the other races in the country.
I think that’s gone through the assembly because people didn’t ridicule or knock down the other races (this time) and there was no talk of some of the sensitive racial statements or terminologies that were used before.
So this is a much more balanced and much more matured assembly. An assembly that is primed to go to battle, so to speak.
You’ve been talking about 1Malaysia all the time. And there were factions that were skeptical of 1Malaysia in UMNO itself. How do you come to terms with that? UMNO and 1Malaysia.
Anytime you choose something, you introduce something new, there will be a period of acceptance, and that goes with 1Malaysia as well. I didn’t define the concept very clearly but that was by design.
I decided that there should be an element of strategic ambiguity so that once you introduce the concept like that, as time goes by, the definition could be defined by taking on board the views of people as we go along.
And I think we’ve done exactly that and the concept of 1Malaysia is now clearly understood.
Outside of UMNO, there are still skeptics … the minorities who are still skeptical about 1Malaysia.
They’re skeptical of 1Malaysia because of the experiences they’ve encountered. They may not see 1Malaysia as something that has been practised within the entire government system. But again people must realise this is a journey.
When you introduce something, it is a journey before you get to a situation where it becomes all embracing. Because you’re talking about people, adjusting people’s minds and attitudes. And of course some people have certain interpretations, certain prejudices as well which are not easily overcome.
So you have to allow this and see this as part and parcel of a long journey. But what is important is not only that the journey has started, but we’re well on our way. We have not reached our destination yet but we are well on our way to getting it embedded as part of our national pysche and as well as our Malaysian way of life.
1Malaysia is already being practised by the masses. It is the politicians who are not practising it for (political) expediency. We’ve been practising 1Malaysia since the time of the Tunku (Abdul Rahman), since the time of your late father (former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak)…
During the period of Tunku and my late father, there was this notion that we must get all the races to work together. But there was no attempt to really define it. There was no attempt to translate that into certain values associated with 1Malaysia.
For example, under the 1Malaysia concept which I have propounded, there are few basic fundamental principles attached to it. Number one is that we have to have a principle of social justice, about being inclusive, moderation…
This is the first time that we’re trying to really define it in terms of principles and values associated with 1Malaysia. So I think it’s a much more comprehensive way of looking at it. So that once you have those, you can translate into government policies, you see.
Government policy… imagine it’s a house and the roof of the house is 1Malaysia, People First, Performance Now. Then you have the pillars, the various Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), Government Transformation Programme (GTP), Political Transformation Programme (PTP) and all that.
But the overarching is 1Malaysia. We needed to define what 1Malaysia means. In the past people talked about working together but there was no real operational definition of what that meant.
When you first became prime minister, everybody was watching you. Now you have come out very popular, your rankings are very high, in fact you can be said as one of the most popular prime ministers; but the same cannot be said about UMNO and BN.
At the same time, you seem to have surpassed the party and BN and also some of your leaders. So how would you convince the voters, especially the urban voters that it will be a new and improved BN, after you get your mandate.
If I want to reform the party, I need a mandate from the people. Without the mandate from the electorate how can I reform the party? Although we have started making the changes but the process of change needs to be accelerated and it has to be something that is embedded as part of our political image of UMNO and BN.
And for me to complete my job, my task, I would require a strong mandate from the people. Then, with a strong mandate from the people I can say: “Look, the people have spoken. They believe in the policies that I propounded and therefore those policies need to be really enshrined and UMNO and BN must reflect those policies supported by the people”.
That to me is the final part of the journey. With this mandate, then people believe in my policies and BN itself will be totally transformed in the final stage to reflect the wishes and aspirations of the people.
How do we know that because of your immense popularity, you’re not being used as a conduit to get BN back on track, get back two-thirds and make it strong again. The fear is that once power is regained, to put it crudely, we go back to the bad old ways.
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (left) was asked why he squandered a 90-over percent mandate. His response was: “Even if I get 90 per cent of the people’s votes, if UMNO doesn’t want me, what do you want me to do?”
Having seen that happened, there is a little bit of fear that the same may be done to you.
I think this time around it will be different. I believe we have learned our lesson because I keep telling that the political environment has changed. I don’t see this as a simple cyclical change. I see this as a structural change in society. People are becoming more aware because of access to better education, because of information and communications technology (ICT), obviously, people are becoming more aware and empowered.
Therefore, the values have changed and expectations have increased and therefore, as a government that wants to stay in power, you must realise that you have to respond to it.
I keep saying that the era of “government knows best” is over. I believe that. I’m reading not only the demographical change but also a fundamental shift in the Malaysian society.
