By Lokman Mansor/ Sofea Chok Suat Ling/ Fauziah Ismail/ David Christy
NST sits down with Dr M for exclusive interview – Part 1
THE long walk through the halls of the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya that Wednesday morning was filled with anticipation. We were there to interview Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose second term as prime minister of Malaysia had earned him a place in the record books as the world’s oldest state leader.
As chairman of the new alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH), the 93-year-old physician’s political comeback pulled the rug from under Barisan Nasional (BN) after six decades of power. It ushered in an era of wide-ranging reform and healing that, as Malaysians are starting to realise, will take longer than expected to accomplish.
The New Straits Times editors who sat across from Dr Mahathir in his 5th floor office — Lokman Mansor, Sofea Chok Suat Ling, Fauziah Ismail and David Christy — were allotted 40 minutes, but he obliged us extra time. Dr Mahathir offered answers and explainers to a range of lingering worries that had greeted the first 11 months of the first governnent not led by Umno and BN. He spoke frankly about the legacy issues of the previous government, stalled projects, corruption, the economy, and pace of reforms.
This new government had a mandate to clean up, but soon discovered that it would be dispensing injustice to mere followers of the previous administration. It has since gone into a rethink.
As a political leader, Dr Mahathir has found himself having to joust with a momentarily rejuvenated Datuk Seri Najib Razak and an emboldened Umno, consolidating the Malay credentials.
On education and the multiracial society, Dr Mahathir’s passionate response displayed a consistency in theme and messaging that began more than 70 years ago when, while in college, he contributed to this newspaper (then The Straits Times) under the pseudonym C.H.E. Det.
In total, the number of questions asked tripled from the advanced set of 10 we submitted a day before, and Dr Mahathir answered all of them without any hesitation. He was at times extremely frank and, we suspect, purposely vague on certain issues.
For this reason, we have decided to publish the interview transcript in full, and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. The first part of the transcript appears today, and will continue in tomorrow’s edition.
For added insight, the editors will share some of their personal observations and perspectives from the interview. Videotaped portions of the session will be published online and in our social media platforms in the days to come.
For the NST, the interview with Dr Mahathir was long overdue. We did not merely interview a sitting prime minister. We spoke to Che Det, who has been a part of the national conversation for seven decades.
And the good doctor gave us his prognosis of things that have gone wrong, and how we as a nation should address those frailties.
Thank you, Che Det.
THE FULL INTERVIEW
Answer: Number one is keeping the party together. It’s not an easy thing to do because we have different parties to manage and to get them to reach a decision is much more difficult than when I was leading the previous party.
That is a very difficult task, but they have stayed together.
Maybe other people may not think of it as much of an achievement, but actually it is a big achievement because these parties have never really worked together.
A: The cabinet meeting is illustrative of the fact we are a real coalition of parties of almost equal strength, and each party would want to give its view on all the subjects that we discuss. So cabinet meetings normally take a much longer time than in the previous government.
Everybody wants to have a say, and sometimes repeatedly, and that means we cannot reach a decision easily, but even then the fact that we can stay together and actually give direction to the government is, to me, an achievement.
A: Well, this is a difficult question to answer because I have to sum up whatever it is that they (have) argued (about) and declare that this is the decision that we are making. I cannot sum up unless, of course, they agree with my views and these are sometimes very contrary views.
So far, I have been able to lead. We don’t see any substitute yet at the moment, but there have been occasions when I left the cabinet and Wan Azizah was leading and she was able to conduct the meeting, at least for the short period I was away. There was once when I was out of the country, she conducted the meeting.
So, in a sense, the structure is expected. Now, who fills in after me, or after Wan Azizah, is something else. Of course, what we say is that Anwar will take over. Anwar has been a deputy prime minister before. He ought to know how to keep the party together.
A: Well, that was before. Yes, I did say that. But between Najib and Anwar, I think Najib is a worse leader than Anwar. The worst leader.
I think that to have Anwar replace a person like Najib is more acceptable than to have Najib carry on, so I decided that I would work Anwar, whatever I may have said about him before, whatever he has said against me before. I thought that our working together was far more important, in order to displace Najib, than for us to quarrel because I knew if we didn’t work together, Najib would be the next prime minister and that would be disastrous for the country.
