IN his first face to face media interview since he took over the top post and fresh from tabling the 12th Malaysia Plan, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob speaks about how the plan is tailored to meet the aspirations and needs of the people, address socioeconomic challenges, and reset the economy following the Covid-19 pandemic.
He also describes how relatively calm Parliament has been since the signing of the memorandum of understanding with the Opposition and why he chose the Malaysian Family concept for the plan.
Were there changes made to the 12th Malaysia Plan when you took over as Prime Minister?
The Malaysian Family theme was included in the Plan.
A prosperous, inclusive and sustainable Malaysia Plan was intended to enable us to move forward by restructuring the economy as the foundation to improving the wellbeing of the people. Also, I want to ensure that the policies we present are people-centric.
While mega projects that have been planned will proceed, new ones should be private sector driven. Government funds should focus on projects that will directly benefit the people, such as affordable housing, connectivity, roads, power, and water supply.
I was involved in discussions and planning the 12MP from the beginning. Former prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had roped in senior ministers and several others to look at how the plan should be formulated.
I had proposed that defence and security be included in the plan. Aside from bread and butter issues, the public is also concerned about security and safety. We need to make the people feel safe and assured that we are looking out for their safety.
The plan is being presented at a time of great uncertainty – we are facing a health and economic double crisis, after all. What do you say to those who are sceptical that it can be implemented?
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected global economic growth, which shrank 3.2% in 2020, causing a rise in poverty. We were not spared.
During the 11th Malaysia plan [2016-2020], the average GDP was 2.7% annually, lower than our initial target. It shrank by 5.6% last year although growth was at 4.9% annually in the first four years of the 11MP.
The rather low achievement of 11MP required the government to draft policies and strategies that are more encompassing so that the economy can be on track for long-term growth.
Drafting the 12MP was indeed a challenge. It took us 29 months – from April 16, 2019, until it was tabled in Parliament on Monday, Sept 27.
Taking into account the effects of the pandemic, the government reviewed strategies and priorities so that they are in line with the current situation. We set optimistic and realistic targets.
We must kickstart and heal the economy and shift our focus to creating high value added products and services, using the most advanced technology.
At the same time, efforts will also be made to ensure the wellbeing of the Malaysian Family, to eradicate hardcore poverty and lessen income and development gaps.
We will also ensure that development is sustainable without compromising the environment.
Did the Opposition provide input in drafting the plan?
We had several sessions with them to hear their views and suggestions as they, too, are stakeholders. We also called on industries, groups, business associations, community leaders, civil society groups and state governments to hear them out.
This is not just for the 12MP but similar sessions were held when drafting the Budget.
After the plan was presented in Parliament, we called all lawmakers in to provide more explanation. For the first time in Parliament’s history, we brought MPs from the government and Opposition together for the briefing. I said there was no need for briefings to be held separately, let’s bring everyone together for this session.
When the Economic Planning Unit director-general gave his briefing, there was no disruption. All questions were focused on the plan.
The spirit behind the Malaysia Agreement 1963 is to see Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah be treated as equal partners. Is this reflected in the 12MP?
Socioeconomic development in Sabah and Sarawak remains one of the government’s main agendas. The 12MP spells out 16 strategies and five priority areas to strengthen socioeconomic development in the two states.
The priorities will be to overcome issues such as poverty, to solidify the provision of infrastructure by constructing bridges and upgrading 1,400km of rural roads, to ensure completion of the 1,150km Pan-Borneo highway and look into low broadband coverage.
To improve power supply, a new power plant will be built in Sabah and the east-west power grid will be upgraded. For Sarawak, the construction of the Baleh hydroelectric power plant is expected to be completed in 2025.
To boost security and for Sabah and Sarawak to benefit from economic ties with Kalimantan [in Indonesia], new border control posts will be built in Manulunan, Simanggaris and Kalabakan in Sabah while the CIQ [Customs, Immigration and Quarantine] complexes in Tebedu and Serikin in Sarawak will be upgraded.
The government will strive to ensure balanced development is implemented across regions and states, including Sabah and Sarawak.
As for the Malaysia Agreement 1963, the rights of Sabah and Sarawak will continue to be reviewed through working cooperation established under the Special Council on the Malaysia Agreement.
