Najib Razak: a legacy in tatters or a second coming?

In the second and final part of an exclusive interview with The Vibes, the former prime minister speaks candidly on the challenges of his mid-term in office and his reinvention

Part Two of Two

KUALA LUMPUR – Few could have countenanced the rise to popularity of Datuk Seri Najib Razak following a crippling fall from grace following Barisan Nasional’s defeat in the 14th general election under the shadow of kleptocracy.

However, the advent of the “popular” Najib under the moniker Bossku raised many questions about how and what the national collective remembers, what it chooses to redefine, and what it chooses to leave behind.

In this second and final part of an exclusive interview with The Vibes, the former prime minister wades through the paradoxes of his administration. Are we now seeing the “real” Najib or, to paraphrase Khairy Jamaluddin, someone high on his own Kool-Aid?

Eddin Khoo: Reflecting on your previous remarks about the international contracts signed by your administration, and the diplomatic fallout brought about by the Pakatan Harapan administration’s decision to cancel some of these: what would you say to the PH administration that would respond that it didn’t honour these contracts because they were dishonourable contracts that put Malaysia at a disadvantage?

Najib Razak: But, as you know, these contracts have been reinstated.

The ECRL (East Coast Rail Link), for example, has been reinstated. If you want to tweak the contract, fair enough, but you can’t make bizarre moves like changing the route. These are all very bizarre changes, and you begin by saying the project is overpriced, yet later on when the facts come, (you) discover it is not overpriced.

Najib Razak: a legacy in tatters or a second coming?
I need to be in office to solve the problem, says Datuk Seri Najib Razak on handling the massive 1MDB scandal and its debt recovery. – SADIQ ASYRAF/The Vibes pic

Unfortunately, again, this is playing politics. The facts speak for themselves, and these do not bear towards what they (PH) were accusing the BN government of.

We have to put things in their proper perspectives.

EK: It would be disingenuous of me to conduct an interview without tackling the issue of 1MDB. My question is pointed – let us take you at your word; that you had no knowledge of the extent of mismanagement in 1MDB. Would not your resignation be the honourable thing to do?

NR: Let’s talk about that. Who was the PM overseeing the foreign exchange losses of RM33 billion? Did he resign? No. There is no practice of that in Malaysia. But I would have resigned if I couldn’t do anything, and I wanted to resolve the problem.

This is it – I needed to be in office to resolve the problem!

That is why I went into this supplementary agreement with the UAE (United Arab Emirates); to retrieve the funds, but when PH came in it dishonoured that agreement. Otherwise, by December 2020, it would have been resolved – US$3.5 billion (RM14.47 billion) with the UAE.

Instead, it chose to go to the courts, which hampered and undermined our relationship with the UAE. And the result? Billions of dollars from the UAE flowed into Indonesia but not Malaysia. Why? Because we hurt the feelings of the UAE government.

And of course, there was that insane disclosure of my conversation with the crown prince of the UAE, which has never been done anywhere in the world. A conversation between two world leaders can never be disclosed, and this was disclosed by one of our agencies!

Najib says the conversation between him and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Zayed al-Nahyan should have never been made public. – AFP pic, May 17, 2021
Najib says the conversation between him and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Zayed al-Nahyan should have never been made public. – AFP pic

It was a totally irresponsible action, which led to the UAE’s reaction against us.

These are things I did because I didn’t want to undermine our international relations. I wanted to resolve these matters in a way that would keep our international relations on a strong footing, and at the same time find a solution to the 1MDB problem, and we did it through the supplementary agreement.

I cannot be held responsible for everything: how can I conspire with Goldman Sachs, Ambank, with all the other auditing companies. They must have committed many wrongdoings to be fined to that extent, and there is no evidence to say that I collaborated with these entities to cheat 1MDB or the Malaysian government.

EK: When you discovered that the problem was as dire as it was, what was your state of equilibrium?

NR: As I said, I wanted to resolve it. With the assets we had, we could easily handle the 1MDB debt, and once we handled the 1MDB debt then the process of taking action against the people responsible would ensue. But my priority was to get the money back, and that is why I came up with the Bandar Malaysia project.

That would have brought us billions, and it was supposed to be the terminus for the high-speed rail project. If you want to maximise the value of that land, then the high-speed rail terminus must be there.

But since they have changed the whole scope of the high-speed rail, it has really affected the plan for us to integrate the two economies (of Malaysia and Singapore) together.

I can talk much more about the high-speed rail, but that’s an example of how a project that has been conceived between two countries, which was felt to be a game changer for both Malaysia and Singapore since the benefits would be enormous, but basically we have now shot ourselves in the foot.

