THE book-lined library of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s official residence in Putrajaya is both cosy and opulent. The bookshelves are on a raised balcony overlooking a stylish room designed to relax in, hold meetings and also to entertain.
There are paintings and framed photographs of the Prime Minister with international figures from Kings and Queens to political and religious leaders. Najib seems to have met everybody worth meeting in the world.
Najib is not into literary fiction and confesses to a love for books on military history and strategy. Now we know how he managed to fend off attempts to unseat him the last two years.
The week leading to the Umno general assembly is always a fast-paced time for Umno leaders. But he was in a relaxed and upbeat mood, removing his tie as he settled down to talk to The Star team comprising Editor-in-Chief Datuk Leanne Goh, mStar Executive Editor Rozaid Abdul Rahman, Associate Editor Joceline Tan, Umno general assembly team leader Razak Ahmad, photographer Raja Faisal Hishan and videographers Juliana Fawziah and Patrick Chin.
Najib returned from the Apec Summit in Peru on Wednesday and has been going non-stop since then.
He found the mood at Apec circumspect in view of the global economic slowdown and the political transition in the United States. It was an opportunity for him to thank President Barack Obama for his pivotal role in Asian policy and to meet up with President Xi Jinping with whom he had bonded especially after his immensely successful trip to China.
Najib is one of the few Asian leaders able to connect with international leaders from the centres of western capitalism to the heartland of Chinese communism.
It is not difficult to see why. He is polished, he speaks the Queen’s English and has a way with words and a great deal of his confidence comes from his upbringing and years of experience in government. He moves with social ease in high and powerful society, he understands international politics and he holds his own among the world leaders.
He believes prayers empower the mind, he works out to keep fit and downtime involves watching TV. He is playing golf today with some 300 or so past and present Umno division leaders whom he calls the “power-brokers” and “movers and shakers” in the party.
But next week is about going back to where the power comes from. The last Umno general assembly was tumultuous and a showdown of sorts. The storm has blown over, he said he is more relaxed and he has a team who is on the same page as him. It is time to move and face the general election.
The following is the full version of the interview:
One year after the dramatic general assembly of 2015
It’s been quite a tumultuous journey, but you have to take it philosophically in politics. Your experience in politics and in life is never linear. It always has ups and downs, moments of ascendancy and moments where you will face challenge. The key is to persevere and be resilient. I’m an optimist that there will be an upswing. Life is like that as in politics,
On Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal
These people “grew up” with me and I was responsible bringing them up to their position. But I have come to terms that there will be betrayals in politics. Even in the US, you see the brutal politics and drama that unfolded, the harsh words. There was nothing poetic about the presidential elections in the US.
Are you stronger today in Umno?
I have a good team now, a good deputy in Datuk Zahid (Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi), I have Hisham (Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein) and I’ve got the others. We are all on the same page and we work well as a team. It’s good for Umno that people see we have a cohesive leadership. It doesn’t mean we don’t differ, we have very robust discussions. But once we decide on something, we fully implement it as a team. I believe what happened strengthened Umno’s leadership and we have a much more united leadership.
Holding on to Johor
Umno was born in Johor, the Umno tradition is very strong in Johor and I believe we will still have our bastion in Johor.
Fascination with China
What’s interesting and almost an irony that a single party system in China can do two things. It can engender good leadership that believes in the principle of meritocracy. You have to prove yourself every step of the way. If you trace Xi Jinping’s history, he started as deputy mayor, then mayor, then governor and so on. He was tested at every step of the way. So they are able to pick the best to become future leaders.
Secondly, it’s interesting to look at how they could engender big entrepreneurs, the movers and shakers, the Jack Ma (executive chairman of Alibaba Group), the Wang of the world (Wang Jianlin, chairman of Wanda Group). How on earth did a single party political system spawn so many movers and shakers?
