Many Challenges Lie Ahead
Question: What is your evaluation of the recent United Malays National
Organization (UMNO) assembly?
Answer: The UMNO meeting was largely supportive of the leadership. There
was some unhappiness, but this was due to a lack of understanding. That is
why after the explanation was given, the support was strong. They even
gave standing ovations twice when I replied to the points they
raised. With a party of 2.8 million members, it is sometimes difficult to
communicate. Of course, loyalties to individuals during the election
interfere with the loyalty to the party. But now that the election is
over, UMNO should become stronger.
Q: Why did you stress money politics?
A: My one great fear is that a leader, especially the prime minister of
this country, will come into power through corruption. That means that
corruption will be tolerated by the leadership and everyone will be
corrupt. So, it is very important that since UMNO leaders will also become
government leaders, they should be clean. Everything possible should be
done to ensure that only clean leaders are elected.
Q: It was widely suspected that some of those who won the vice presidency
and Supreme Council seats used money.
A: There are a lot of accusations. But I cannot work on the basis of
accusations. I must have clear evidence. I think people did not interpret
what they were doing as being corrupt. For example, they say they did not
give money to the people who vote as party representatives from their
divisions. They were only giving money to those people who are going to
canvas for votes, paying for their travel expenses for example. They think
that is not corruption. To them corruption means giving money to actual
voters. They pay their workers because they cannot expect their workers to
spend their own money. My view is that even that amounts to
corruption. However, there are two different periods; one before they gave
an undertaking not to campaign and one after they gave the
undertaking. Before undertaking not to campaign they were spending money,
which lead to accusations of corruption, but after they decided not to
campaign at all, no more money was given out. I have to admit though, that
some of them were believed to continue to use money. I don't know for
certain whether those who used money won.
Q: Can you implement stricter regulations in the party? For example,
prohibit paying delegates and their families for travel fees, hotel
A: I will try, but it will be very difficult.
Q: Isn't it true that now that Malays are getting richer, they have become
less respectful of the good values of life?
A: It is natural when a person suddenly gets richer that he loses
balance. If you give a million dollars to a poor person, you don't expect
him to use it wisely. He will just spend it on anything he likes. That is
one of the natural human reactions to sudden wealth. The duty of the
government is to remind the people, to tell the people that it is not good
to do away with good values, such as to know how to be grateful. If you
have a sense of gratefulness you will be more responsible. The government
has to revive the culture of the Malays to instill in them good values,
not only those that they used to have but also those they didn't have
before. It is a process of rebuilding the culture of the people.
Q: Many Japanese tend to forget the good values of life. Do you still have
some (Japanese) areas that you want to adapt for the Look East Policy?
A: When we first implemented the Look East Policy, the Japanese showed
qualities that enabled them to overcome the difficulties of the postwar
years. The Japanese worked hard, were willing even to be paid with just a
bowl of rice in order to revive the economy. In the end, Japan
succeeded. That is the quality that we want to copy; the hard-working,
dedicated, loyal attitudes of the Japanese workers, and the concerned
attitude of the Japanese bosses for the workers. In Japan, there was
lifetime employment. You don't always do that now. In other countries,
they believe that the welfare of the workers is the responsibility of the
government, not companies. After all, they paid tax to the government. But
that kills the loyalty to the company. Without loyalty, the company cannot
really succeed. So, those were the values that we want to copy. But what
we are seeing today, is the result of the exposure of Japanese young
people, in particular, whose culture is not deeply ingrained. They are
exposed to the values that they see in the West. That is why you are
seeing irresponsible behavior in Japan. Admittedly, you cannot protect
your people from outside influence. But every country that loves its own
culture must attempt to deliberately, consciously, instill good values
among the younger generation. That is what we want to do in Malaysia.
Q: There are Malay businessmen who only want to rush to gain profits, and
even use your name, saying" I am very close to the prime minister,O what
do you think of that?
A: People who have been poor are not too particular about how they can
become rich. That is why they use my name. My office has told people that
if anybody uses my name, they should check with my office. I don't favor
anybody, but when somebody is not fairly treated by the bureaucrats then I
will help. What is the good of me being prime minister if I cannot help
Q: After the UMNO General Assembly, did you decide on your retirement?
