In the first of a two-part exclusive interview with The Vibes’ Eddin Khoo, the former prime minister talks legacy, controversy, and the nation’s political future
Part One of Two
KUALA LUMPUR – Being at the helm of the Barisan Nasional government’s momentous defeat at the 14th general election on May 9, 2018, few could have predicted Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s reinvention as a figure in the popular imagination.
Throughout his tenure, as his administration found itself increasingly embroiled in controversy, a frequent question raised was “what, really, was the Najib administration’s direction?”
In the first of a two-part exclusive interview with The Vibes’ Eddin Khoo, Najib reflects upon legacy, controversy, and the nation’s political future, offering insight into the challenges of “navigating” issues at the apex of government.
Eddin Khoo: Datuk Seri Najib, can I draw you back to the events of May 9, 2018 – given all that has happened since, how prepared in your estimation was the country for a political transition?
Datuk Seri Najib Razak: As you know, in other practicing democracies, there are conventions and decorum involving a change of government. In Malaysia, we had never had that precedent, and I did all I could – because I am a true believer in democracy, accepted defeat and the fact that there was going to be an incoming government – to ensure a smooth transition of power.
Unfortunately, the same thing was not accorded to me, my family, and, particularly, my staff. We were treated with disrespect and disdain; we were told to leave our office in just a matter of hours, not allowed our personal effects till one or two years later and, for most of us, that included our personal belongings.
In recent times, we saw (former US) president (Donald) Trump losing the elections, but he was given decorum, space, and time for his administration to make the change, not only in terms of personal effects, but also to brief the incoming administration with notes relating to policies and the act of taking over government.
As a result of not adhering to the good practices of modern-day democracy, the country suffered: large flows of capital left the country after GE14. That is an example of how one needs to put the country ahead of personal vendettas and petty personal politics.
EK: Do you think the people were prepared for a transition?
NR: After 60 years of ruling a country, we had reached a kind of apex in terms of how the public felt about a party or government that had been in office for such a long period of time.
BN’s decline in terms of popular votes had started back in GE12. In GE13, we lost the popular vote, and by GE14, we lost the federal government.
But Umno did pretty well in GE13 when I led. The party increased its share of seats to 89, we recaptured Kedah, Perak, and Terengganu – in that sense, though we lost the popular vote, in terms of absolute achievement, we did better.
EK: You ascended to office following the “tsunami” of 2008, which came in the wake of the biggest single victory for BN in 2004. It was also a personally challenging time for you. In assuming office, what did you feel were immediate priorities in winning back confidence in the government, and yourself, in particular?
NR: When I took over office, I wanted to bring Malaysia forward. I believed we needed to set the country in a proper direction. I personally wanted a fairer and more equitable Malaysia in terms of income levels. I didn’t want the disparities between the rich and poor to be too large.
I wanted to uplift the B40 and M40 groups. I also wanted to reduce racial politics in the country. I wanted every single race and person to feel that they are part of a bigger family. I, therefore, came up with the concept of 1Malaysia, which very few people understood; as a result, I couldn’t really implement and execute what I wanted because of pressures from various sectors.
EK: The two principal agendas – economic liberalisation and the national unity programme of 1Malaysia. Given that the first was questioned by Malay rights groups and the second had cynical reception from both Malay and non-Malay constituencies, did you feel somewhat hemmed in from the very commencement of your premiership?
NR: I tried to manoeuvre within the political landscape of that time. Yes, I have to admit I found it difficult because the Malay side was saying I was giving away too many Malay rights. This was led by Perkasa, whose patron at that time was (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad)… I know for a fact that he campaigned saying I was giving away too many Malay rights, which is quite an irony, compared with what he did in recent times.
Then you have the Chinese groups, who never quite believed in 1Malaysia in terms of its execution. They felt I still had a very pro-Malay agenda, so I had a hard time convincing people that this was a national policy that was designed to bring Malaysia towards a fairer society and to continue with the Malay agenda while giving more opportunities to non-Malays.
That was basically it, but it was tough to balance the act, I have to admit.