They are so creative and able to invest huge amounts of capital in China and abroad. That fascinated me. It defies Western thinking that you’ve got to have western democracy, individualism, not too much control, only then can you create innovation and spawn creativity. But the results say otherwise. The outcome has made China the most exciting place on earth today. It is the happening place and nowhere else can compare with what I saw in China.
Opposition in disarray
I think people see that the Opposition is dysfunctional, it keeps changing - from Barisan Alternatif to Pakatan Rakyat to Pakatan Harapan. It booted out PAS and took on board PAN (Parti Amanah Negara). They cannot decide who should be Prime Minister, they cannot have a shadow Cabinet.
There is a big difference between running a state and running a country. From Minister to Deputy Prime Minister to becoming Prime Minister, there was a huge leap in responsibilities. You might be reasonably successful running a state, but running a nation is challenging and complex. From Perlis to Sabah, it’s a whole different ballgame. If we get it wrong, the consequences will be terrible for all Malaysians.
TN50 - the new national vision
I didn’t want to do it the Wawasan 2020 way, I wanted it to come from bottom up. The Government will have to put it together later on and it will be the guiding vision for the next 30 years. Khairy Jamaluddin was the ideal choice being the Umno Youth chief and Barisan Youth chief.
Message for the party assembly
I want people to feel this is a united Umno and for their spirits to be high. I want them believe we can achieve success. At the same time I want Umno to have its feet anchored on the ground, to be humble even with power. Serve the people and they have confidence in Umno and Barisan.
On his recent visit to Peru to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit
As for the conference, the last Apec 2016 was a bit circumspect in view of the slowdown in terms of global growth and also in terms of global trade. Plus, there was a realisation that the forces of anti globalisation and anti free-trade is on the rise and also some right wing views which are more pervasive in the developed world.
This was coupled with a degree of uncertainty as to what the new administration in Washington is likely to do in terms of policy. So there is that air of uncertainty but we are committed to what we believe in, and the need for us to re-state and re-invigorate the core values of what Apec stands for, which is openness, more collaboration and working towards a free trade area for Asia Pacific as a whole.
These are our long term vision and goals for the region which we must not abandon, irrespective of what happens. And there are two pathways for this, either Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) or the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). If the TPP is a no-go, then RCEP must be brought to a conclusion, the earlier the better and I think realistically we are talking about the end of 2017.
We must promote free trade, because it will create jobs, investments, and create more wealth and this is what the region needs. And the only region that is promising is this region. Everywhere else is, as you know, going through some rough patches and looking rather uncertain about their prospects but Asean, Asia Pacific, is the engine of growth for the global economy and we must maintain that.
On his meeting with US president Obama and China President Xi Jinping at the sidelines of Apec
I consider him (Obama) as a friend. I congratulated him on his pivot to Asia policy, and the fact that he’s given so much importance to the East Asia Summit and engagement with Asia. In that sense, he did bring the role of Asean to the fore under his leadership, so I thanked him for that, and that was basically the conversation I had with Obama. As expected he was looking a bit reflective I would say, particularly with respect to the outcome of the US presidential election.
I also had a good conversation with President Xi. Which was unfortunately not recorded. This was just on the back of my hugely successful trip to China which I think was very timely in a slowing down of the world economy. There is fresh investment from China which is what we need.
I think the Chinese have got this “elephant’s memory”. I have this big advantage of being Razak’s (Tun Abdul Razak Hussein) son, and they have never forgotten Tun Razak’s role and initiative despite intense opposition in establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1974. I’ve also worked very well with China’s leaders as China is a trusted friend, and we know the Chinese culture and mindset.
It’s important when you deal with leaders to understand the culture and mindset that they have, and we must know how to adapt to any sort of given situation, without sacrificing the basic principle in that while we engage with China and we are very close to China but we’ve not given up sovereignty, so that’s important.
