DURING TUN DR MAHATHIR’S FIRST TENURE AS PRIME MINISTER, HE TRANSFORMED THE NATION INTO AN ASIAN TIGER. AND MADE US BELIEVE WE COULD ACHIEVE ANYTHING.
Now in power for the second time – 15 years after he retired – the man people affectionately and respectfully call “Tun” faces a new challenge. It is to lead the way for a New Malaysia. A Malaysia that is free of the corruption, racialism and sectarianism of the past. A Malaysia that will be respected among nations, that opens its doors to investments and provides opportunities for all her people. Read on as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad tells more in an exclusive interview.
Congratulations on leading Pakatan Harapan to a stunning and historic victory at the 14th General Elections, and on becoming Prime Minister again, 15 years after retiring. What pulled you out of retirement in your 90s and be active again in government and politics?
When I stepped down as Prime Mnister (in 2003), I intended it to be a clean break. I had been Prime Minister for 22 years, in government for nearly 30 years, so I wanted to relax, have a good time and enjoy my life.
I didn’t want to be a backstage power broker or a kingmaker behind the scenes. I didn’t take up any other government positions. Of course, I commented on government policies and made my views known as a Malaysian citizen and someone with experience.But I was not actively involved in politics. I only came back because people wanted me to. I came back because people saw that there were major problems in our country, and that it was going through serious decline. Corruption at the highest level was a problem. Malaysia’s sovereignty was under threat because deals were being made that placed heavy burdens on us. And so people kept on asking me, “Please do something, please do something.” That’s what I did.
Of course I am 93 now, and I know there is a lot of talk about my age. But 93 is only my chronological age, and not my mental age or even my physical age. I feel much younger than 93, and part of this has to do with the challenges I am facing. Because you only really decline physically and mentally if you are not active and engaged.
You definitely have a lot on your plate, Tun. There’s the 1MDB issue, corruption and inefficiency in government, the huge national debt problem, and the need to revitalise the economy. What do you see to be your priority?
Everything! Everything is my priority.
That’s the reality of the situation today. We have so many problems and we need to address them all urgently. To start, we need to address the foundation. That’s the government itself. If the government machinery is corrupt and inefficient, then that spreads and infects the rest. So in order to “clean up” Malaysia, we are focusing on cleaning up the government. And that means cleaning up the civil service.
We need to re-instil the principles of professionalism, integrity and neutrality in the civil service. Civil servants need to remember that they are here to serve the rakyat and to carry out the policies of the government of the day, whichever party is in power. So, they must not get involved in politics.
But during the last election, there were cases of civil servants actively campaigning for the previous ruling party. That was wrong as they are meant to be impartial. There was collusion between senior civil servants and members of the previous administration, which resulted in corruption and underhand dealings. It was a “you scratch my back and I scratch your back” type of relationship, and that has caused a lot of damage to the country.
During my first speech to the civil servants after taking office as Prime Minister again, I made it clear that I was very disappointed. I was disappointed that the Malaysian civil service, which was once respected around the world, had degenerated into one that was not only passive but at times even compliant with the wrong-doings of the former government.
Those who commit wrongdoings will be punished, regardless of their positions. But I also want to work with the civil servants. I need to work with them to heal Malaysia, and I am hopeful that the civil service will again be known for being clean, efficient and trustworthy.
Having set the foundations right by reforming the civil service, what will be your next point of focus? 1MDB? The debt? The economy?
1MDB is currently in the process of being investigated, and several people have been charged with offences related to it. So it will not be right for me to make any comments on it, except that we are leaving no stone unturned to gather evidence and recover the stolen assets.
Managing the debt and managing the economy go hand-in-hand. We cannot focus on one and ignore the other. If we concentrate on only addressing the debt, we could end up adversely affecting economic growth and even the rakyat’s well-being. But if we try to stimulate the economy with public money, we add on to the debt.
So it is a matter of finding the right balance. The way to address the two problems is by growing the economy. But we (the government) cannot do it ourselves. We need the support and partnership of the private sector.
