Although the 100-day milestone is an arbitrary concept, it offers a reference on the achievements and shortcomings of the new govt
By MOHAMAD AZLAN JAAFAR, P PREM KUMAR & ALIFAH ZAINUDDIN / Pic By MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
Malaysia installed a new government 100 days ago after six decades of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule. The Pakatan Harapan victory has been a surprise to many even within the coalition itself.
Since leading Putrajaya, it has been a thrilling but roller-coaster ride for the Pakatan Harapan-led members. It is a new era in Malaysia’s history books.
Malaysia has the world’s oldest elected prime minister (PM), the trial of a former PM and a coalition of parties with different ideologies coming together to oust a government.
But Malaysians are demanding changes. Although the 100-day milestone is an arbitrary concept, it offers a reference on the achievements and shortcomings of the new government.
In an hour-long exclusive interview with The Malaysian Reserve (TMR), PM Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad gave an account of his return to the helm, a report card on Pakatan Harapan’s 100-day achievements, the challenges he and the government face — government-owned companies, national cars, racial sentiments, the New Economic Policy (NEP) — and his hopes to reform Malaysia.
Below is the extract of the interview by TMR’s Mohamad Azlan Jaafar, P Prem Kumar & Alifah Zainuddin with Dr Mahathir at his office on the fifth floor of Perdana Putra, Putrajaya, on Aug 15, 2018.
TMR: How does it feel to return to the “old office” for the second time after a lapse of 15 years, and your feelings on Pakatan Harapan’s election win and government as we near the 100th day?
Dr M: It is a little bit unreal. I can’t imagine myself becoming the PM again. I never expected it. But coming back to this office feels strange despite the familiarity that I should actually be here because, with the previous PM, I did visit this office once. At that time I never thought that I would be anything more than a guest. But here I am, occupying this office as PM.
It is different than the first time. The first time, everything was calm, everything was nice. I had very little problems. The machinery of the government was intact and people know what they had to do.
This time around I have to deal with the problem of distrust. We cannot trust the civil servants because many of them were so committed to the last government that they actually campaigned for them, and they were known to have been corrupted by the previous government.
On the one hand, I need somebody to work with, because I need the machinery in the government. But when you cannot trust the machinery, you need to replace people — but the replacements cannot come from the top-most rank, but from the bottom.
These people at the bottom are often unfamiliar with the work. They don’t really know what to do with the different things that the PM is supposed to do. So, I had to retain some of those people who are suspected of having collaborated with the previous government.
Anyway, I’m getting a little bit more used to being here after 100 days. Now, I feel a little bit more comfortable. I’m beginning to be able to sort things.
TMR: How does Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali feel now that she has to “return you” to Malaysia?
Dr M: Well, truthfully, although she wished I would not become the PM again, she has given her full support. She has always accompanied me. She supports me and I have no problems of her resenting me devoting my time to work rather than to the family, to her. Whenever she could, she accompanies me.
TMR: Are we seeing a changed Dr Mahathir now compared to the Dr Mahathir who was leading this country until 2003?
Dr M: I’m older…I’m much older. I stepped down because I thought that nearing 80 was too old already. I was prepared to step down and retire and lead the life of a pensioner. But here I am again, having to shoulder a lot of responsibilities and do a lot of work.
But this time around, the amount of work is much, much more simply because I am one of the very few who have any experience in government. My Cabinet is made up of people with no experience. The only experience they have is to be the Opposition and they cannot divorce themselves from that role.
Dr Mahathir sets the record for being the oldest elected PM in the world (Pics by Muhd Amin Naharul/TMR)
They are only beginning to realise that they are the government. So, I need to also guide them. I need to talk to them and I need to point out what is it that they can do and what they cannot do, and there is of course this scramble to have various departments and institutions under their ministries. It is a little bit unsettling at first, but it is coming down.
I can cope with the work, but the work is just too much for me, I don’t have the time. I sometimes cannot (engage in) correspondence to things addressed to me. I could not simply say, because I didn’t have time, even although I do full-time work. I answer all the questions and there are requests, but still there is so much to do.
To decide, I need to read and to read takes time. Therefore, I cannot expedite that much. So, the burden of work is almost three times what I had during my first term.
TMR: How would you rate the performance of Pakatan Harapan after 100 days? There is a lot of criticism that there is a lack of experience in the new government.
Dr M: We thought we could do things. Within 100 days, we could deliver four promises. But there are processes (that we have) to go through. For example, if you want to change certain things, you need to go to the Parliament. Setting up the Parliament takes time. Setting up the Cabinet takes time. Drafting the laws takes time. Sometimes, it is more than 100 days. While we can start, we cannot actually complete the work within 100 days.
