Wide-ranging election interview

I recently responded to a number of challenging questions posed by international newswire service AFP. We covered a wide-ranging number of topics including corruption, economic development, the Sabah incursion, and the election process. I spoke about the reforms we have put into place to meet people’s changing expectations, as well as the economic transformation that has put Malaysia on track to reach its ambitious goal of a high-income nation. You can read the full transcript of our Q&A below.

QUESTION: You said at the Umno assembly in November that this “is no ordinary election” and that “it will determine the destiny of the country and the people”. Can you elaborate on why you think it is so pivotal. What is it about Malaysia’s current place in history today that makes it so?

Answer: This election will decide Malaysia’s future. At the moment, we have one overarching national policy aim — to become a developed nation by 2020. That ambition was set way back in 1991, so when it happens, it will be the culmination of 30 years’ work.

Whoever wins this election will be responsible for building on that success, and seeing it through. But they will also have a chance to set the direction for Malaysia through the 2020s and beyond.

When we reach developed nation status — and our projections suggest it could be as soon as 2018 — it will be a natural time to reflect and ask ourselves “where next?” The conversation will be less about this one economic indicator, per-capita GDP (gross domestic product), and more about what kind of society we want to build, how we can encourage sustainable economic growth.

It’s about where we should position ourselves in Asia and in the global economy, and how we respond to the geopolitical rebalancing that is already under way.
Over the next five years, we have the opportunity to set Malaysia’s path for the following 30 years. And actually, when you look at BN, at our record of picking the right path, I think we’ve shown we can make the big strategic calls.

We have earned the right to have that kind of a discussion with the nation, about what our future will be. And that’s one of the reasons I would like the honour of leading the country for a further term.

Question: Can you give us your updated assessment of BN’s chances for recovering the two-thirds majority (in Parliament)?

Answer: It will not be easy but I’m cautiously optimistic. Support for BN is still very high because it’s not like we’ve been sitting on our hands for the past four years. On a national level, we’ve been delivering big changes in people’s lives — with almost 45,000 households lifted out of extreme poverty, nearly half a million new job opportunities created last year, and gross national income up by 49 per cent since 2009.

We’ve launched major government and economic transformation programmes, per capita income has risen from US$6,700 (RM20,340) in 2009 to US$9,700 in 2011, and we’ve introduced free primary education and a minimum wage (for workers).

“We’ve been able to govern effectively because we’ve had a majority that many other governments would envy. But we’ve also been doing a lot of work locally, talking to voters, acting on their concerns. We’ve done lots to win back trust from the Indian community, for example. And the numbers I’m seeing show that the work is paying off. So when we go to the polls, I’m confident that we will get a strong mandate.

Question: Why did you feel it was necessary to embark on political reforms, including the ISA (Internal Security Act), etc? Were you concerned that something was not right with the direction in which Malaysia was headed and that you may lose some of the public’s support?

Answer: As times change, so do people’s expectations. As a politician, I must always be aware of that. In Malaysia, there is a new generation of young voters and they have very different aspirations from their parents. They won’t vote for Umno just because we led the independence movement in the 1950s, or because we helped develop a high-tech, manufacturing economy. They won’t say, “thank you”; instead they ask “what’s in it for us?” We have to deliver for younger voters.

We have to demonstrate that we are changing and keeping up with the times. We have to reform our politics, our government and our economy.

When I announced the political reform agenda, I said I wanted to transform the country’s democracy by scrapping outdated laws that were no longer relevant for Malaysia. We have introduced unprecedented reforms, which represent the greatest expansion in civil liberties since independence.

We have scrapped the 50-year-old state of Emergency; repealed the ISA; improved media freedom by ending the requirement for newspapers to renew their licences annually; expanded youth participation by allowing students to join political parties; and we will repeal the Sedition Act.

Making reforms happen at this rate hasn’t always been easy. There has been opposition from those who say they go too far, and from those who say they don’t go far enough. Big reforms always generate debate. But I will continue to reform and improve our democracy, because it is in the best interests of the Malaysian people.

Question: Your personal approval rating remains strong, yet the government/BN’s has been below 50 per cent for some time. Some suggest this supports the belief that you face inertia or outright resistance from within Umno to some of your plans. What is your response to that?

Answer: In any democratic system, prime ministers and presidents can expect to face resistance or objections to their ideas, both from within their own party and from the opposition. This is not only healthy, but should be encouraged; policies should be subject to rigorous debate.

But politics is the art of the possible, and while some may have voiced concerns, ultimately the party has delivered a bold and wide-ranging set of reforms which have expanded civil liberties and made this government the most open and transparent in its history.

That’s not to say there isn’t more to be done to reform the party. We have been in power for more than 50 years and the LDPs, the Congress, the Golkars of the world serve to remind us of what can happen to long-serving parties that fall into decline. So we must continue to watch social trends, keep the party fresh and ensure that we continue to meet the needs of every generation.

Question: Corruption remains a top public (and investor) concern, yet Malaysia has not significantly improved its rankings in reference to Transparency International, and the Auditor-General continues to report various leaks and unaccounted for government expenses. Why should voters believe that your government is sincere in combating this problem?

Answer: I share the concerns over corruption. I understand the negative impact that any incidence of corruption has on our reputation and the trust that investors and the public have in the government. Quite simply, a failure to eradicate corruption will harm our democratic and economic progress.