EK: The matters of 1MDB, FGV, Tabung Haji, donations from foreign governments – all issues that have shrouded your period in office. All of these, however, are rooted in a single factor – which continues to define and galvanise our political culture – the need for largesse. Would you agree? And how, given your experience, can that practice be curtailed?

NR: We need to regulate political funding in this country.

That’s why at the outset of my administration I came out with a proposal to make political funding more transparent and accountable. But the opposition at that time rejected it in total and did not want it.

They talk so much about transparency and corruption but when it came to the crunch they backed down and said no to the proposal. (In) saying no, they should have come out with a better proposal. That should have been the case.

If your plan was to impose regulations on BN alone and not other parties, that wouldn’t be fair. Both must agree.

It’s unfortunate that very few people remember that proposal which my administration put forward; just like many people don’t remember also that I was responsible for doing away with the ISA (Internal Security Act 1960), so that we could make Malaysia a more liberal, softer and kinder society, which I thought was necessary to move ahead with the times.

EK: We can’t dispute that repealing the ISA was progressive but this was replaced with other laws that were perceived to be even more draconian, and therein lies some of the principal criticisms of your administration…

NR: I don’t think so. I think the fact remains that with a law like (Sosma Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012), decisions are made by the courts, so an individual still has a chance to argue their case. And you may recall there were some cases in which the government lost in the courts.

With the ISA, it’s a decision of the administration alone. You’d be locked away and you cannot even challenge the decision.

For those who criticise, I would say the facts speak for themselves. The decision to charge you under Sosma is a decision of the court, not the decision of bureaucrats or politicians.

Also, we were facing the threat of terrorism: without Sosma and some of the other laws we could have experienced acts of terrorism in this country. Indonesia did… Why didn’t we experience it in Malaysia? Why didn’t we lose a single Malaysian or foreign life? Because we had pre-emptive laws, that were fair. These were basically designed to fight terrorists: it wasn’t targeted towards Malaysian citizens, it was against terrorism. And I am proud in my nine years not a single Malaysian life was lost to terrorism.

EK: But there are cases where laws and institutions appeared to be instrumentalised during your administration. The arrest of social activists like Maria Chin Abdullah, cartoonists…

NR: Yes, action will be taken if you transgress the law, but if you put it in historical perspective, what happened with Operation Lalang? The scale at which the ISA was used. Many would say it was used for political purposes at that time, and it pales in comparison with what has happened in recent times. But people forget and don’t realise that we are actually moving towards a softer society, yet you have got to ensure there is peace and stability in this country.

Racial politics and racial sentiment can easily be stoked in this country and as PM, I had to ensure that the country had to be peaceful. I did not want racial strife, I did not want any acts of terrorism, and I did not want any instability in this country because it is very important for us – if you want progress, want to achieve recognition in the world – to ensure Malaysia remains a peaceful nation.

You have to ensure there is peace and stability in this country, Najib says on the arrest of social activists such as Maria Chin Abdullah during his tenure as prime minister. – Bernama pic, May 17, 2021 
You have to ensure there is peace and stability in this country, Najib says on the arrest of social activists such as Maria Chin Abdullah during his tenure as prime minister. – Bernama pic 

EK: As the politics of the country began to undulate, did you lose control of the various layers of who appeared to be presupposing what you wanted done? It would be hard to imagine you instructing the Election Commission to cut Dr Mahathir’s face off election posters? Was this happening?

NR: As PM you sit at the apex of the government and decisions are made at various levels of government. I had no involvement in that particular decision; cutting off the face of Dr Mahathir from posters.

But someone decided to do it, within the system, and being PM, you get the heat for everything irrespective of who makes the decision.

EK: Was this not a cause of frustration? 

NR: Yes. I wanted our institutions to be strong and respected by the people. I didn’t want them to be seen as tools of the political masters of the day, and when incidents like this happened it did frustrate me.

EK: Yet to the public it appeared as if your administration did not have control. Cow head demonstrations, church burnings.

NR: No. We didn’t lose control. We accept certain things happened but it did not escalate because we took action.

But moving forward, in our multiracial society, there will be incidents such as those you mentioned. I don’t think any administration will be devoid of such incidents. But put it in perspective, please, how do you make sure those incidents do not escalate and lives are lost.

EK: Where would you prioritise issues of race and religion in your administration?

NR: It’s a very difficult balancing act because you have forces pulling in different directions. I tried my best to create a balance based on the principles and spirit of the constitution, but not everyone saw it in that manner because they were looking through their own prism. They simply wanted what they wanted.

The issue of Kalimah Allah, for example: how do you balance that issue? I came out with a 10-point Memorandum of Understanding, and the people of Sabah and Sarawak were happy with it. Other people here (in Peninsular Malaysia) were not happy.

It is impossible to please 100% of the people in a very complex, multiracial society like Malaysia. It is impossible to get 100% people to feel happy, but it is important to get the majority of them to support what you do.