A: I think he has been leading a considerable part of Pakatan Harapan. In fact, he was the architect of Pakatan Rakyat. Of course, Pakatan Rakyat failed because they were not that cohesive. But after we came together, we were able to work much more closely.
The fact remains that he was from Umno, and Umno, of course, was not very liked by the opposition. He left Umno and he was able to bring DAP, Pas even, and his party together, so he has leadership quality.
A: A lot of it is due to what was left by the previous government. The fact is that the previous government was very secretive. We didn’t know what they were doing and we assumed that they had done certain things and we formulated a way to get rid of the wrong decisions made before.
But when we took over, we found out the truth about what they had done.
For example, when they entered into the contract for ECRL, we did not realise that we cannot terminate the contract. It means we have to pay a huge compensation. And if you don’t terminate, then we will incur huge costs.
And the borrowings were very bad in the sense that they were expensive and were from Chinese sources and all payments are made not according to work in progress, but according to time taken.
Periodically we have to pay, without regard for the work that has been done. All these things created a big problem for us because it is difficult to get out of this project.
We thought we could just cancel the project, but it was not to be like that because they had entered into an agreement which tied them up very tightly to the other party. So to get out of it, we need not only offer to take over but also to persuade the other party to agree to our case.
So it has taken almost a year, we still cannot get around to determining (an outcome). We have been able to talk about reducing the cost, and this must be substantial, but the amount the other party was prepared to reduce is not sufficient for us. So many things have to be negotiated and at the back of it is the Chinese government. We cannot afford to ill-treat a Chinese company here without incurring the displeasure of the Chinese government. So it has been very tough trying to undo the wrong things that Najib has done.
The civil service, for example. He has corrupted the civil service to the point where these people took money. We have to get rid of them, but we have to retrain a new set of younger civil servants. They are good, but they are new. They cannot manage in the way the entrenched leaders were able to.
Then we have this problem of the high cost of living, which — despite doing away with GST — did not come down. As you know, when prices go up it is very difficult to bring them down in any circumstances. Now we are trying to bring them down because the high cost of living is something that people are unhappy about.
Then, there is unemployment. When we decided to terminate all the contracts given out by the previous government because they involved wrongdoings, we found that we were not punishing Najib. We were punishing these people, and they included not just the contractor, the sub-contractor. They were not involved in the negotiations or whatever. The workers, the suppliers, all kinds of people get hurt because we stop.
It’s not an easy task. If it involves only a few companies, yes, but we have hundreds of contracts that we stopped with the intention of restarting but at the moment we are not able to restart because some of the contracts are too costly. We have to reduce. All these things take time.
It’s not that there is no idea how to go about it, but to negotiate a reduction in price, to renegotiate the terms of the contract, that takes time, especially with the big companies. But the small companies also suffer, because they cannot carry on and therefore they have to lay off workers and all that. The workers get hurt, and we find that instead of punishing Najib, who is going around quite freely, we are punishing other people.
So when we realise that, we need to reverse our decision. If we don’t reverse just because we want to maintain a decision without being accused of flip-flopping, we would do injustice to a lot of people.
People say we’ve flip-flopped and all that, but this is based on number one, a lack of information on the extent of Najib’s depredation, and secondly, that when you take action, he’s denying everything but the people who obtained contracts in the last government, these are the people who are hurt, including the workers.
A: We are still finding more. It’s almost endless. It’s not only 1MDB. There is the CRC, the pension funds, there is Tabung Haji, there is Felda. These institutions have been robbed of money and now they are suffering. Badly managed, money stolen and all that. It’s not easy to solve these problems, because the money has disappeared.
For example, if you say you invest in Petro Saudi, if it is a real investment we can go to Petro Saudi and maybe dismantle the thing and get back our money. But the money is not with Petro Saudi. It has travelled to many different places and we believe, finally, it ended up in his account.
But in law, you need to prove that you are the owner. The money that moves from one bank to another is ours, we have to prove that. Without that proof, you can’t go to court.
