HIS workload is now three times more compared to his first round as Prime Minister.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in his own words, is taking on a bigger burden now.
And just within a 50-minute session with The Star, he covered all grounds – from seemingly trivial matters like eating properly to heavier subjects such as the Malaysia he wants to leave behind.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
Are you still losing sleep – now that it is already one year since you became the seventh Prime Minister?
Well, sometimes, yes, but we still have lots of problems to resolve. Some of the major problems have already been resolved.
One year on, are we on track, according to your plans?
I would like to say we should go faster. We should be able to go faster but there are so many constraints when we are dealing with finances. You borrow money and you don’t pay, you can be bankrupted. Countries have been bankrupted but we have avoided that. The economy still grows by four-something per cent. That, to me, is an achievement because despite the fact that we have to deal with the big problems, the economy of the country is still doing well. And what is more – yesterday, I met the American businesspeople. They have put in billions of dollars during the period we have taken over. In nine months, they have invested in Malaysia billions. I think there are other investments coming in. Maybe processing the investment proposal is a bit slow. We are doing quite a lot – we have a lot of investments coming in. The confidence in the country has returned.
Can you name the main successes and weaknesses by Pakatan in the past one year?
Number one – (that) we can work as a good coalition government is an achievement. Number two, we have dealt with the finance problem without too much affecting the people and the growth is still there at 4%, which is not too low compared to the previous growths. To achieve all that is, to me, a great success.
Finance will remain a problem for quite sometime. Because of the lack of finance, there are many infrastructure things the government should do, which the government cannot do, because there is no money. Thirdly, we have to be careful about our ratings. For example, when we allocate RM6bil to rescue Felda, the rating agencies say we are going to suffer from deficit in the government finances. We have to be careful in what we do and even in what we say.
Certain ministers seem to say a lot of things.
They are from the opposition. They have a habit of criticising. When you are in the opposition, it is easy to criticise others because you need not do anything. Once you are in the government, you have to implement things and of course, implementing will give room for people to criticise you, even simple things like building a third bridge between Penang and the mainland. It is a good idea but we were sidelined by accusations that there was corruption and basically, it was political, trying to get at the Finance Minister to say he was wrong when he was the Chief Minister of Penang. All these barbs coming from many directions, especially NGOs, do affect the smooth application of our promises and (the) fulfilling (of) our promises.
Do you think you have the right kind of support now?
The Cabinet has been very supportive, I must say, that when there is a difference among the ministers, they go according to my views as they want to be seen as united. For example, I suggested there should be a vote as there are two differing opinions in the Cabinet – they said “no vote”. I said if no vote, how do we decide which one? They said, we go according to what you say. So, there is quite a good loyalty (to the Prime Minister).
What about the fact that you have brought in the old and very experienced and they seem to have a bigger say on some of the issues decided by the government?
That may be the impression but I have to hear differing views before I make a decision because people with experience are very important. The new people are learning very quickly.
Do you have enough time to deal with the inexperienced in the Cabinet?
You had said that you did not have much time.Well, I would like to have a lot of time. They (the inexperienced) can come and see me quite often. Even this morning (Defence Minister) Mat Sabu came to see me to help to make a decision but all the others know that at any time at all, they want to see me, I never reject.
Some of them have flip-flopped and courted bad press. What is your advice to them?
Some of them are lacking in experience as ministers. I need to spend more time explaining. For example, we decided that when we took over, we would stop all contracts but if you stop all the contracts, the economy does not move.
We had frozen some accounts and all that. We should immediately deal with problems and make the decision. But due to lack of experience, it took us a bit of time to make decisions.
Due to the lack of experience by your ministers, many people feel that you have to step in. Do you feel the burden?
If they are unsure about anything, they do come to me because they know I have had experience of 22 years as the Prime Minister. Then, I would be able to advise them as to what they need to do. But of course, the burden is heavy. What I am doing now is three times more of what I did when I was the Prime Minister for the first time. I have to work the whole day. Even if they do not disturb me, there are so many problems to be resolved and some of my ministers are not familiar enough with the problems. They cannot solve, they come to me.
The burden of work is very heavy. Some letters written to me – I can only read three months later and (when) I find out what they ask for, the date has already passed. People ask me why I do not respond. I try to respond but I can’t finish my work. Even at night, there are people who come to see me or I have to attend to something or other, which means that I don’t have time to implement. I know what should be done. In one day, somebody dumps on my desk five different problems, which need my time but I do not have the time. People come endlessly. They come to see me and overstay and because of that, I cannot go home. And at home, when I go back, I still find people in the house wanting me to do something.