Then, there are certain constraints. For example, the government has no money. Money has been stolen and the people expect to be given free money. We just don’t have the money and because we don’t have the money, the promises we made that we would not tax the people, to remove tolls and all that, are just impossible to implement.
If you implement, then the government will be in debt by billions of dollars extra. Already, our debt is more than RM1 trillion. If we don’t collect (revenue from) tolls and we don’t collect the Goods and Services Tax either, many things that we don’t collect now, this leaves the government with not enough money. Some of these things, without them, the government cannot function.
Although we made promises, we just cannot deliver them immediately. It has to take time.
TMR: Among your 10 promises for the 100 days, we have seen progress in eight, except for the bad loans inherited by Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) settlers. We have not seen much progress there. Why is that?
Dr M: It is because we are short of money. It is the Opposition (former BN administration) which made such promises. Of course, if we don’t promise, then people might think that we don’t care. We care for the settlers, but our finances are so bad because the previous government has really undermined the finances of this country.
Not only did they spend more money than they had, but they borrowed huge sums of money for projects. I don’t remember borrowing more than RM1 billion, but they have borrowed, for 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) alone, RM42 billion.
How are we going to pay back because loans have to be repaid. We don’t have the money. So, this is why.
These are the constraints that we face. We promised, but that is, of course, if our estimate of the losses is not that great. Once we moved in, we discovered the state of the finances is horrendous.
TMR: What are the key measures taken by the government to cushion the losses?
Dr M: We had to cancel several projects. We had to defer some projects simply because we have no money for the (Kuala Lumpur-Singapore) high-speed rail, for the East Coast Rail Link, for several pipelines which are not really giving any returns. We are trying to pay the interest of the debt because if you don’t, you can be bankrupt. To do that, eventually we need to sell some of our assets because there is no other way.
You cannot borrow money to pay a loan, but in the case of the yen loan, that is because the cost of money is cheaper than the present cost. We are going to reduce the cost of money. The interest rate will be much lower. That thing we can do, but that is going to take a long time.
TMR: What is the status on the establishment of the Royal Commission of Inquiries into Felda, 1MDB and so on. You have launched investigations into 1MDB. Do you think there is still a necessity for the royal commission?
Dr M: At the moment, no, because there are cases going to the courts and you can’t do any investigation if the cases go to court.
Pakatan Harapan Coalition
TMR: Pakatan Harapan is seen as a very fragile grouping. What are your comments on that?
Dr M: Well, initially it was even more fragile than now. For the Opposition to come together before the 13th General Election, you can see that they couldn’t, and this time they could. This is a positive sign. They could come together and stayed together even when the government tries to break the coalition by refusing to register the coalition and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Even then, they were willing to accept one logo, one flag and all that, and to fight as one party rather than as individual parties.
Although it is fragile, it has managed to strengthen itself enough to be able to win the election.
In terms of the behaviour and all that, we still find members of the party not towing the line of the coalition. Sometimes, they say things out of hand without ascertaining whether that is a policy or not. So, there is little discipline. But gradually, they are beginning to understand that as a coalition, each one must think as a coalition and not his individual party, and certainly not his personal (interest).
That we managed to stay together at all is a major achievement. I think if you look at past performances, they could never stay together. Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah tried it, but he failed. Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim tried it, but he still failed. This time around, they realised that if they don’t stay together, they will lose.
Fragile? It is fragile, but it is not as fragile as before. It has made progress.
TMR: The 100 days of the new gov-ernment is this Friday (today). What are your biggest challenges in the next 18 months or two years? Your highest and lowest points within the last 100 days?
Dr M: We decided on the 10 items for the 100 days not knowing fully the extent of the damage caused by the previous government. Now, we are horrified to find that the loans, for example, are far more than what we suspected before. The government machinery is also badly damaged. We will have to resuscitate that and clean that up. All these things hamper the progress that we should make.
It is not like when I was the PM in 1981. When I came in then, everything was fine. The machinery of the government was working perfectly, well-oiled. All I had to do was decide on this thing and that thing, Look East or whatever. I just made those decisions, very simple.
But here, I cannot make decisions without considering all the constraints — the lack of money, the ability or inability of the staff, the lack of knowledge in the new government that we are setting up. When I became PM in 1981, the Cabinet was there. I mean, they are experienced people, but in Pakatan Harapan, these are people who for 60 years, were in the Opposition. They know how to oppose, but how to run a country is something new to them.