A: Frankly, I would like to retire as soon as possible. But I also have to
be responsible. I just cannot walk out and leave everything in a state of
not being prepared for continuing the progress of this country. So,
whether I like it or not, I have to stay, and I have to see that the
people are in place who can carry on the work. Of course, they may
disagree with what I have done. Then they can change things after I
leave. But I must put the machinery in place to carry on Vision 2020. We
have a distinct objective.
Q: What kind of things are left for you to achieve?
A: I think that it is important to a country for the leadership to have
ideas. You must come up with ideas for the country to progress, to solve
its problems and to anticipate changes. This is very important because if
you don't come up with ideas then you cannot develop the country. I still
have a lot of ideas on how to develop Malaysia. It is not what I achieve
that matters. It is what Malaysia achieves that is important. If I am not
the leader I can still do a lot of things.
Q: What kind of problems give you the biggest headaches?
A: The biggest headache comes from trying to balance the development of
the indigenous people with the nonindigenous Chinese and Indians. The
Chinese are used to urban living, and to wealth. So, they are able to deal
with prosperity. But the Malays are rural people, very poor people and
suddenly they have moved into the towns. In urban areas, the lifestyle is
different. And they have more money. They cannot handle these changes in a
way that is productive. The government worries that it may lead to a
breakdown and failure.
Q: How can you solve this?
A: We have to provide the leadership. We have to provide the right values
for them. If necessary, we have to talk to different groups of people on
the dangers that they face. Maybe they will listen, maybe not. But whether
they do or not, we have to try.
Q: Don't the rural people feel the gap between urban people and those that
are left behind?
A: It is not completely true. If you look at the Malaysian villages today,
they are much better than before. You have good roads, electricity, water
supply, better houses. They have not been neglected. We have a democratic
system, and the opposition is free to spread any amount of lies. They
instigate the people. They say that the friends of the prime minister are
very rich, that everyone, including the members of the opposition, is
richer is ignored. Of course, each one doesn't get the same amount of
benefits. Obviously not everybody will be a millionaire. But the
opposition tells the people that all the rich people are friends of the
government, in order to make them hate the government. The rural people
are told this even though they themselves do not feel that a gap separates
Q: But if the politician goes to his constituency and talks with the
people, that will solve a lot of problems. A: That is totally right. That
was what I was saying. They have neglected their duties. Q: Why did you
end your opening speech with prayers?
A: I have tried all kinds of ways to guide UMNO members, particularly with
regards to corruption. But still they are easily misled. So, as a last
resort, I prayed to God.
Q: There is criticism that your sons sit on many boards as executives in
A: I know that they are in business and sit on many boards. Many people
sit on many boards but that is normal. They are invited to sit on them
because of their experience. They are usually not paid or given privileges
as board members. The companies benefit from their experience and
know-how, not them.
Q: You have mentioned that PAS (Parti Seangkatan Islam Malaysia, or the
Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party) is using mosques for political functions. Do
you think that UMNO will go back to stress the importance of religion?
A: We have always stressed the importance of religion. But we have not
made use of religion in order to frighten people into supporting
us. Instead, we preach the brotherhood of Islam as is enjoined by our
religion. PAS, on the other hand, uses the mosques to divide the Malays,
to create hatred of the government in order to get votes.
Q: Do you think there is a threat from the opposition such as PAS toward
the government? If so, what is it?
A: There is of course a threat. PAS may be able to make Malay Muslims
fanatical and to hate us so that they may become violent. But we think we
can spread the true teachings about the moderation of Islam and prevent
this from happening.
Q: The PAS newspaper has been charged. Why is this so, and is it against
freedom of speech?
A: In Malaysia, we have three different races. They used to hate each
other, and in 1969 there were race riots and more than 100 people were
killed. Some newspapers were responsible for instigating race riots and
violence. We have to prevent this by requiring newspapers to be
licensed. Harakah is licensed as a party paper, not for general
circulation. It prints lies and tries to stir up hatred between the
people. Because of this, Harakah must be limited to the same number of
issues as other political party papers. It has not been banned.
Q: Now that Anwar (Ibrahim, the deposed former deputy prime minister) is
on trial, is he a threat to you or to the government? Will he come back to
the political scene again?