On his acquaintance with US president elect Donald Trump
I attended the United Nations General Assembly a couple of years ago, and it was a Sunday, so we all decided to play golf at his (Trump’s) golf course at Bedminster New Jersey, which is of a very high standard – he does not spare any expenses when it comes to the development of golf courses. And when he heard I was going to play, he decided to join in. So he and I partnered and we won the game. We took a photo together with the late JJ (Tan Sri Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis). For some reason, I put the photo next to my chair at my office for two years. I did it before he became as famous as he is today. He scrawled on the photo, the phrase “to my favourite Prime Minister. Great win!”
We called each other a few times, and after he became so involved in the process (US presidential elections), so I didn’t quite follow up with him. Maybe later, once he’s settled in.
Despite your aristocratic lineage, you can get along with people from very diverse backgrounds
I find it very interesting that I can be so adaptive in different environments. I can be very comfortable addressing the UN. At the same time, like yesterday when I went to the Rumah Mesra Rakyat project, I was speaking to a lorry driver, and another person who breeds cattle and earning RM2,000 to RM3,000 a month. I was very comfortable too in that surrounding.
I didn’t feel awkward at all. It seems to me like something that was natural to me. I enjoyed it in fact. In a way I feel blessed that I could relate to people at the highest level in terms of international diplomacy, to the grassroots politics level where I feel I can relate to ordinary people as well. So I don’t consider myself – you say I have an aristocratic background or whatever you like to term it – but I can relate to the ordinary Malaysian. And I can relate to world leaders as well. I don’t feel awkward being in a strange environment, so praise be to God, I don’t know whether it’s an asset, I suppose it is that I can relate, also across all communities and ethnic groups.
In a Western society I’m comfortable, if you take me to an English country club I’m quite comfortable having my Shepherd’s pie or whatever, but if you take me to a surau, and I have to sit cross legged on the floor with the people and eat kari kawah, I am also comfortable in that surrounding as well, and I enjoy it. It’s not something contrived. I am not play acting, but I truly enjoy that kind of setting as well. I am at peace in whatever environment I find myself in at any particular time.
One moment I’ll be shaking hands with Obama and Xi JinPing, and the next day I’ll be shaking hands with a lorry driver at his home. So to me, I’m equally comfortable in both settings.
On the threat posed by Dr Mahathir and his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM)
One thing I learned in politics is never to take anything for granted. I think we must always look at anything as a possible threat, but you must deal with it in your own way. I believe in the inherent strength of Umno. I believe Umno is a resilient party, I believe Umno is a grassroots party, and Umno has weathered worse storms. When Anwar (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) left the party, you saw the shift, you saw many people going with him. Do you see the same sort of movement today with Pribumi? Obviously you don’t.
But there will be people who are discontented for whatever reason. Every division will have that certain number of people. In any case they might not even vote for you because they are discontented. That ‘X’ number of people will always be there in the system but I’m not worried about that. I just want to make sure that we are focused on our struggle. Our job is to deliver to the people.
On whether Umno should consider amending its constitution to include the position of an acting deputy president
We are going to review the constitution later, I think now the focus is on the general election. But Umno will have to review its constitution when the time comes. We’ll take into account all views because we believe that the constitution should be decided on the basis that will bring a positive change to Umno. I think not only certain things have to be taken; but there are many things … the experience of the last election, the good and the bad, which we have to take in total. We can’t keep amending the constitution as and when we feel, it cannot be too often. So let’s take on board all the things that we need to change and do it in one go, it’s better that way.
On the feel good factors that need to be in place before you call for a general election
With today’s economic situation, it’s going to be a challenge because you don’t see the world economy on a rising trend, it’s going to be much more the same next year, as the year before. After that I think that the price of oil will likely be at a slightly higher level, not at the all time high, but something between US$60 to US$70 per barrel, will be a comfortable level for us.
Once we have the additional revenues, we can do many more programs and that will give the feel good factor for the people. But we’re trying to create more opportunities. For example when I bring investments from China, the east coast rail and all that, we try to maximise the local content, opportunities for small contractors to participate and try to generate more economic activities.