A: Corruption is endemic everywhere, and any government would face that problem. The thing is how to reduce corruption. Eliminating it is almost impossible.
During my time, corruption was not so bad that the government could not function. The government could function. Everything could be built and people trusted us.
But when Najib took over, there was extensive corruption involving him! He is the head of government. When the head of government is known to be openly corrupt, then the whole government machinery becomes corrupt. The extent of corruption during Najib’s time is a scandal of enormous proportions.
When we took over, almost immediately that stopped. Our government is not corrupt, but we are getting rid of the corrupt people. We are also taking action in the courts for corruption. So at the moment what we are receiving is information on corruption that happened before, so there are lots more.
After we took over, incidences of corruption have been very few. For example, a political secretary is accused of taking a watch or something like that. That is nothing compared to the billions that were stolen before. So I would say we have reduced corruption by about 90 per cent. We no longer have people complaining when they go to the office, they ask for money.
A: Yes, a complete loss of trust. You know, I was told of a story while I was still out there (of the government). A lady wanted to do some business. She has some friends in the government and she expected her friend would help her. And she went to her friend, and her friend asked her, ‘How much are you giving upfront?’ Her friend!
You see, that’s the extent of corruption during Najib’s time. But now we don’t hear stories like that any more.
A: Yes, it’s true. But if the court doesn’t hear the case, he will not be proven guilty. And what Najib has done is to wangle so that the trial is delayed. Almost 11 months after we won, his case has just started.
If his case is not heard then he cannot be found guilty, and to claim that until he is declared guilty then only you can accuse him? And he is delaying it because he knows he is guilty.
Even today (Wednesday) at the first hearing, he tried to find an excuse, appealing to the higher court, saying that this decision is wrong. All these things are done in order to delay a hearing. If the hearing is delayed, then he can never be described as guilty, until the court says he’s guilty. So that is his strategy.
In the meantime, of course, he is going around fishing for support, saying that ‘No. I am not guilty’. The public may say he is not guilty, but until the court says he is guilty or not guilty, he is guilty. Under French law, you are guilty before you are proven not guilty.
A: It would seem that the project may have to go on, perhaps on a lesser scale and at a lower cost. That is what we’re aiming for, but at the moment we need to have the agreement of the contractor. If we terminate the contract, we have to pay compensation. Huge compensation. If we go on, we don’t have to pay compensation but the cost will be less. So this is still ongoing.
It has not been easy for us to persuade the contractor that ‘you have to reduce your cost’, ‘you have to reduce the scale’, all these things. Of course, the contractor entered into this contract hoping to make a lot of money, but we are trying to reduce the amount that he can make. Naturally, he is not very willing to reduce the contract value because he wants to make money.
A: We wish to have a deadline, if we can fix (it), but it depends on the other side agreeing. We don’t know what that side is going to do. If we fix the deadline, you come to the deadline, (but) the other side still won’t agree, what are we going to do?
A: We think we should reduce the borrowings by the government and we see some signs of being able to do this. We can reduce the cost of various contracts.
We may have to resort to selling government assets because we have to pay the debts. We can’t maintain the debts and just service them. That will take us 30 to 40 years. We have to pay off the debt, to retire the debt, and that means we have to raise money.
A: I can’t say very well, but I think if we reach about RM800 billion that will make us quite comfortable. Now it is more than RM1 trillion. When the debt is smaller, the burden of interest is also smaller.
A: Faith in the government has been restored. Not fully yet, but restored to the point where people are now coming with proposals to invest in Malaysia. Some of these proposals, of course, involve some government funds. We may not be able to come up with the funds. But many of the proposals are entirely private, that is to say, they will raise the funds, they will build, they will do everything and the government merely has to approve. That is coming, quite a lot.
The process is a little slow because we are very careful not to be taken for a ride again. So we already have many, many proposals, which when implemented will reverse the trend in the economy.
But as you can see, this economy is still growing; 4.7 per cent is a big figure for an economy of our size and therefore, when we grow, the size of the base will be bigger and the rate of growth will be smaller. You see, one per cent of $100 would be just $1, but when the growth comes to $1,000, that one per cent becomes smaller by comparison with the base. So that will happen. I am confident. Many people have come to see me, the Japanese have come, the Chinese have come, the Europeans have come. At the airshow (Lima 2019), they were all very positive about Malaysia’s growth. Confidence has returned.