Not that they are not capable, they are capable, but of course, when you are running anything, you have to learn how the thing works.
That is why we can only begin the work of implementing our promises. Some of them cannot be done in 100 days because we require parliamentary approval, the King’s approval, all kinds of things and we have to debate also in the Dewan Negara. The Dewan Negara is dominated by the Opposition. All these things, when we made the manifesto, we didn’t know about this.
Some of us were thinking as if we were going to be in the Opposition again, so much so that they made a provision that the leader of the Opposition should have the same ranking as a minister.
Now, of course, they are not so happy with that idea because they are the government and the Opposition is somebody else.
TMR: What are the high points throughout the 100 days?
Dr M: Well, appointments of senior officers — we broke away from the past. We no longer appoint (from a political) party. We now appoint more professionals. We are also open to bringing in people from the outside, the attorney general, for example, is from the outside. Many of the new directors and board members are professionals. This is very important. It will show the results later.
TMR: We have been reporting gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 5%-6%. Do you believe in this economic census or what is the right measurement of happiness and prosperity?
Dr M: In the first place, we need to know what contributes to the GDP. Sometimes, even money borrowed is regarded as some kind of contribution to the GDP when it can be a burden to the country.
Firstly, we need to state clearly how do you calculate GDP. If the GDP is calculated in some way, it may look as if the country is doing well. But it may not be doing well. What is happening is, of course, whereas before the GDP was reflected in the better lives of the people — here, it is totally disconnected.
The GDP is going up, but the people seem to suffer with higher cost of living and lowering their standard of living. That is why we need to know what constitutes the GDP. If we know, then we may take measures and we may declare a lower growth rate which may explain why the people are not enjoying a good life.
TMR: Do you believe in the happiness index?
Dr M: It is something we should think about. Some people are quite happy even if they don’t enjoy free speech. They are making money, they have a good life. They don’t criticise the government, that is okay, people can be happy. But some people are unhappy over minor things. Just because they don’t get something that they are entitled to, they become unhappy. So, the happiness index is not a very precise index. It doesn’t reflect the real problems faced by the community.
TMR: Just on this developed nation, our former PM had this vision of making Malaysia a high-income nation by 2020. Will we reach there by 2020?
Dr M: The previous PM spoke about (Malaysia becoming a) high-income nation. High income doesn’t mean you are rich. If you see our neighbours (in South-East Asia), they have very high income. They pay by the millions, but the purchasing power is lower than us. If they have 1,000 of their units, we have 10 of our units. Their 1,000 is equivalent to our 10. It is not the high income which is important, it is the purchasing power.
High income means nothing except when it can buy more things. If you reach the income, but you buy less than before, what is the good of having a high income? This is what is happening.
I spoke about high income a long time ago and what I stressed was high income must be accompanied by high productivity. If you have high productivity, then the prices of things don’t go up and your high income will buy more.
But if you have high income and the value of goods go up as high as your income, you can only buy the same amount of goods or even less. So, what is the good of having a high income?
There are some countries where people are paid by millions of units, but they are not rich…they are poor. Our currency is strong. Relative to many countries, our currency is still strong. This idea that you could just increase the pay of the government servants by 25% — but has the purchasing power increased by 25%?
No, because when you raise the government sector’s pay, the private sector will have to raise their pay and the cost of production will shoot up, and then your increased pay buys the same amount of goods.
You are very happy because the numbers are good, but the numbers mean nothing. This simple fact also (is something) the government doesn’t seem to understand. You talk about high income all the time.
TMR: There have been a lot of changes at government-linked companies (GLCs) and government-linked investment companies. You have appointed the new chairman for Lembaga Tabung Haji (TH), a new chairman for Felda. What is next for all these agencies including Khazanah Nasional Bhd now that you are the chairman?
Dr M: With TH, I think obviously there has been a loss of money. We have to rearrange the way the management of funds at TH is carried out. Of course, for Felda, it used to be a very profitable venture. Previously under (Raja Tan Sri Muhammad Alias Raja Muhammad Ali), it was doing well.
But when you put in people who are not really keen on Felda, but see only an opportunity to make money for themselves, then Felda becomes what it is today.
In the case of Khazanah, Khazanah was started as a repository for shares that should be given to the Malays because the Malays will sell off the shares the very day they received them. So, their shares will always be very low because they would always be sell-offs.
Thus, we created Khazanah to buy up the shares, retain the shares and probably at a later stage, sell back to the Malays.