On the more organised and objective assessment process to vet potential Barisan Nasional candidates for the next general election
I think when I came up with the principle of “winnable candidate”, many considered themselves as winnable candidates when in fact they’re not. We didn’t have an objective methodology to determine so, I think we have a system now and we’ve tested it in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar and it worked.
We will try to extrapolate that on a national basis and those who want to consider themselves winnable candidates must have the minimum qualification. Its like entering university, you got to have the 2As or 2Bs, and if you don’t, and you only have 2Cs, you cannot get in. But if you have 2Bs and above then we will choose amongst the best, maybe there are three who qualify, we’ll choose the best out of the three.
But if you don’t meet minimum criteria then you will not even be considered, period. That in a way makes it easier for me as a president of the party, as these people have already been disqualified because they didn’t pass. And they didn’t pass not because of me; but because of merit. There’s nothing I can do, you have to accept the fact that you lost. It’s like entering university.
It’s said that some established faces including from various component parties have failed the test
The new assessment system was tested in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, they were both Umno seats. But the same principle can be applied to component parties as well. They would have their list of those who are keen to be candidates, and they will be put through the same test and we will see the outcome. And as I said, this is a methodology that has been tested and theoretically it has worked twice. It also worked in the context of Sarawak, our prediction was pretty close. Hopefully it will work when it comes to the big day.
On his expectations on the 14th general election (GE14)
It’s too early for me to be more specific in terms of possible outcomes as it depends on when the general elections will be held. But I’m also a realistic politician, I understand that past successes albeit within a short period may not necessarily extrapolate into more successes in the future. But it is a cause for us to be rather optimistic that it is doable and achievable. We must guard against complacency, we must guard against taking for granted that it is ours, we must guard against arrogance, and we must focus on what needs to be done. This is my message to Umno and Barisan, to do what it takes to strengthen the party and to build the confidence that people have in us, that we are the best choice for the country.
On getting the right balance between fielding incumbents and winnable candidates
I think what the people have to realise is that the final choice is with the leadership and that has always been the case. But of course we must be respectful of all the divisional aspirations as well. All divisions want local candidates, they don’t want anyone outside to come in. But local candidates will have to go through the process. And if there are good local candidates, why not? There may be one or two exceptions to the rule, because sometimes people are needed for various reasons so there are places to be found sometimes. So party members must understand that there are needs that are bigger than their own interest. I have to convince people if there is such a requirement, people have to appreciate and understand. I have talk to them first and my other colleagues have to engage with them as well.
Will there be many younger candidates?
Yes, provided they pass the test. Umno Youth wants more candidates, Wanita Umno wants more candidates, divisional leaders also say “hey what about us? We’ve been serving for a long time, don’t we deserve a chance?”
Everybody has a case but the reality is that Umno is a big party, the strongest party in the country, and it has a set hierarchy. That can sometimes be your strength and can also be a disadvantage because it’s not so easy for you to bypass the hierarchy in Umno. So you tend to sometimes nominate people who are part of the hierarchy but they may not be the best and the most winnable candidate. So there is that trade-off that you have to understand, that the strength has some downside as well, in a party that is so established like Umno.
On speculation that there will be some changes in the line up of state level leaders including mentris besar
In every election there will be changes. The question is what is the pace of change you want to institute. There has to be balanced between change and stability. Every state will have its own particular requirements, it cannot be a general rule, I think it has to be looked at in terms of the micro aspect, micro meaning the state, and the divisions within the state
Will the possible change happen before GE14 or after?
I like to keep all options open, I don’t want to commit myself either way, I need to have all my options open. I think it's only fair to me, I cannot say yes, I cannot say no, at least I have all my options open, it will be what’s best for the state in question.
On whether GE14 will definitely be held in the first or second half of 2017
Not necessarily… it can be later. I’m enjoying this speculation, let people speculate.