Now, in one year as the government, you have said that you can’t do everything in the manifesto once you saw the rot in the government. Are you still going to be manifesto-based, are you going to appease the people by giving a little bit more or are you going to play it by ear?
When we made the manifesto, we were in the opposition and we did not think we would win. Now that we are the ones ruling, we have to fulfil the manifesto, but we feel that some of them cannot be resolved easily.
Number one, to abolish tolls, we have to buy the highways first. It belongs to some people and that would cost us billions. And then, when you buy and abolish tolls, where is your money going to come from when you have to maintain the road, repair the roads, add more roads and all that? So, that promise, we find it extremely difficult to implement.
Did Pakatan not think about their promises to that extent when they made them?
In Pakatan, I am more experienced in this matter. I pointed out that it would be difficult but they had made the promise a long time ago that they would abolish tolls. So, they wanted to stick to their promise.
You knew that these promises were impossible even before the GE. Should the government win the GE?
I knew a lot because I have had the experience. I know how much it cost to build a road – we had to spend money maintaining it and all that. But they are just thinking about popularity, some kind of socialistic thinking – don’t pay tax but we will give you money. That kind of thinking does not work. Practically, it doesn’t work.
You see a lot of countries where socialism is a pride but eventually they give up – because you need to have a source of income. But if you take over the companies and all that, and if you do not know how to run it properly, you don’t make any profit.
On the other hand, if you take over a company, the workers there demand that there should be higher pay and productivity is what determines whether you make a profit or not. That aspect was not considered.
Well, once you are experienced in this area, you know how far you can go. But they are not experienced. So, in drafting the manifesto, lots of things were promised which are impossible to implement.
How can we overcome that problem?
For example, we have delayed abolishing the tolls but there are other problems. For example, all contracts we suspect were given to cronies. So, we stop the contracts. When you stop the contracts, number one, the work is not done and therefore, vendors suppliers and workers are laid off. You see, you can’t do that.
If you stop for a short while, it is okay but it takes time for us to study each and every contract and suggest what they should do. For example, we want them to reduce the contract costs but on the other hand, they have reached their limits. They cannot reduce their price anymore. I don’t know why but probably some money has been filtered away. So, we have to go back and decide whether they reduce the contract price or not, or we continue the contract.
When you stray from the manifesto, this seems to have given bullets to the opposition to say yours is a government that does not fulfil promises, which you can see by the losses in the last three by-elections. How do you appease people who decide to give their vote to the opposition because of this?
The people who criticise us from the previous government know very well (that) they did not do it (keep promises) either. They say we are not doing this and we are not doing that. During their time, they were in full control of the government (but) they did not do anything that is good for the country.
For example, we say we want to accept the rule of law. Now, for us, we abide by it, even though there are derails, etc. But for them before, they never even bothered about the rule of law. They want to arrest somebody, they arrest.
How are you going to get the votes to return to you in the next four years?
We believe that we can rebuild the economy and people will have jobs and businesses will do better. And on that score, we think people will give us another chance to continue with our plans and all that.
Tun Daim Zainuddin has asked for six more months. Is that enough?
In six months, we will resolve many of the major problems. For example, we know the ECRL (East Coast Rail Link) has been resolved. We have now worked out what to do with Felda, what to do with Tabung Haji and now, we have the money we borrowed from the Japanese, so we can pay off some of the debts.
Of course, the money is for projects but for projects, we use the money that is saved because of Japanese support. Then, our own money will be used to reduce borrowings, especially the high cost borrowings.
You are known as the Father of Modernisation. But this time around, you seem to be whipping up values and ethics. Do you think that while you are modernising, you had forgotten to instil ethics a little bit?
Yes, but we inherited a government that depended on giving free money to everybody to stay popular. They gave, for example, a salary of RM300 every month. Then, bachelors were given RM450. Then, we have BR1M. We just don’t have money to give away.
They siphoned money from elsewhere and gave away just like that. So, what we did was we tried to reduce the amount of money we give out. For example, (for) bachelors, instead of giving RM450, we only give RM100. But they have become used to being bribed.
You have always been against people using religion to advance political agenda. How do you ensure the government applies “rahmatan lil alamin” (compassion for all), which was your idea as a moderate Muslim?
In the first place, I am not a “moderate Muslim”. A Muslim must be moderate if you follow the teaching of the Quran. Everything advised is good but we do not follow what the religion says to do but you still say this is from religion and abuse the religion. For example, a party calls the other party kafir (apostate) but you cannot do that because you are not allowed to condemn any group as an apostate unless there is clear evidence that he is praying to some images or things that are forbidden by religion. The religion does not allow you to accept any other deity other than Allah. But they just do not care about that. They condemn millions of people as kafir. That is against the religion.