This is why I made the fight against corruption one of my administration’s top priorities. We have introduced a range of measures: a new Whistleblowers Act; harsher punishments for graft offences; an online database of government contracts; and special corruption courts.

We have started to make progress in tackling corruption. Take the example of the courts — they have processed nearly 500 corruption cases, while nearly 1,100 individuals have been listed in a database of convicted offenders. There is a lot more to be done and, if all goes to plan, in the upcoming election, I will continue this fight.

Question: The economy stabilised under your government after 2009’s troubles. But there has been rising government expenditure, raising the deficit risk. What policies/indicators can you cite that can give Malaysians optimism going forward?

Answer: Our economic performance has been strong, and I think that’s been a real success for the government. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) recently revised Malaysia’s projected growth for 2013 upwards, from 4.7 per cent to five per cent.

We had a very positive finish to 2012, with 6.4 per cent growth in the fourth quarter. Inflation is low and so is unemployment. Investment is up, interest rates are stable, and foreign investment is almost six times higher than it was in 2009.

So the fundamentals of the economy are strong, which is why ratings agencies are positive about the outlook for growth.

Of course, one of the main lessons from the past few years has been that the economy must be strong enough to absorb shocks from the outside world. And actually our experience from the Asian financial crisis has equipped us well, because on the whole our banks have better governance and capitalisation requirements, and more liquidity. But we also need to keep our deficits in check, and we need to stimulate domestic demand. And on both fronts, I think we’ve made our intentions clear.

In the 2013 budget, we made a commitment to reduce the deficit to 4.5 per cent this year, four per cent the next, and three per cent the year after, and we backed that up with policies to strengthen the tax system and rationalise subsidies. We are working towards a balanced budget, and I can say categorically that our debt will never exceed 55 per cent of GDP.
So our message to the Malaysian people is a positive one: we are delivering growth and we are fiscally responsible. And all the while we’ve kept up reforms to make our economy more competitive, increase domestic demand and encourage private investment, which the IMF and others have commended us on. So I’m confident about our economic prospects and I’m optimistic about the future.

Question: The Sabah incursion has been a great shock to the nation. Regardless of the motives and conduct of the invaders, does this episode indicate serious problems in the way Sabah’s borders are controlled, as well as further calling into question some of the immigration problems being highlighted in the Sabah RCI (Royal Commission of Inquiry) that you established?

Answer: The lesson from the Sabah incursion is that we cannot take our security for granted. We have enjoyed a long period of peace and stability in Malaysia, but the Lahad Datu incursion has been a wake-up call for the whole nation and a reminder that external threats remain.

It doesn’t matter how powerful a nation is, or how strong their military might; from time to time you will face challenges. Even in the United States, they are unable to completely seal the border with Mexico and stop illegal immigrants crossing into the US.

Sabah has an enormous coastline. The eastern seaboard is almost 1,500km long. But we have put in place new measures, like the Special Security Area (now called Eastern Sabah Security Command or Esscom), to beef up surveillance and monitoring of the coastline and prevent incursions from happening again. It is also crucial that we maintain a strong military capability, so we can effectively respond to problems.

In the first instance, it was right that we tried to solve the incursion through diplomacy. Once diplomacy failed — through no fault of Malaysia — I ordered the military and police to strike. And let me be very clear: I will never give up an inch of Malaysian soil, and I will never apologise for defending our sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Question: Bersih continues to complain that not enough has been done in terms of electoral reform. Can you unequivocally state that Malaysia’s system is fair and the government does not enjoy significant advantages over the opposition? (For example, an obvious lingering issue is that all significant mainstream media outlets remain pro-government, unscrupulously so in the case of some publications.)

Answer: I can unequivocally state that the upcoming general election will be free and fair. If elections in Malaysia were not free and fair, BN would not have lost its two-thirds majority and five states in 2008, and the opposition would not have been able to rule Kelantan for the past 20 years.

In recent months, the Election Commission has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the electoral system is stronger than ever. Indelible ink will be used for the first time, to prevent voter fraud; Malaysians living overseas will be given the opportunity to cast a postal vote; and the EC is constantly scrutinising the electoral roll to ensure it is as accurate as possible. The EC have said that just 0.3 per cent of the roll was considered “dubious” and many of these irregularities have since been addressed.

I recently signed Transparency International’s Election Integrity Pledge, reaffirming our commitment to democracy and good governance. I hope the opposition will do the same. The opposition knows full well that the electoral system meets international standards, but they continue to cast doubt over it because they think they will lose the election.

Question: Dr Mahathir (former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad) told us in an interview that you could very well face a leadership challenge if the election result for the BN is worse than last time. What is your response to that?

Answer: Well, firstly, I would say that I hope we do better than the last time round. Secondly, if politics has taught me anything, it’s that you should never take anything for granted.
I believe that we are heading in the right direction and have made some significant progress the last few years. This has included changes within the party. I’ve changed the constitution of Umno so that it’s easier for a candidate to challenge the incumbent. I want to make the party more open and democratic.

But changing the constitution of Umno is one thing; changing the mind-set of the people is another. I want party members to be more inclusive in the way they deal with the people. It is an honour and a privilege to serve the people. But it is a position of responsibility.

Changing the constitution in this way, of course, presents a risk to me, but it is one I was prepared to take. I believe in the reforms I am doing. I believe that BN are the best for the job and I’m putting it to the test.

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