That is why we are reintroducing the Malaysia Incorporated (Malaysia Inc) policy, which I had introduced back in the 1980s, when the country was regarded as one big corporation.
So, the government and the private sector work together to grow the corporation and make profits.
And this is good for businesses, this is good for the economy, and it is good for the government because we can collect more taxes. And that money will help us pare down the debt and allocate more to support industries and help the rakyat.
We also want to promote the digital economy and will implement the National Fibre Optic and Connectivity Plan to develop the broadband infrastructure, especially in the rural areas. We have allocated RM1 billion for that.
You are also focused on enhancing our industrial prowess, particularly through a third national car. But that project has come under a lot of criticism?
Some people say that we should not build cars because it can lose us money. But sometimes industries lose money. So let’s not have any industries at all. Let’s not produce anything and be a nation of consumers instead. But if we don’t produce anything, if we don’t have any industries, then we cannot get any money.
Manufacturing cars will enable us to increase the engineering capability of the country. It takes 4,000 parts to make a car, so before you can produce a car, you need to learn how to produce those parts and where to fit them. So by manufacturing a car, you learn a lot of engineering. You acquire knowledge that we can apply to making goods that we can use ourselves or sell to other countries, and that brings in an inflow of money.
With the government, we are concerned about reducing outflows and increasing inflows (of money). But with consumers, they probably think that a new national car will mean higher taxes and duties on their favourite imported cars.
There are those who will call it “protectionism” and say that we are against free trade. But that’s not true. We are not against free trade done fairly. However, as I said in my speech at the UN General Assembly, “Free trade means no protection by small countries of their infant industries. They must abandon tariff restrictions and open their countries to invasion by products of the rich and the powerful. Yet the simple products of the poor are subjected to clever barriers so that they cannot penetrate the market of the rich.”
So we need to safeguard our infant industries. And also, almost every country that manufactures cars protects their industry. They might do it through non-tariff means, but they protect their own industry. That is why you go to Japan, you hardly see any foreign-made cars. You go to Korea, same thing.
The critics of the third national car have said that we should be investing instead in public transport infrastructure and have questioned why we cancelled ECRL and MRT 3?
First of all, if people want to say that I am against infrastructure, then I can only say that the country underwent its biggest improvements in infrastructure when I was Prime Minister the first time. There was KLIA, the PLUS Highway, Penang Bridge. Those were huge projects which cost a lot of money. But the big difference between them and the projects you mention is that we used our own money.
This railway line in the East Coast, we needed to borrow RM55 billion for it, at an interest rate of 3.25 percent for 20 years. We never borrowed that much or with that high an interest rate during my time. Then apart from the cost of the loan, there is also the cost of the project, which was very high.
We have to live within our means. Even if the project is necessary, we need to make sure that we do what we can within our means. I actually knew about the MRT before it started, because there was a company which showed their plans to me and I told them it was a good idea and to show it to the Prime Minister (Najib). I thought it was a good plan but something that we should take time to implement, because the entire project would be very expensive. So I was very surprised when I heard that the whole thing was approved because it costs RM60 billion.
On the remarks that we cancelled these two rail projects for the car. These two are not related at all. (Finance Minister) Guan Eng already said that there will be no government money spent on the new national car, and that it will be entirely private sector funded. So whether or not we had come up with the third national car idea, these two projects would still have been reviewed.
Thank you for your time, Tun. One final question before we go. The historic defeat of the Barisan Nasional has brought about what many call a “New Malaysia”. What is your interpretation of the New Malaysia?
The New Malaysia is a Malaysia that is better than what we had in the past. Definitely better than the previous regime, but also better than when I was previously Prime Minister. The Malaysian voters decided to throw out a government that had been in power for 61 years, because they were fed up. They were fed up by widespread corruption, by racial and religious bigotry. They want a Malaysia that upholds principles such as fairness, good governance, integrity and the rule of law.
That is the New Malaysia. It is a Malaysia that will be neutral and non-aligned. We will not be afraid of voicing out against injustice but we will never turn down the opportunity to work together for mutual benefits, based on a philosophy of prosper thy neighbour.
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