What we try to do is (to) explain what the religion really says - and what they are doing is not religion.
For example, two men stole something. One is a Chinese and one is a Malay. The Malay has his hand chopped off but the Chinese will go to jail for two months because they are not going to apply syariah law on non-Muslims. That is unjust and the Quran repeatedly said: when you judge with justice, it does not matter who but you must be just. We are dealing - not with real Islam but the abusers of the religion to bolster their popularity, especially people who do not know enough about religion to reject the wrong thing they have done.
Certain groups have used their immunity and their influence to assert that they are above the (Federal) Constitution. You always said ours is a living Constitution. How do you intend to curtail these groups who abuse their powers without treading on parliamentary democracy?
This is a big problem. Although we are a parliamentary democracy, some of the people who run the government are quite feudal in their way of thinking. They cannot say no. Even though something is wrong, something is suggested to them which is wrong - which is against the law - but they would still do it so that they don’t go against the higher authorities.
When you announced the retraction of Malaysia from the Rome Statute, you seemed very upset. You tried to say some things but you went round and round. Why?
I was upset because this is the first time somebody tried to make use of the Rulers in order to frustrate the government. That is very wrong. If they have any problems, they can ask us. We can explain what Rome Statute is all about. Instead, they somehow managed to have a meeting not consistent with the Constitution.
They gave a wrong explanation about the Rome Statute and they managed to influence people. Then we need to ensure that the people continued to support us. For the time being, we had to do away with the Rome Statute.
Eventually, we have to tell the people that this is not doing away with our Constitution. Our Constitution and laws remain. It is only when we fail to apply the laws or we cannot apply the laws, then, if there is a very serious thing like there is a mass murder or mass jailing of people, the international criminal court can intervene.
Why, despite the curtailing of the immunity in the Constitution against the palace, is there still interference from the palace in government affairs? Were the changes in Constitution then in 1993 made without taking into account the need to change the state constitutions in line with the Federal Constitution?
When the states accept the changes within the Federal Constitution, the states have to abide by the principle of the government by the people. But to do that, you must have people who are able to say to the Rulers, for example, this is wrong. This is against the laws. This is not good for the country and all that. We find reluctance on the part of everyone to point out that this is wrong.
For example, if the Ruler takes land, confiscates land and all that, this has to go through the administrative process. The administrators dare not refuse. So, land has been taken away from the people, wrong things were done - things that were against the law. But the enforcers, the executive wing, will not do anything. They will just comply. Because of that, at the moment, there is a government that (is) almost not democratic.
It has become, for example, (that) state executive papers have to be endorsed (by the palace) but actually, we should not allow it because it is the elected people who must decide but they are very reluctant to say no. Until now. The proposal was against the concept of federal government in which its people were elected and that they would be able to rule the country through the elected representatives.
But the elected representative himself is not up to saying no to something that encroaches on his authority. He just follows. We have this problem and people on the whole are not happy. But we have this habit of not openly criticising. Because if we do that, you may fall out of favour or something. This is a problem.
It is the mentality of the people that this is sacrosanct and this is something above us and we cannot say no, even if wrong things are done.
I have tried to correct before but they have gone backwards. For example, we set up a special court for the Rulers. It was only used once (since 1993) but after that, it has never been used. Suppose, somebody has been punched, it does not got to the court, even though they make reports. People think they will get into trouble if they do not comply.
It goes (on) throughout the civil service, among politicians, among the government. They are reluctant to say anything that implies somebody (from the royalty) is doing something wrong.
How do we overcome this?
Part of the task I am undertaking is to solve the failure to follow the Constitution but of course, I have been blackened by other things such as (what was) done on the Rome Statute. To blacken my name so that I would not be influential, so that I can be overthrown. This is ongoing. We should actually take action over such things but then again, we have a problem of implementation because the agencies of the government are often reluctant to do anything. They look the other way.
Is it fear or respect that is forcing the people to give in to the Malay Rulers?
It is a combination of both. There is some inherent fear that something will happen to them if they carry out their work and they try to avoid it. For example, if somebody is hit by a member of the Royalty, instead of taking it to courts, they try to cover up.
You are not anti-royalty, are you?
I am not anti-royalty but there are conditions imposed on the royalty. For example, from the very beginning, from the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman, they were told that they could not do business but what is happening now is that there is some evidence (that) they (the Royalty) allow their names to be used by private business people as a front. I think some have direct investment but we ourselves are in the wrong because we do not expose these things and take action.
Tan Sri Richard Malanjum has retired as Chief Justice. A candidate has been named but what is happening as the King has yet to approve?