EK: I ask this also because Tun Razak, your father, was at the helm of bringing the nation together after a period of rupture in 1969: we appear to be going through similar tensions without the bloodshed: why do you think these problems are still enduring four decades on…

NR: They will not go away: in a very complex, multiracial society. Malaysia is not homogenous, and don’t forget you have Sabah and Sarawak to manage.

Putting things in perspective, what you need to do is to ensure there is fairness in the system; that people feel there is a government that listens to them and is a fair government. You cannot please 100% of the people but you can try to be as fair as possible. And that is what I was trying to do.

EK: Much has been said of your parting of ways with Dr Mahathir; less is known about your experience with your then deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was, for a period of time, a faithful and loyal deputy. You must have been aware when you dismissed him as DPM that you were creating perhaps a lasting fissure in Umno, and opening a second battlefront. How much of this was a concern to you? Why also, following your experience with him were you agreeable to his leading this new coalition Perikatan Nasional?

NR: I believe that the duty of a DPM is to be supportive of the PM, even during difficult times. And when you have complex issues to handle, you turn to your deputy for support. Wouldn’t you? Anyone would in any administration.

Yet he conspired with Dr Mahathir and I had no choice. You have to have a deputy you can rely on, and when he did the things he did, and was quite open about it, I was left with no choice. He gave me no choice.

Later on I thought that after the second Mahathir administration, he deserves to be given a chance, being an experienced person, let’s see how he performs as prime minister. I said: “Let’s put the nation first, and after what has happened let bygones be bygones.” That was my attitude.

I decided to let bygones be bygones and put the nation first in deputising current Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, despite him conspiring with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, says Najib. – AFP pic, May 17, 2021
I decided to let bygones be bygones and put the nation first in deputising current Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, despite him conspiring with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, says Najib. – AFP pic

EK: Given all the challenges you are facing now, there wasn’t an element of self-interest?

NR: No. It’s not self-interest. A lot of people felt there needed to be a change, and being a party man, I am loyal to the party. That was a party decision so I went along with the party.

That has always been the case with me. I am a true party man.

EK: You have employed some interesting adjectives here to decisions made during the PH government’s tenure – “bizarre”, “strange”, “insane” – how do you today reflect on the PH administration some three years on?

NR: I think the rakyat rejected the PH government. The by-election victories with overwhelming increasing majorities for BN speaks for itself.

If I were to ask you: what is the single thing they (PH) did that the country can be proud of? When I ask this question to many people, I don’t get an answer. You get a monumental silence.

What does that say? That, basically, they failed – they failed in honouring their promises to the rakyat. I think this is very fundamental – it is almost sacred in democracies. When you say: “I promise you I will do these things if you vote for me”; the people voted for them and what did they do? They said: “Our manifesto is not the Bible”, they reneged on their promises and it was as if it didn’t matter. They just dismissed it nonchalantly.

And that, to me, is immoral; it is not right. You have to apologise to the people. Basically, they lied to the people. I don’t want to mince my words. They lied to the people, and for that reason history will judge them in that context.

EK: The rise and fall of PH has completely transformed the checkerboard of Malaysian politics. Very prominent Umno leaders have stated that any kind of alliance is possible today. How do you read the prospect of open political alliances today?

NR: I suppose in the new political milieu we have to keep our options open.

I have always thought that somewhere along the line – the sooner, the better – a general election would be the best solution for the country.

Let the people decide. When you have a government that doesn’t seem to have an outright, strong majority – a stable government – then you have to go back to the people. This is what other democracies would do. In some countries, they have elections almost every year to resolve a political impasse.

So, I am a great believer that the mandate has to be given to the people, but if elections are not possible, then we have to look at other options. But, the objective is to ensure good governance, and to ensure the country is moving in the right direction.

I am very concerned about that. I want the country to be on the right track.

EK: One of the very intriguing aspects of Malaysian politics is the phenomenon of friends turning into nemeses and turning again into friends. You were part of the team Wawasan that was aligned to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the early 90s that saw his rise to deputy presidency in Umno and deputy premiership of Malaysia. Alliances are open. Are you talking to Anwar Ibrahim?

NR: You know the dictum in politics is “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies”. I think that is true, and that speaks true to the other side as well.

Who could have imagined Dr Mahathir and Anwar striking an alliance, and Dr Mahathir receiving DAP in the government? That would have been unimaginable.

If you talk about shifting alliances, that is the ultimate. When someone like Dr Mahathir and Anwar, or Dr Mahathir and DAP, could try and cobble together a political alliance, that shows the ultimate in terms of the shifting alliances you referred to.

Unfortunately, they don’t last. I know that in politics, you have to be to a degree, but I think one should not be too opportunistic. You must understand that for there to be political stability, relationships have to be enduring, and the basis of an enduring relationship is trust. You have to trust one another. If you have that trust, the relationship will endure.