A: We are working on it, but it’s not an overnight change. It’s not possible. As you go along, you meet a lot of problems. You introduce a system, and then find that the system is wrong. You need to make corrections. You can’t say, ‘I have decided this. Right or wrong, you must go ahead’. That is a stupid position to take, just because you want to say, ‘Oh, I don’t flip-flop’.
But flip-flop is necessary when you find that what you have done is wrong. But, of course, before you do it, you must study things very carefully, know all the facts, all the background, before you make a decision. That is what we are doing now.
So you find that sometimes we come up very late with a solution. It’s now almost one year, and there are some things which are still not fully resolved.
For example, when we stopped contracts given out by the government, we found that the effect was worse than we thought. You are thinking of stopping the contract, but we are creating unemployment. That is the effect of stopping the contract. So when we find that out, we can’t say, ‘Oh, we have decided. No change’. That is bad. You have to tackle this problem.
A: Well, if I compare with my previous stint as prime minister, the whole machinery of government was in place. People knew what to do. All I needed to do was to come up with some decision and they would carry it out.
Now I find that I can make a decision but whether it is carried out the way I want it or not, more often it is not. So I need to keep on going back and finding out what is it that they have done.
In the past, in my previous life, I visited the sites, I asked questions. I required that they all take dated pictures so that I could know what was happening. I make reports, because I believe in micro-management. I think if you make a decision and then leave it to somebody else, they will do something else.
A: There is that reluctance, because the civil service has been working with one party for 60 years, now they are going to work with the opposition party and some of them are reluctant.
Many civil servants are very strong Umno supporters and all that. Sometimes you find that the civil servants cannot work with his minister, like the KSU (secretary-general) for example.
On the one hand, the elected minister should not interfere in the promotion or position of the civil servant. On the other hand, if he cannot work with the civil servant, if the civil servant does not follow his instructions or goes the opposite (way), we need to voice our unhappiness and the need for a change.
NST sits down with Dr M for exclusive interview – Part 2
Yesterday, the NST ran Part One of its interview with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, his first with this newspaper since he reassumed the premiership last year. It was a wide-ranging interview that went well over the alloted 40 minutes, and as such we decided to publish it in full to allow readers to draw their own conclusions on the issues he covered. In the second part today, he delves into the performance of his ministers, the racial narrative being increasingly propagated by the opposition, income gap and wages.
He also outlines to NST executive editors LOKMAN MANSOR, SOFEA CHOK SUAT LING, FAUZIAH ISMAIL and DAVID CHRISTY what he resolves to do for education — bring back the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English in all schools, and review the way Islam is being taught to students.
Answer: No. It is not because of inexperience. We know what we want to do, but we realise that some of the reforms require amendments to the Federal Constitution. To amend the Constitution, we need a two-thirds majority. We don’t have a two-thirds majority. We need the support of the opposition to achieve a two-thirds majority and we cannot guarantee the opposition will support (us).
We have the intention to go to Parliament to amend the laws and remove some of the more draconian laws, but we need the support of the majority of the members of parliament, in some cases, a two-thirds majority. If we can’t get a two-thirds majority, it means we cannot push through our reforms.
But some things can be done on our own initiative, like saying that the prime minister will serve for only two terms. That needs a constitutional amendment, but we as a party can do that. We can remove the prime minister, as a party we can.
But to make the amendment, we have to look at the Constitution, what is there that needs to be amended? There are so many things, like the voting age, removal or modification of the death penalty, all these require amendments to the Constitution. That is holding us up, because we don’t have a two-thirds majority.
A: The ministers are new. You don’t expect a new person to know everything. If I change to another new minister, it’s not going to help at all.
But they are very concerned about their own performance, and I keep in very close contact with them. Every minister comes to see me if they have a problem, but sometimes they need to know what their functions are and all that. I will advise them. Of course, it takes a lot of time but in some cases I will help them to make decisions.