What measures will be taken to tackle poverty under the 12MP?
Because of the pandemic, the landscape has changed. There are people in the B40 (low income) category who are now hardcore poor. Some previously in the M40 (middle) income bracket are now in the B40 group.
Under 12MP, the target is to eradicate hardcore poverty by the end of 2025. To do this, mechanisms will be made more effective, several policies, strategies and initiatives from the previous Malaysia plans have been improved and included in the 12MP.
For instance, prior to this, there was no monitoring after assistance is given to the poor. We help a person to set up a roti canai stall, gave him money and equipment for him to start a business.
But after that, we don’t monitor his progress, we don’t know if he is doing well or if he needs help because he is new to business.
In terms of granting aid and assistance, there is no dedicated body to monitor who is giving what to whom. As a result, some people will get aid from three different agencies and there are some who do not get any help at all.
We are looking at coordinating all this under district offices so there will be better distribution of aid and that outcomes of assistance are collated. Only then can we know if our programmes bear fruit.
The government plans to draw up a policy on poverty, taking on approaches based on data and to set up a centralised poverty database to facilitate handing out assistance.
Poverty eradication programmes will be improved by roping in local authorities, community leaders, government agencies and civil society organisations so that programmes will directly involve the grassroots.
One of the objectives of the 12MP is to strengthen the Malaysian Family agenda – please elaborate on this.
Our aim is to ensure a socioeconomic development that is fair, equitable and inclusive. This is what the Malaysian Family is about, it transcends race and religion. Unity is our focus.
In my speech, I made reference to every one – the Malays, the bumiputra, ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak.
We have outlined development initiatives to help improve the socioeconomic standings of the Orang Asli community.
For the Indian community, there are dedicated programmes to upgrade their skills, targeted financial aid and entrepreneurship opportunities.
For low-income Chinese households, particularly in the New Villages, we will provide better access to the special financial loan scheme for them to expand their businesses and get involved in entrepreneurship.
You see, when you talk about poverty, it affects everyone and no race or ethnic group is excluded.
There are those in the Chinese community who are poor. I know this because there are New Villages in my constituency in Bera [Pahang]. I know they are not having an easy life.
When you are poor, what you experience or the difficulties you face is the same no matter what your race.
Which is why we have assistance for all because each and every one of us is part of the Malaysian Family.
How accepting are non-Malays, especially the Chinese, of your administration?
I have been Prime Minister for just slightly over a month. I think it is too early to gauge their sentiments.
Sometimes, people will like you in the initial stages but it will be the opposite after a while. There are cases where those who don’t like or support you at first but over time, their feelings and perception of you change.
I don’t know what their sentiments are right now. Perhaps after five or six months, I will have a clearer picture.
Has the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the government and Opposition leaders brought “peace”?
I told the Opposition that if they want to attack and criticise the government, it is all right. That is their role as the Opposition and we do need the check and balance.
Despite that, we can see attacks against the government are fewer now. Things are calm outside and inside the Parliament. Before this, whenever a lawmaker spoke, there would always be a standing order (raised). You can see there is mutual respect among the members of Parliament.
That’s the situation now and I hope this will remain.
What is the Malaysian Family?
I must say that family is important to me.
The Malaysian Family concept is meant to unify all Malaysians whether they are in the city, towns, rural areas, villages, whether they are civil servants, youth, traders, persons with disabilities, students.
How one cares for his family is how I would like to see Malaysians care for each other. As a family, we protect and look after one another. As a family we will not allow our members to be left out, to face difficulties alone and fend for themselves.
A family is inclusive, we will not let differences in opinion and religion, distance and borders separate us.
When I was campaigning for the Kimanis by-election [in Sabah], there was this Chinese woman whose child and in-law is a Muslim while her other child is a Christian. Because of the strong family spirit and bond, they could live together as a family despite the differences in religion.
That is how I hope Malaysians can be. That we can see beyond our differences to care for and help each other.
A lesson learned from the Covid-19 pandemic is that this crisis had brought Malaysians together. You could see how during challenging times, everyone stepped up to lend a helping hand to neighbours, the community, friends and even strangers.
With the same spirit, I hope we can work together for the country to heal and recover from the pandemic as a family.