EK: Do you trust Anwar?

NR: We all have to explore possibilities and options in the country, and I want somebody who thinks for the nation. I don’t look at individuals. I want to see what the agenda is for the nation, and whether we can work together with anyone for the sake of the country. Because everything is about the country and the people, and that is what we must place first ahead of everything else.

The basis of any enduring relationship is trust, and the same goes for alliances among lawmakers, says Najib, citing the ‘no permanent friends, no permanent enemies’ dictum in politics. – SADIQ ASYRAF/The Vibes pic, May 17, 2021 
The basis of any enduring relationship is trust, and the same goes for alliances among lawmakers, says Najib, citing the ‘no permanent friends, no permanent enemies’ dictum in politics. – SADIQ ASYRAF/The Vibes pic

EK: The reinvention of Najib Razak as a popular figure has taken some by consternation – others, delight. For most of your political career, you were perceived as managerial, even technocratic. What do you think is the reason for your rise in popularity and how are you managing it?

NR: I wonder that myself, actually. I think it is partly a realisation that they made a mistake in their judgement of me and my administration. There is the sense of: “oh my God, we have thrown out a good guy.”

I have received a lot of comments like that and many people coming to me and asking me for forgiveness, claiming they made the wrong decision based on the lies and propaganda thrown about at that time.

The other thing that might be a factor is that not being in office allows me to be the real Najib Razak.

And it’s the real Najib Razak they never saw – they only saw Najib Razak the PM. They never saw Najib Razak the person, the real Najib Razak. I feel comfortable in a very simple setting. If I am eating nasi lemak in a small stall I am very happy, being around with people in a very relaxed manner. I enjoy that.

So the people see that and say: “Hey, this guy is not who we thought he was – a bangsawan, an elitist. He is one of us.” That is why Bossku became such a big thing. It is not something that can be contrived. It came from the people, it was organic, and it somehow fit with the real Najib Razak as a person that they are now seeing, not Najib Razak the PM.

EK: I this time of pandemic the popular Bossku appears to be metamorphosing to the managerial Najib Razak in offering pointed policy directions that are often a counterpoint to the direction of the present administration. What do you think is debilitating our approach to battling the pandemic?

NR: I have been very open throughout this period and I commended the government when the first MCO was successful. The second MCO was a failure because it led to them doing things in a very half-baked manner.

Combating Covid-19 does not require rocket science. You have to break the chain of Covid-19 (infection), and more than 50% of clusters occur in factories and construction sites, but these were allowed to operate. Standard operating procedures were not consistent and kept changing even on a daily basis, so people were confused and annoyed. There was utter confusion and a sense of “what is happening?”.

The irony of it all is that MCO 1.0 without a national emergency was more successful than MCO 2.0, with an emergency. The facts and data speak for themselves, so what is the basis for an emergency? People are asking that question.

But, most crucially, you have to break the chain of Covid-19 successfully, and other countries have done it. In the UK now, infection numbers have dropped from 60,000 to 1,000 and (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson has just seen a surge in popularity.

And, in the UK you can just walk in and get vaccinated, so why are we behind? The government promised 160,000 vaccinations per day to achieve herd immunity, but we are around the 20,000 mark. One Saturday I checked, we were only at 5,000 so why is there such a huge difference in terms of what we promised to the people and what we have actually delivered.

The two things you need to do to successfully combat Covid-19 are: one, break the chain; two, a massive immunisation programme on a national scale in a very unprecedented manner.

It would have been better for MCO 2.0 to be tough but short rather than prolong it for months and, at the end of the day, have the numbers continue to increase to beyond 4,000 a day, so you have lost the plot, actually.

I reiterate, the government was successful in MCO 1.0 and I gave credit for that: I am not a critic who will just bash the government all the time. If you give me and show me you have done well, I will say you have done well, but if you are not doing well I have the right to speak up because I am speaking as a concerned Malaysian.

EK: You are still undergoing your appeal in court, you have just been issued a summons by the LDHN and vowed to continue to fight to clear your name. At the same time a poll in Utusan Malaysia places you as a favourite to return as prime minister. To take a lurch into the virtual, if you were given another chance to lead Malaysia, how would you do things differently?

NR: I don’t want people to assume that is my objective: my immediate objective, as I have said repeatedly, is to clear my name. What happens in the future remains to be seen, but if you ask me, it is important for us to get a national consensus.

The country is too divisive and too polarised. It is sad – I have never seen the country like this. We have to bring about the notion that we have to be together, and we have to have a plan and a shared vision that transcends race and political considerations; that this is the plan, and this is what is needed for the country.

By : Eddin Khoo – THE VIBES

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