A: A lot of things. One of the things I believe is that the schools, from kindergarten onwards, should introduce some kind of moral education, to know values. In the past, our parents told us what was right, what was wrong. What is a sin, what is not. But today, parents — father and mother — are working. No quality time for the children, so the schools have to take over that task.
Secondly, with regard to religious education, we believe schools should provide religious education but it should not encroach on the teachings of other subjects. We find that in the curriculum, so much (time) is given to religious education at the expense of other subjects — Science and Mathematics.
Then, we have the English language. We need to teach Science and Maths in English. The idea that the Malays cannot learn in English is stupid. It’s not true at all. I am a Malay, I can speak reasonable English. Why can’t other people?
Today we have computers, we have the Internet. (If) we cannot get teachers, we can have teaching programmes through the computers, so that you can project the lesson on the screen and the screen will teach. And also teach the teacher. The teacher also will learn. It will make teaching much more easier because we can get experts to prepare the programmes. If that is done, I think the quality will remain the same throughout the whole system.
If we depend on the teachers, some teachers are good, some teachers are not so good. And their quality affects the students. But when you have a standard format, a standard programme, I think that will ensure the achievement of the students will be higher, at the level of the teacher who is chosen to prepare the programme. I must admit, at this moment, there are some programmes but we are not yet satisfied with the use of computers to teach.
A: Today, it seems that whereas they say Maths and Science should be taught in Malay, they do allow some schools to teach in English.
That is unfair, because the graduates of these schools will be employable. Those who go through the Malay stream will not be employable. That is discrimination against them. Of course, they don’t like it. Even the teachers don’t like it.
It is a burden on the teachers to teach the way they are teaching now. But if we resort to using programmes to teach, I think they will learn how to master the English language. I find that there are courses available today for learning English, and there are very good courses for learning any language, and we can get people to prepare courses with regard to the teaching of languages in particular, so that everybody will have access to the same master or teacher.
A: Yes, we will. We are actually doing so now, but without announcing (it). The previous government, because of the demand, they allowed certain schools, selected schools, to teach in English, but some schools actually refused to teach in English.
A: I have seen him many, many times, because this thing is evolving. We have to know the problem. For example, I asked for the curriculum, the school timetable and I looked through it and it is nonsense. It is not giving due time to important subjects.
Yes, I believe that you should learn all about your religion but what they are teaching as religion is not what they should be teaching. They are teaching only certain parts of the religion, like the performance of rituals. That is what they emphasise. ‘If you don’t perform this ritual, you go to hell’. But what is important about Islam, in particular, is the way of life. When you say way of life, that means certain values. These values are not taught. In fact, the teacher himself doesn’t know.
We read the Quran in Arabic, we don’t understand. I (have) read the Quran. I finished the Quran when I was in my teens, but I didn’t know the contents. I now read the Quran in English and Malay, and now I understand the teachings of Islam and they are all very, very good. But this is not conveyed to the students.
We need to go back and find out what are really the standards insisted by the Quran for Muslims so as to lead the way of life of a Muslim.
A: They are not concentrating on the government. They are just trying to survive and to survive now they have resorted to playing up racial and religious issues. Umno has become Pas. They are totally dominated by Pas. They are listening to Pas. It is not the Umno that I knew. It is not the Umno that was founded in 1946.
I have been with Umno from 1946. I know what Umno is all about, but this is not Umno. It is just a group of politicians who want to perpetuate their positions.
A: The fact of race is there. We cannot deny that. The fact of the differences between the races is there. While we do not want to play the racial issue, we must ensure that no race is left behind. And we know at this moment, the Malays in particular, are very far behind. We need to make corrections and that is why we say it’s not just about equality, it is also about fairness. We have to be fair.
If we work on the basis of equality and people are asked to make beads for tender. Some people are capable, some are not capable. Unfortunately, I believe that if you don’t look into the interests of the Bumiputeras, they will lose out. The disparity between the Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras will grow much bigger and when that happens, there’s bound to be tension and the opposition party will play it up.