A: Personally, he is not a threat. But the opposition will use his fate to
stir up hatred against the National Front (the ruling coalition of
parties, of which UMNO is the largest) in order to get votes. In the 1999
elections, Anwar's"black eye picture was used successfully to alienate
Q: Why did you have to mention Anwar over and over again during the UMNO
A: I had to mention him because many still find it difficult to believe
that he committed immoral acts. Until they do, they cannot be expected to
defend the government convincingly. The truth must be told openly or
people will think we are trying to hide things hoping that people will
Q: You have also accused former UMNO youth chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in
your speech, and yet he was elected a member of the Supreme Council with
strong support, how do you analyze this?
A: Zahid has recanted and no longer supports Anwar. It is common to
welcome back the prodigal son who has admitted that he is wrong.
Q: If you have so many things ahead, does that mean that you cannot step
A: I think when the major problems are solved I will step down. I cannot
say when. Because then it will affect what I want to do to change the
atmosphere in the party.
Q: You appointed Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as your
successor. How do you evaluate him?
A: We (Malaysia) have had four prime ministers. Each one had his own style
when carrying out basically the same policies. I believe Abdullah will not
change the policies, but he will do things his own way.
Q: How do you evaluate yourself?
A: I cannot evaluate myself. It is for others to evaluate. If I do so, it
will be biased. Some people want me to stay, some are waiting for me to
go. What I think of myself is not important.
Q: I've been doing these interviews for almost two years, and I've noticed
that whenever you face serious problems you look younger.
A: Life without problems would be very dull. Problems are exciting
challenges. When you solve problems, you feel happy and probably look
young. I have solved many problems and that may make me look young.
Q: Were these two years the toughest time for you?
A: I must admit that these two years have been one of the toughest times
because of a combination of the attack on the economy by outside people
over which I had no control, and because Anwar was found to be not of the
right moral character to be my successor. His removal caused a lot of
Q: It was said that you and Anwar didn't get along for a long time, after
he was in favor of the International Monetary Fund's reforms. Why did it
take almost a year to remove him?
A: I did not agree with his management of the country's finances but I did
not disagree with him all the time. I could still tolerate him. But when
his morals were found to be bad I had no choice but to remove him.
Q: I also found out that the image created by the Western media about you
is totally wrong. How do you feel being portrayed as a dictator? Would you
like to change that image?
A: The important thing is what people in this country think of me. As you
can see, despite the Western media calling me a dictator, the Malaysian
people gave my party a three-fourths majority. I don't think I can change
the image because I will continue to condemn the West and their press if
they do anything wrong. They hate me for that. They would like to see me
go and so they will always give me a bad image.
Q: Once you mentioned that you are a doctor so you try to cure people. Is
that why you are weak when it comes to throwing out people?
A: I don't throw out people. I try to work with everyone. People make
mistakes, but throwing out people does not solve my problem. That is why I
never change my staff. I try to get them to do the right thing. If I fail
I will try again.
Q: Is it possible that the positions of prime minister and UMNO president
could be held by different people?
A: Well, it is possible in many countries. The president of the party need
not be prime minister. On the other hand, when you want the party's
policies to be followed by the government, the best thing to do is to have
the party's leader as the government leader. Otherwise, there will always
be conflicts between the party's president and the CEO of the government.
Q: Is it possible it that you and your chosen successor, Deputy Prime
Minister Abdullah, could fill these different roles and function
A: I wouldn't know. I think it is possible. I get along with him
fine. When you are actually holding an office, you may change. He may
change when he becomes the prime minister.
Q: You have mentioned that you will devote yourself to party work and hand
over the work of prime minister to your deputy. What kind of work are you
going to pass to him?
A: Not all of the work, only some of it. I will find somebody else who can
do the routine work. I have to look at a lot of papers, meet a lot of
people. I might cut down on meeting business people. Either I will hand
that over to the deputy, or just reduce it. I might reduce visits
abroad. He can do some of that, but we will share our work.
Q: What is your evaluation of Abdullah?
A: He is a good man. He is not the same as me, because no two people are
the same. He used to be against me, but as far as I am concerned, I don't
hold that against him. If you do good for the party, I'll support you.
Q: Why did you chose him to be the next leader? A: Well, he was one of the
vice presidents of UMNO. There were three vice presidents; one was asked
to take leave, the other was perhaps too young. These presidents were
chosen by the party. He has a good reputation, and is straight, not trying
to grab for power too much.
Q: How would you evaluate the economic situation of Malaysia?