Therefore if UMNO and BN wants to stay in power, they must reflect that change. And that change is an irreversible change. So I’m committed to making that change happen. Because if I’m reacting to it then you might be skeptical or you might be fearful but I already read it four years ago. If you look back and study my speeches it reflects a very consistent pattern. I even started saying: “If you don’t change, you will be changed”.
I said that since day one, I’m very much aware and sensitive about it. With this mandate, a strong mandate from the people, I will deliver what I’ve promised. In the last four years, haven’t I delivered? Isn’t real change and progress taking place? People are beginning to see the picture taking shape. The GTP, ETP, PTP, everything I promised. Even ISA which is something that people couldn’t imagine.
I took the political risk in removing the ISA. (Universities and University Colleges Act 1974) AUKU… some said I shouldn’t amend AUKU. I amended AUKU.
It’s a whole plethora of changes that we have done that will complete this transformational journey of Malaysia. This is a big transformation agenda. This is not just about GE 13, it’s about transforming the nation and I’m committed to it.
It’s quite different if I think about just winning, it’s different. I’m thinking about transforming the country. That’s different. So I’m talking about beyond the 13th general election (GE13). I’m talking about a new, better Malaysia. A Malaysia that can be at the forefront of other nations.
You may be sincere about that, but some of your plans have been derailed by those within your party (including those with) skeletons in their cupboard. How are you going to convince the voters that you’re going to replace these people?
They must trust me. You see, based on my track record, I’ve done my best. But we’ve not reached there yet. But based on what I’ve done in the last four years, I believe that there should be enough evidence that I’m committed in making this happen. With this mandate, the change will be accelerated.
So is rejecting the list of candidates recently, sending it back to the drawing board all part of that?
As I said, I want candidates who will be able to reflect this transformational journey. But as you know it doesn’t mean every single candidate. Maybe a candidate that fits the profile, because we’re working in a party system.
My hands are a little bit tied in some cases. But I think by and large we’ll be able to put up a team that will be able to convince the people that we have enough talented and committed people to work with me as a team to deliver the transformation that I’ve promised.
How is your relationship with the deputy prime minister (Muhyiddin Yassin)?
Good relationship. I have no problems with him. We have different personalities. But he’s a loyal deputy. Whatever we decide, some of the work I have to do, some of the work he does. For example when we go down to the states, our officers coordinate together.
He does certain areas and I cover certain areas. If I’m in Kedah, he’ll be down in the south, if I’m in Sabah, he will be somewhere else. So we do complement each other. It’s an integral part of working in the government.
Mud have consistently been thrown at you and people around you. How are you responding to these allegations which will not go away?
Because whatever they throw, it doesn’t stick because there’s no truth in it. No evidence, no truth in it. It has been overcome because I’ve delivered. And they see the sincerity in me… well I believe I think they see the sincerity in me because otherwise, as you said, my ratings won’t be this high.
So if they believe I’m sincere and they trust me. The important thing is trust. Trust. Leadership is about trust. People must trust you. But that trust must be earned. It’s not something automatic.
I think I’ve worked very very hard. As someone that (former DAP vice-president) Tengku Abdul Aziz said: “The prime minister that works his socks off”.
I’ve brought this brand that I’m very hardworking and committed. A seven-day week is quite normal for me. I’m putting my heart and soul… and every sinew in my body is committed towards delivering this massive transformation for the country.
Did you have to work harder than the other prime ministers because of these attacks?
Yes. I believe so. Even my speech at the PPP Convention, I said, partly in jest… Dr Mahathir Mohamad (left) was there. I said: “Dr Mahathir announced Vision 2020. He had the easy part. He announced it. I had the most difficult part because I have to deliver. It’s only seven years to go”.
Are you confident the Transformation Programmes will hit by 2020?
Of course I’m confident. The numbers speak for themselves you see? Our gross domestic product (GDP) now per capita is almost USD$10,000. We’re getting more than five percent growth. We’re getting the investments in.
So, things are happening against a very strong external headwind. People nowadays, even if you get two per cent, people are overjoyed. But Malaysia is getting five percent. So it is a testimony of the changes that we’ve made in Malaysia.
If we didn’t have the ETP and GTP, I tell you, we’ll be in trouble today.
Do any of these attacks cow you down?
I don’t lose any sleep. But I get very agitated at times because I don’t think it’s fair. Because there’s no truth in it. It’s gutter politics. But they are the opposition. They throw at you, and people sometimes have certain perception of people in high office.
But I reconcile with the fact that it’s part and parcel, it’s the hazard of the job as they say. You have to accept it. You have the advantages of incumbency but you also have some disadvantages as well.
