These are edited extracts of the interview Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak gave to The Straits Times and Business Times.
How would you describe Singapore-Malaysia relations and how do you see this changing or improving under your leadership?
I’m very pleased to note that there’s been a considerable warming up and improvement in terms of our bilateral ties. Certainly in terms of the sharp rhetoric between the two countries, I think that almost has disappeared. And what has appeared now is a much more constructive and cooperative bilateral relationship. And I hope that the relationship will continue to improve in the years to come and it is incumbent upon our two governments to not allow some difficult, or if you like, thorny, bilateral issues to impede and hamper whatever progress we can achieve in areas which are more doable and more achievable.
Q: What might some of these areas be?
Certainly in the economic field, Prime Minister Hsien Loong and I have talked about the importance of Iskandar and he has suggested that we should look into one or two iconic investments that would be a clear manifestation of our growing relationship. In the field of trade between our two countries, as well as in other areas, (such as) tourism, cultural exchanges and even defence. When I was defence minister, we had put forward one or two rather positive proposals where our two militaries can be engaged in a more cooperative arrangement. And of course security as well.
Q: What about the bridge? Will it be built, and will it be a straight or crooked bridge?
I don’t know. We take it in our stride. I’ve just been in office for one-and-a-half months. It’s something that we need to look into, because there are some issues that were tied to the bridge before. Reopening the whole thing: I wouldn’t want to proceed until there’s a real, positive finality to the whole project. If I start reviving the bridge project, I want to see successful conclusion. I don’t want it to be a repeat of what happened (before). So let’s get a study of all aspects of the project – and there’s no timeframe of course. It’s not something that will happen immediately. But we’ll take it in our stride.
Q: Would your starting point be that the Causeway ought to be replaced, that there ought to be a bridge?
Logic says that progress means change, progress means development, progress means more comfort and better communication and transport for the peoples of Malaysia and Singapore. So if you translate that, it means that the Causeway should be replaced, then so be it. But we should not be hasty about it. But let’s look at all angles, to see whether both countries are comfortable with the project.
The Points Of Agreement
Q: What about the Points Of Agreement, or POA, hammered out by Tun Daim Zainuddin and Mr Lee Kuan Yew? (The POA between the two countries was signed in November 1990 by Tun Daim, who was then Malaysia’s Finance Minister, and Mr Lee, before he stepped down as Prime Minister. It sets out, among other things, the terms of development and status of railway land in Singapore.)
Yes, we need to look into that as well. The Points Of Agreement – these are some of the legacies that we have to handle. Both leaders realise that we’re going on the premise that there are legacy issues. Some legacy issues are easier to resolve. Some are more difficult.
Q: Your predecessor came to office saying some low-hanging fruits could be plucked.
It’s difficult because these are longstanding issues and if they could have been resolved easily, they would have been resolved earlier. So I don’t want to prescribe any timeframe but we should make steady progress.
Q: Could you identify one or two issues that you think will be easy enough to resolve within your first term of office?
Well I’m looking in terms of some of the new cooperative arrangements that we can agree upon and one of them is to identify what PM Hsien Loong has (called) iconic projects. I’d like to get that off the ground. And I’d like to facilitate the movement of people between our two sides. There is a committee chaired by our two ministers to look into working out some of the arrangements to facilitate flow of people between our two countries. And we’ll take it from there.
We’ve resolved through the International Court an issue that was hanging for a long, long time. There are of course other things associated with it which require us to put our effort into. There are other things relating to the POA. There are a number of other things, not least of all, the water issue. But these matters are not easy to be resolved. I hate to put a timeframe to when we can resolve. So long as we don’t allow (these things) to hamper the steady progress that we’re making in terms of our bilateral relations.
Q: There have been signals sent by Malaysians in high positions that Singapore investment is not that welcome in Johor.
There could have been. But the important thing is the signal from the government. The signal from the government is that we welcome Singapore investment.