So while we want to have equal treatment of all races, that equal treatment must be accompanied by fair treatment. For example, before we invented this direct negotiation and limited tender, that actually is discrimination in favour of the Bumiputeras. But if you remove that, there is a likelihood that the Bumiputeras will get nothing. Because they are not people who are commercially oriented. They don’t even understand the use of money. So we have to give consideration to that.
A: The government is doing a lot under affirmative action, the New Economic Policy. But we are dealing with people who do not have the culture of doing business. For them, money is to be spent to exchange for goods. It is not meant for investment. We have to teach them how to invest, how to manage the money.
For example, they borrow RM1 million for a business. They use only RM500,000. The other RM500,000 is used to buy cars and all that. Now, on a RM500,000 investment, they have to pay interest on RM1 million. That is a burden.
That means that if you take interest at 3.0 per cent or 4.0 per cent, the interest they have to pay is 8.0 per cent. You shouldn’t make use of your business borrowings for other things. But they don’t understand this. We have to teach (them).
First is to teach ‘Why’. But then, there is a cultural part. They did not grow up absorbing a culture that is commensurate with the task of going into business. The Chinese are different. For thousands of years they have been doing business. They understand business very well, so they can manage better. That is why the competition is not between equals. We need to overcome the inequality. We need to change the Malay culture. But that is very difficult.
A: I’m not talking just about business. About working. You know that they don’t want to work. When I say that they are lazy, I was scolded. But why are the Bangladeshis here? Because we don’t want to work.
People come here because we don’t fill the jobs that are created. In Japan, even a man wearing a tie is sweeping the road outside his shop. Because the culture is different. But here … ‘Oh, that is too dangerous’. ‘That is too humiliating’. They don’t want to work actually. You see them, just lying about doing nothing.
I met a Malay who has a pineapple plantation. He was a lorry driver, but because of his spirit, his willingness to work, he is now a millionaire, just by planting pineapples. And when I talked to him, he said, ‘In Malaysia, there shouldn’t be anybody who is unemployed’. Because there are jobs everywhere. But we don’t want to do the job. And when we don’t want to do the job, then, of course, we cannot become rich.
There are Malays who are so poorly qualified that the only thing they can do is to become a labourer. He must accept, but he says ‘No. No. I am Malay. I don’t do these kinds of jobs’. So we have that cultural problem to overcome.
A: Salaries are a very sensitive matter. People want to earn more money. If they live in some other country, they will be paid $1 million for becoming a clerk. $1 million of their currency. But the purchasing power of that salary is equivalent maybe to about RM1,000 or RM500.
What is important is the purchasing power, not the amount. Many countries with major inflation, they pay huge salaries, but the purchasing power is low. When the purchasing power is low, what do you do? You don’t raise the salary. You improve the performance.
I think that we are not productive. We have so many holidays. For the number of people working in the government, we should be a roaring success. But our productivity is not adequate for the money we are paying. A country that pays a high salary but is very productive, it grows the economy.
We need people who are well trained, capable, skilled and all that, they can have a high salary. But when you think about high salary just by moving up the minimum wage, the only effect you get is a high cost of living, because everything now costs more because of the high salary and when everything costs more, that high salary that you get does not purchase that amount, but purchases the same amount as when your salary is low.
A: He will have to go against the whole world if he wants to do that. Already, he is causing a lot of damage, not only with China but also with Iran.
When they apply sanctions, they actually do it against weak countries. Strong countries do not care. You can apply sanctions against Iran, and China and Russia will continue to deal with Iran.
But small countries like us, we are threatened. If you go and do business with Iran, your banks will be closed. You will not be able to transact. All kinds of threats are being hurled at us. We have to accept being sanctioned by the US, not because we have done anything wrong, but because of not obeying them with regard to trade with North Korea or trade with Iran.
A: So far, they have not done so. But I think they have a handful dealing with China and I think to single out countries like Malay-sia… you know we have been very critical. I have voiced my opinion on Trump. I have been asked umpteen times about Trump. I gave my fair opinion — he is not somebody you can deal with, because he changes his mind, sometimes three times in one day. He wants to meet Kim. He doesn’t want to meet Kim. I’m in love with Kim. How do you deal with a person like that?
First published in nst.com.my as parts 1 and 2.