But you take it as a whole and should not deter you. It hasn’t deterred me. I have not lost any sleep over it. I’m very, very energised to work as hard as I can, to fulfill the promise I’ve made to the Malaysian people. I cannot let the Malaysian people down.
And don’t forget, from my personal perspective, my late father was one of the founding members, founding leaders of the nation. I cannot let him down either.
What about Sabah and Sarawak? They’re finally holding the key to BN’s survival but they’re not happy with some of the state leaders. They also believe that their wealth is being siphoned to Peninsular Malaysia.
Well that’s totally wrong. If you look at the facts, there is more money being pumped in then the income that we get from oil. And we’ve done a lot for the development of Sabah and Sarawak. Of course those two states are colossal in size and some of the rural areas are very, very inaccessible.
So the agenda to bring the development of Sabah and Sarawak to be at par with peninsula will take time. It is a fact of life. But it is something that will happen given time.
What is important now is to ensure we can deliver. With the two present chief ministers, they are close with us, in the sense that they are giving us full cooperation to make it happen for the people of Sabah and Sarawak.
The perception is that despite your efforts not enough is being done to address corruption. Each time you say “BN has a track record”; critics can respond by saying: “Of course they have a track record. Look at the annual Auditor-General’s Report, Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ), National Feedlot Corporation (NFC)…”
Well, lets put it this way, after a few years now, there are question marks as well in relation to the administration of the Pakatan Rakyat states.
What are they doing in Kelantan? Although no one has been charged in Kelantan, there are many decisions that have raised a lot of suspicion. In Selangor as well, Kedah, even some of the decisions made in Penang are being questioned now. And that’s only four years.
And looking at BN, it’s been in office for longer and a lot of the problems are legacy problems that I have to deal with, you see? They’re not new problems, they are legacy problems.
We have to take it, we have to look forward. Some of these old problems will eventually be settled but we have to look forward to make sure things will get better. I believe things will get better.
Corruption is something which we will not be able to be resolve overnight. We are serious about it. We have done a lot to fight corruption. A number of people have been charged and the process will continue.
We will tighten up the administration as well. Right now for example, direct negotiation is very rare. Most of our purchases is on annual basis. The MRT project, River of Life Project, Petronas projects…
The opposition has not been able to find anything. And there are times when we make certain decisions, we can explain why we make certain decisions.
But opposition love to twist the facts. So that’s the problem that we are encountering now.
Is it accurate to say that your decisions are popular among the people but not popular with people who are supposed to be backing you up. Some of your political supporters for instance… you know, on not allowing direct negotiations is not going to sit well with some of them.
Well they have to come to terms with what the people want. If that’s the wish of the Malaysian people, so be it.
And I’m their leader and if they are my supporters, they must also believe in me. Because what I’m doing is not for me. It’s for the rakyat.
You have said all this, yet during your Transformation Programmes, you did have some programmes like Peneraju Agenda Bumiputera (Teraju) which catered only to the Malays. Would you say that UMNO is holding the country back in its economic reforms?
You have yet to remove the bumiputera agenda, so the continuation of strict policies that excludes the limited participation of other races are still there.
Let me tell you, we have to work within the constitution. And the spirit of the constitution of Malaysia has dictated to us to work towards continuing with the bumiputera agenda. But the policy of implementation is different.
I’m looking at trying to help the bumiputeras who can help themselves. Even with programmes like Teraju, they have to go through the mill.
It’s not that I can help anyone that I wish to help without having gone through the mill and that they are the best of the bumiputeras. By doing that, I’m ensuring that these are the people who deserve the help.
The criticism of the bumiputera policy is that they feel that some of the bumiputeras don’t deserve to be helped but they got help. Through the system, we’ve become much more objective.
But at the same time, it shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game. Once we’ve helped the bumiputeras, we must also be fair to the others. And this is what I’m doing. We have never promised to do away with the bumiputera policy. That’s never been our promise. Our promise was to be fair with the Malaysian people. And that’s what I’m doing.
So how important are the Chinese votes for BN? Or does the party feel it can make do because the majority votes lie with the Malays?
No, I believe every single vote is important. And I’m beginning to engage with the Chinese as well. They’re beginning to realise that, look, all may not be that well with the opposition.
First of all, their economic policies now are becoming rather dubious in terms of the impact to the economy. A lot of businessmen think now that our economic policies are going to benefit them more.
So there is this appreciation now, of BN policies under my leadership and we hope to continue engaging with them and hopefully we will able to get more support from the Chinese community.
Having said that, in the battle with PAS, how are you going to win the minds and hearts of the Muslims?