EK: And how do you feel you navigated it?
NR: I had to convince people that we could achieve it, to communicate and create a sense that we were trying to take care of all races and communities. The notion that no one ought to be left behind was very much on my mind.
EK: There seemed to be a problem also with consensual politics. Why was commitment to such a plan so difficult to obtain?
NR: Fundamentally, Malaysian politics has not changed – it is race-based politics, and every single party will champion a stand that helps it get support. They tend to use the racial card.
Unfortunately, it is ingrained in our Malaysian politics, and it is very, very difficult to change in a short period of time. I tried. I tried my best, but it would require perhaps even more than one generation to change Malaysia in a very fundamental way, and to move away from race-based politics, and see ourselves as more without giving up the fundamentals like Malay rights, for example.
It (Malay rights) is enshrined in the constitution, but it is also enshrined in the constitution that you have to be fair to other communities as well. That is, in essence, what 1Malaysia encapsulated.
EK: Decades have passed since these aspects of community relations were arrived at – given your experience, is such a balance even possible to achieve?
NR: It is going to take time. You have parties in Malaysian politics that are formed as single-race parties. The platforms they stand for will be to champion causes that are basically single-race causes.
In that sense, it is difficult to navigate this minefield; but there is a generation of Malaysians, particularly urbanites and people who are more exposed to global events – their thought processes are different… but it’s going to take time.
EK: One of the principal criticisms of your administration rests in the fact that many of the “progressive” policies you introduced remained in the realm of the conceptual – the New Economic Model, Najibnomics, even Transformation 50. Would you agree with the view that many of these policies were sacrificed to increasingly divisive and polarising politics?
NR: The cornerstone of my administration’s policies was the National Transformation Policy, which we implemented and delivered.
Every year, I presented a report card to the nation. No prime minister had done that, but I did it because I believe I should be accountable to the people: I should articulate our progress, how much we have achieved in terms of our overall objectives, and how much more needed to be done.
I was very specific so the people could relate – how many roads were built, how much clean water supplied, what income levels were, how much more investment we could generate.
Today, you can see the visible signs of our national transformation plan. It is there, people can see it for themselves, but unfortunately, we were mired in very divisive and unethical politics, especially when you promise the rakyat the sun and moon, and you never had the notion of fulfilling your promises. I think that is very immoral politics.
EK: Do you believe these politics to be ingrained in our political culture now?
NR: I don’t think people can make those kinds of outlandish promises in the forthcoming elections – people are very cynical now of politicians making promises, which is good.
But as we went through that period, we were victims of that… The people were fed promises that were completely impossible to implement, and those people in PH (Pakatan Harapan) knew, in fact, that they could not implement them, but they did it in order to win. The objective was not to fulfil their promises to the rakyat.
I knew they couldn’t fulfil their promises, but I could not do the same thing as a prospective incoming prime minister. I wanted only to promise to the people what I could deliver. That has always been my position, my brand if you like – I deliver what I promise to the people.
EK: You rose to the premiership during a particularly restive period in global politics – the effects of the subprime crash, slump in oil prices. Given that Malaysia remains a nation very vulnerable to shifts in the global context, how much of this proved a restraint to the transformative policies you had hoped to push through?
NR: Actually, very few Malaysians realise that my administration saved the country from two possible major recessions brought on by the subprime crisis and global slump in oil prices.
During the Asian financial crisis, we went into a deep slump, and it took us a few years to recover, but Malaysians never felt it because we insulated the economy.
It was the same for the subprime crisis – we came in with RM66 billion in terms of government spending, financial packages. I announced these in Parliament twice, and that turned the economy around.
We also realised we couldn’t be too dependent on oil, for example. When we started, we were at 41% of government revenue, depending on the oil sector. This put us in a very vulnerable position should anything happen to global oil prices.
So what did we do? We diversified, and when we diversified, we were at about 14% by the end of my tenure, so we didn’t suffer the effects of the global oil price crash, which could have been quite devastating.