A: The Malaysian economy has turned around, and it is doing very well,
much better than other countries, which have also turned around. That is
because no one with other interests is dictating to us. We have stabilized
the currency so that nobody can play around with it. In other countries,
they are still playing around with their currency. So the freedom to
revive the economy is not there. You do something that they consider is
against their interest, they will devalue your currency. You will be
constrained by this fear. In Malaysia, because the currency is fixed and
stable, we can do other things, such as reducing interest rates. We can
promote sales of property, or of cars. We can help Malaysian companies to
recover and so contribute to economic growth.
Q: How will the banks be restructured?
A: We are working on that. It is quite complicated. Malaysian banks are
involved in many things, such as stock brokering, merchant banking,
etc. They also have social obligations. So the banks are not purely
commercial in nature. Do we break up the banks, and isolate each
function? Do we allow them to go on doing the same things? Anything we do
with the banks will disrupt the economy. So we have to be very careful.
Q: Originally, the government announced that all the banks will be merged
to become six banks, however the idea was changed later.
A: There was a proposal for six banks, but there was a lot of unhappiness
among the bankers. The government is very sensitive to what the private
sector thinks. If we find that it is not considered good by them for good
reasons, we are quite willing to change. We must keep our ears open. For
example, is it good to separate banks from brokerage firms? What are the
pros and cons? Even with short-term capital flows, we have changed,
because we listen to the market. We are not rigid. Of course if the market
comes up with an idea that we think is not acceptable, we will reject
it. For example, they say the ringgit is too weak and we should allow it
to appreciate. We think carefully. At this moment, we don't see any reason
for change. We have already said that if our neighbors depreciate or
appreciate their currencies by at least 20 percent, at that stage we will
consider whether we will change the exchange rate. We will base changes on
our own perceptions and assessment. At this moment what is wrong with 3.8
ringgit? Nobody can say it is affecting us very badly. The stock market is
doing very well.
Q: There are a lot of new political leaders in the world. What do you
think is needed for the new world political geography?
A: There should be no rigidity. The old problem was due to rigidity. If
you were in the Western camp, even if the Western camp did something
wrong, you'd still support them. If you were in the Eastern camp, you'd
support the East without reservation. That is not right. Today, I think
people are more flexible. If you do something good the people are with
you, but if you do something bad, then people will withdraw support from
you. Malaysia has always supported the idea of flexibility. We are not
tied to any camp, neither to the East nor the West.
Q: What do you think of the role of nongovernmental organizations
(NGOs) and developing countries?
A: Because of their willingness to defy authority and to use violence,
NGOs can sometimes be more effective than governments. When the developing
countries could not stop the WTO (World Trade Organization) from forcing
their policies through, the NGOs clearly succeeded. But NGOs, representing
a small minority, negate the rights of the majority. They are therefore an
undemocratic force. If the world submits to the NGOs, then there will be
anarchy as the NGOs have different and often conflicting agendas. It is
difficult to reconcile their struggle for the rule of law by breaking the
law. But, like the free market, the world has come to accept the NGOs and
anyone going against them would be considered undemocratic.
Q: How can a small power challenge a gigantic power?
A: If people speak out together, you can achieve something, even against
the strong. For example, the formation of the East Asia Economic Caucus
(EAEC). How can countries, which form regional organizations like NAFTA
(the North American Free Trade Area) deny others the right to form a
regional organization? This is a double standard. So we must all stand up
and say so. But if we refuse to act together, then the strong will always
bully us, the weak.
Q: Regarding EAEC, we now have ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian
Nations) plus three. Especially in the financial field, we have recently
agreed on a currency swap agreement, and this is a major step forward, if
we think back to the 1997 IMF World Bank Meeting in Hong Kong.
A: Yes, I totally agree with you. We have made progress. Why should a
country like the United States object when we are not doing more than what
they are doing. Regarding the currency swap agreement, it is a good
beginning. It certainly provides a cushion. In case anything happens, then
you can have access to this money. But eventually we should have an Asian
Monetary Fund (AMF). The AMF should be able to monitor the performance of
each country and give early warnings of what can happen. For example, if
you adopt a certain policy that is wrong, or the banking system is not
functioning properly, the AMF should be able to warn and advise. Then you
can avoid a financial crisis.
Pejabat Perdana Menteri, PUTRAJAYA