I think people are beginning to see that PAS is not synonymous with what they claim to be. They call themselves Parti Islam but people are beginning to have doubts as to whether some of the actions are based on the Islamic principles of syariat Islam.
Especially, of course, when they are at odds as to the future direction. First of all, they never defined what an Islamic state is. And then they were talking about hudud. And then they decided to change to Welfare State… (but) they believe in the struggle to have an Islamic state. However they define it, DAP is not the right partner for them. DAP will be a stumbling block.
Who may be the right partner?
Well, we’re not saying they should partner with UMNO but they should have a dialogue with UMNO and consider talking to us. Because if anything at all, we certainly will be more receptive than DAP. DAP is the opposite pole. And this leads me to the point that if a coalition which is so loose and fundamentally not constant with one another, can they form a viable government?
Surely the answer is no.
Even at this stage they cannot even have a shadow cabinet. And that to me is a precursor to an ability of any coalition to form a workable government, a viable government.
If you can’t even in the opposition, form a shadow cabinet, then… this is what a wise electorate should ask. You must indicate that you are able to form a viable government. But until today they cannot form a shadow cabinet. And to me that is very telling.
If I’m a discerning voter, I certainly will not accept the excuses. And I would like the opposition to 1) form a Shadow Cabinet; 2) form a formal coalition and 3) have a common manifesto. And they must stand on the same banner. They are not, at all.
So you would welcome a shadow cabinet breathing down your neck?
Yes! Of course! I like them to have a shadow cabinet. It’s good for the people.
Would you agree that we are at the dawn of a two-party system? Would you welcome that?
They claim they want a two-party system, but they’re falling short of it. If the two-party system in the Westminster System, then a shadow cabinet is a pre-requisite. This is a challenge to them and they are falling short.
But you have no objection sir, to sitting down with opposition members? Can we see one day, all of you come together at one table for the sake of the nation?
Certain issues with common understanding yes, certainly we can. But they don’t have any cohesive policies as such you know. They are a loose collection, a motley collection of three different parties. They don’t have any common platform.
But that’s where you come in, as the bigger man taking the moral high ground, saying: “Guys, look, lets sit down, we can’t be bickering like this all the time”.
Lets put it this way, I wouldn’t preclude the possibility. I’m open. I’m a great believer in engaging people across the spectrum.
That is the kind of leadership Malaysians are craving for.
But there must be mutual respect. The problem is sometimes, the things they say outside in their ceramah. If they want to be a constructive opposition, then my message is: “Behave in a constructive way”. Then our respect for them will be much higher.
Do you dream of the day when the main ruling party of this country is made up not of different parties with different races but one party with all races?
I like to see that happening. But I think it should be a natural process, evolution. You cannot force it. It’s better for us to do it when we’re ready. Because if you do it too early, whatever structure will be flawed with a lot of internal problems.
And we have not reached that stage yet. But I don’t think it’s such a big problem now. What is important is to put in place policies that are fair to all races. That’s what I’m trying to do.
You are so focussed on youth, the 2.9 million new voters. Your hope is on this new generation to bring your dream of 1Malaysia to fruition. This is perhaps because you’ve given up hope on the present generation?
(Laughs) No, I’m not giving up, Don’t get me wrong, you’re putting words into my mouth! I have not given up hope on anyone. I believe this is a journey and for the journey to succeed we have to talk beyond 2020. 1Malaysia will probably take longer when you reach 2020 for it to be something which is totally part and parcel of the Malaysian psyche.
So I recognise the importance of youth. Because they will provide the continuity. One of the responsibilities of a leader is to prepare for the future. If you don’t prepare for the future, then you will not be discharging your duties as a leader who should not be just concerned for the next GE, but for the future of Malaysia.
A reader quipped: “I pity Najib. He’s a good man but he’s all alone.” Is this the true picture?
(Laughs) I think they’re wrong. You can see in the assembly, support was overwhelming at the assembly. They wouldn’t have reacted in that way. It was not orchestrated at all.
How did you get them to behave?
I was surprised, when they stood up at the assembly four minutes before I finished my speech. Usually standing ovation is after you finished your speech.
And they cried…
And I didn’t do anything to make them cry. I didn’t give them any onions to make them cry. To me the party is with me. But maybe there is a sense that I’m moving very fast and the rest have to catch up. But it doesn’t mean I’m alone. The party is with me.
… Even if you have to drag some of them kicking and screaming?
No, they’re with me. But maybe as prime minister I’m running fast. I don’t know whether I’m intellectually faster than anyone. I seem to be running faster which gives the perception that as though I’m doing it alone.
But make no mistake about it, UMNO and BN is firmly behind me. So I’m not alone. 3.2 million UMNO members are with me.
– The Malay Mail