Unfortunately, Khazanah, having obtained a lot of money, decided to venture into other things. It is not about looking after the shares of the Malays. It wants to make money for itself. It regards itself as a government wealth fund, but it is not a government wealth fund at all.
So, you see them going into all kinds of businesses, entertainment, movies, developments in London and all kinds of things.
We need to withdraw from it and make it come back to its original purpose. Those which are not the tasks of Khazanah, we may have to distribute elsewhere or we may dissolve and collect the money.
TMR: Another major concern at these GLCs, GLICs is the salary packages received by their top executives. Is there a streamlining process for the salaries of all these people?
Dr M: The people who run Khazanah decided that it is a commercial enterprise and therefore, they should be paid commercial rates. Of course, in the private sector, the wages are very high.
There is one man who is paid RM80 million a year. There are others who are paid RM7 million-RM10 million. That is the private sector. This is not truly a private sector.
They move there and they think they should receive the salaries of the private sector. Now, the salaries of the private sector are based on performance. If you don’t perform, they kick you out and they get in another person who is supposed to be better.
But here, what happens is that even when the company is losing money, they give themselves handsome wages running into the millions.
Our new approach is to give them fairly good salaries — slightly above those in the government — but they will be paid a bonus if they perform based on how much they earn for the company. That will be fairer. It is not going to follow what the other companies outside are doing.
TMR: Does that mean you are going to revise their contracts?
Dr M: We find a lot of political appointees who have no knowledge about the business to head these companies. We have to get rid of these people.
TMR: Have you taken all these people out?
Dr M: We will have to do it fairly gently, but the fact is the cost of running some of these companies is too high. To reduce the cost, we have to reduce their pay.
Race Relations, Malays and NEP
TMR: The Malays are divided into three — supporters of Pakatan Harapan, Umno and PAS. There is a worry on the rise of racism. What is your opinion on the matter?
Dr M: I think the fact of race cannot be denied. Of course, the Malays will want to see the Malays do well, the Chinese the same and the Indians. When they talk, although they say they are a multiracial party, they think only about their own race.
For example, the Indians are very concerned about their fate. We need to have special attention given to the Indians. The fact is, racism is still there. We have to take that into consideration.
But race should not be used in order to divide Malaysians by running down one race and gaining support of the other races.
We need to correct the imbalances between the races. The most dangerous thing that can happen is if poverty is equated with one race and wealth is equated with another race.
That will cause tensions and confrontations between the poor and the rich, amplified by the poor being of one race and the rich being of another race.
TMR: The NEP has been there to help all races, but in particular, the Malays. What do you think about the NEP? And overall, how do you see the performance of the Malays?
Dr M: You cannot say that the NEP has failed completely. It has not. The position of the Malays today is much better than it was before we implemented the NEP, and many things were done to correct the imbalances.
Unfortunately, the Malays did not respond correctly to the opportunities given to them.
For example, we give a contract to a Malay company, he is very fond of selling off the contract. You give him an approved permit or whatever, they want quick money. They would always want a quick, easy way of making money. But a quick and easy way of making money is not permanent. If you have a contract and you sell the contract, that is the end of it.
If you are a good contractor, you will get more and bigger contracts, but instead, they would always opt for quick money by selling the contract.
Sometimes, they would sell the contract several times. We once gave a contract for a computer lab to a number of Malay companies, they sold the contract and the buyer then sells the contract and sells again, sometimes three layers by which time the cost of buying the contract leaves them with very little margin for profit. As a result, they don’t perform well.
While you may blame other races, the fact is the Malays are not really oriented towards doing businesses at the moment. They do not handle money well.
They do not understand the management of money. Malay companies fail almost always because of poor management and lack of ethics, trust-worthiness. You give them a job where they are in charge of funds for example, they don’t manage it well. Sometimes, they even take the money for themselves. This is the reality of the situation.
Unless the Malays are willing to adopt good management ways and do not want to become rich quickly or if they are not trustworthy, they are to be blamed if the NEP has not succeeded. It is not completely a failure, but it should have done much better considering what we have done.
But it is very difficult to implant in the Malays a sense of responsibility and discipline in management. They don’t have that kind of discipline, so we need to correct that.
TMR: Should there be a new wave of NEP?
Dr M: Much of the NEP is done and over with. For example, initially we thought that all companies must have 30% Malay holdings. That is not possible. We have to drop that because private family companies, for example, they cannot accept some strangers coming into their company holding 30% shares and all that. Manyofthe strategies and principles adopted at the beginning of the implementation of the NEP have been dropped.
Some have succeeded, but most are actually unable to perform. Most of the provisions we made, basically, they have failed.