Q: Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, for example, was one of those who said that we shouldn’t have Singaporeans in Johor, running all over and taking over the place.
(Laughs) I don’t think it’ll happen that way, because Iskandar is open, and there’s Middle Eastern money coming in, so it’s going to be quite cosmopolitan in terms of the genesis of the investment coming into Iskandar.
Q: Even though Singapore SMEs are No. 3 in total country involvement in Iskandar, there has been no signal contribution from Singapore GLCs (government-linked companies). Are you hoping your trip could act as a catalyst?
The signal must come from Singapore. I can only prepare the ground and create a conducive atmosphere for them to consider investing in Malaysia.
Malaysian economy and politics
Q: How bad do you think growth would get this year for Malaysia and when do you see the recovery?
I don’t have a crystal ball but obviously if Singapore is talking about minus 9, minus 10 this year – because its economy is more open than ours – then Malaysia will have to think proportionately, in terms of probably a contraction. We’re looking at the figures for the first quarter of this year first. And then based on first quarter figures, we will come up with a fresh set of figures for this year and take it from there.
Q: How do you see the resolution of political uncertainty in Malaysia?
It is something that we have to manage because ever since the last general election, we have to face a stronger opposition, a more vocal opposition. But Barisan Nasional has to strengthen itself and go through a process of change and renewal as well, so that we can appeal to the electorate. I’m convinced that if we do it, we can improve our position at the next general election. But we do need to work at making BN more appealing to the voters.
Q: On the New Economic Policy (NEP), you’ve liberalised certain sectors of the service industry. What are your other plans for NEP? Is there a roadmap to its dismantling? (The NEP was created to remove poverty and close the wealth gap between bumiputeras and non-bumis.)
First of all, the NEP is no longer a policy in place. What we have is a form of affirmative action, which is not quite the same as the original NEP.
And moving forward, the whole objective of having a more socially just and equitable society – most Malaysians do not object to it.
In fact, they support the idea of having a more equitable and socially just society. It’s just a question of how you achieve it.
The traditional way of imposing quotas, for example, and equity restrictions, seems to be hampering achievements and growth. And a lack of a principle of meritocracy c
ould also be another source of irritant to a number of Malaysians.
So we have to look at how we can make adjustments to (the NEP), without forgetting the ultimate goal of having a socially just and equitable society.
As long as how we go about it is seen to be fair and just – not just in terms of our ultimate goal, but the ‘how’ part – I think the people will support whatever policies that we have in mind.
Q: Do you worry about a backlash? Even your recent liberalisation, which wasn’t that widespread in all respects, people like (former newspaper editor) Kadir Jasin reacted.
Every time there’s a change, there will be those who will be affected by the change for one reason or another. It could be for personal reasons, or could be differences in ideology, but the alternative is to (maintain the) status quo, which is worse. I don’t think it’s an option for us.
If it remains status quo and there’s no change, then Malaysia will be out of sync with what’s happening globally. Malaysia will be less competitive. Then everybody will lose out, including the Malays, the bumiputeras.
There will be some people who will be unhappy…It’s a fact that if you introduce change, there will be some people who will feel the pain. There is no gain without pain. So you have to go through some pain to get the gain. And I believe the gains will outweigh the pain.
Q: Is it something well understood within Umno?
I can manage Umno.
Q: And the warlords?
That’s all right. The warlords are close to me, most of them. Don’t forget, I’m the biggest warlord. (laughs) They are chiefs but they’re smaller chiefs. I’m the big chief.
‘I don’t have a crystal ball but obviously if Singapore is talking about minus 9, minus 10 this year – because its economy is more open than ours – then Malaysia will have to think proportionately, in terms of probably a contraction.’
‘Logic says that progress means change, progress means development, progress means more comfort and better communication and transport for the peoples of Malaysia and Singapore. So if you translate that, it means that the Causeway should be replaced, then so be it. But we should not be hasty about it.’
Source : Straits Times