But because we diversified our sources of income and introduced the GST (goods and services tax), for example, we had a much stronger financial basis as a buffer. Few people realise that the GST served as a buffer against possible downturns in the global economy that would have affected our domestic economy.
EK: The GST is a progressive tax, yet it was criticised as the thing that belaboured the economy of individuals. Why was your ability to counter that narrative not so successful?
NR: Because the people had no experience of the GST, and it was convenient for politicians to say that it was the cause of price increases when the fact remains that there was a marginal increase for a year before prices stabilised. But they went to town with it. There were some shopkeepers, for example, who wanted to raise prices and blamed it on the GST.
We had that uphill battle, and people were not convinced despite us repeating ad nauseum the good things that could come about through the GST. People could not see that because it was something that lay ahead and they had no experience of it.
With the inordinate increase in food prices and even construction items like cement, steel bars and so forth, we are going through a period where the price increase of all these items are in the price range of 17-25%. So, there is this stagflation going on in this country today.
With the GST, you don’t have to sell assets or raid Petronas. When I left office, I left Petronas with RM174 billion in cash. In a single year, the PH government took out RM54 billion and Petronas’ rating was downgraded. If I were utterly irresponsible, I would have done it earlier, but I wanted Petronas to be strong, keeping reserves for the future. But assets are being sold off on a continual basis, which will undermine our economic interests, not even in the long-term.
The way forward is to have the political will and courage to tackle fundamental issues afflicting the economy, and one of these issues is the narrow-based financial revenue of the government. This has never been addressed in twenty years. Even during Dr Mahathir’s period, they realised that the GST was the right solution but they didn’t have the political courage to do it.
I wanted to do it. I wanted to set the country on a proper course so we could become an advanced country. I had this vision of transforming Malaysia into an advanced, high-income economy, and for that, you need a strong revenue base so you can implement projects that will improve Malaysia’s competitive position.
Unfortunately, all of that was used against us in the GE14 election. People couldn’t see the ultimate vision, and this was easily exploited by the opposition. They used this practice of political labelling, which belies the facts but is a very cheap way of undermining your opponent.
EK: There are critics who say that the Najib administration had achievements that can’t be denied, but that the successes had to pay for the failures.
NR: Well, there will be shortcomings in any government, but if you look in terms of the big picture, I brought the Malaysian economy from RM800 billion to over RM2 trillion. Our income levels increased to double digits, especially for the B40 and even M40 groups.
I grew the assets of Petronas and Khazanah. We achieved the longest bull run – it was not spectacular, but it was a continuous increase – that led us to achieve the highest level in terms of our KLSE index. These are solid achievements.
It is not just big numbers. The rakyat’s – the people’s – income levels increased during this period. So I am proud of my achievements, but of course the opposition created a lot of noise, and one or two shortcomings during my administration were exploited to the hilt.
EK: In terms of the Najib administration’s international dealings, what kind of international climate did you discover when you became prime minister?
NR: I found that international leaders were very, very receptive towards Malaysia, but we needed to develop not just formal but also personal relationships. When a leader treats you almost like a friend, a lot of things can happen, things you don’t expect them to do. They will go beyond what they normally do.
So, I had excellent relations with the presidents of the United States – both (Barack) Obama and later Trump. I had excellent relations with President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and all the Asean leaders as well – President Joko Widodo, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and, of course, in the Middle East with King Abdullah and King Salman, and that was a relationship Malaysia benefited from.
Unfortunately, that has gone sour, quite a bit, and one of the reasons why it went sour is because they (the PH administration) didn’t honour the contracts. The PH government cancelled the King Salman Centre for International Peace without even sending a letter to inform them. How rude can you be in terms of international diplomacy? But that happened.
And when you don’t honour international contracts, how do people feel towards Malaysia? By right, an incoming government must honour previous government contacts because they are the contracts of the Malaysian, not the BN, government.
Then, people would have a sense that Malaysia is a country that honours its contracts, a country we can do business with, a country that respects international conventions and laws. But unfortunately, because of personal vendettas and wanting to blame the BN government, the country suffered.
This is a bad example of how a modern-day democracy should work.