I always imagined that the King is the person who must approve all senior appointments but somehow or rather, there is the reference to the Conference of Rulers. Now, it is not just the King but it also has to go to the Rulers.
I don’t know what it means. The decision made cannot be altered unless there is a valid reason. We have made a decision (on the Chief Justice) and sent it to the King. At this moment, I still have not received any confirmation of the candidacy.
In certain states, the palaces demand that economic plans be presented to them first before it goes to the state assemblies. Is this right?
He (the Ruler) can see but it is not for him to approve or not. The right to implement anything rests with the people’s government.
If there is interference, how can we solve it?
It is a difficult problem, I must say, but I try. As you know, we tried to amend the Constitution that if the Ruler does not sign, after two months, it becomes law. That is one thing that we did. But of course, we have to wait for two months. That law was made when the government had a two-thirds majority. We do not have a two-thirds majority. We need the support of the opposition in order to amend the laws. And the opposition is not always forthcoming. Even (for) the identification of Sabah and Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia as (the) three parties involved in the formation of Malaysia, we could not get the two-thirds majority.
The ECRL is on track but where are we on the Belt and Road Initiative? How do we avoid the debt trap everyone is talking about so as not to become like Sri Lanka?
The previous government was wrong. The government should not borrow - we should do things within our means. They borrowed a lot. That has got nothing to do with the Belt and Road Initiative. The BRI is about the passage of ships through the (Straits of) Malacca to go through the South China Sea to go to Japan or to China or to Korea. We can accept that. We have stipulated there should be no blocking (of ships) or examination in stopping them and all that. That is generally accepted.
As far as the land route is concerned, in fact, long ago, I was the one who mooted the idea of reviving the Silk Road. As you know, when the amount of oil we carried to different countries grew, we built bigger ships, almost 500,000 tonnes. But in the case of the railway, you don’t need to build bigger railways. The technology is there. You can build bigger trains, longer trains, you can widen the track, then by land, you can go from China to Europe in a shortened time. That was my suggestion. But now, of course, they don’t exactly take up my suggestion but the land route should be used.
We should improve the land route between the Far East and Europe. Our experience is if we build a railroad or build a road, along the way, there will be development. And then, you can move massive (volume of) products by train across long distances. I believe in Central Asia, there would be lots of raw materials but because they are far away and difficult to transport, they cannot market in countries which need the raw materials. But if you have a good railway system, you can export goods from Central Asia and also send products into Central Asia without incurring too high a cost for transportation. I don’t see why we disagree with that but what we disagree is if ships are stopped and harassed and all that would not be good for trade.
As the PM, can you guarantee that while we haggle with China and get into the BRI, we will not lose any part of our land or sovereignty?
We would not lose our land but if we borrow beyond what we can afford, the borrower would become like ah long. They can impose conditions.
In the case of Sri Lanka, the parts that have been developed had to be given to China. If we borrow a lot, and supposing we build the ECRL, it would cost RM60bil. The next thing that would happen is that it would belong to the lender so I don’t want that to happen.
But because of the huge borrowings by Najib, without regard to the ability to repay, we are faced with a problem. We had to negotiate. It had taken us 11 months before we could solve the ECRL and bring the price down by RM20bil. So, this is the legacy of the previous government.
But now, people are saying, “Forget about the previous government. Don’t talk about the previous government.” How can we not talk about the previous government when we do not have enough money for development or some projects? It is due to the borrowings that we have to service. We have to pay the interest, the principal - all the money that we collect from taxes, goes to paying debts incurred by the previous government. It was wrong - we always said it was wrong. But they borrowed and borrowed huge sums of money.
Are you happy with the way the media portrayed you and the government in this past one year?The media interprets what we say. It is not always what we say that is publicised. Sometimes, we are victims because of that. As far as the media is concerned, I am used to being called nasty names. I don’t care about that, you can call me what you like. I have to concentrate on my work and even if the media says those things, people would not believe them. The onus is on the media itself to control itself. We don’t want to have censorship. On the other hand, the media must report the truth. And we have abolished the anti-fake news law but people still make caricatures, insult people and all that. That should stop by itself. We don’t want to use force to stop.
When you leave office, what is the Malaysia you would like to see?
In terms of performance, it should be like the years (when) I was (the fourth) Prime Minister. The country has obviously and physically grown. You see people moving into new areas of business because things are going to change and your response must be quick. Nowadays, you talk about artificial intelligence and blockchain. You have to know something about that, for the man in my position, to resolve this problem or to apply this technology. You have to read also. I don’t have much time to read but I do read to keep myself updated with the latest technologies.