Run-Up to GE14: From deputy premier to changemaker

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 16, 2018 - April 22, 2018.
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FOR former deputy prime minister Tan Sri MuhyiddinYassin, who was axed from the Cabinet of Datuk Seri Najib Razak in 2015 for his criticism of the 1Malaysia Development Bhd’s (1MDB) affairs, the reckoning with his former political allies is at hand. Now the president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and a key opposition leader, he speaks to Jose Barrock, Rash Behari Bhattacharjee and Kamarul Azhar about the choices to be made in the pivotal 14th general election.

 

The Edge: It has been three years since you were sacked as the deputy prime minister. How have things been with you?

Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin: I have continued with my political career because of the state of the nation, the serious issues the country is facing. From the 1MDB scandal, involving unprecedented levels of corruption, other scandals like FGV, FELDA, the high cost of living due to GST … you can go on and on.

To do something about it, you need to form a movement or party. I mooted the idea to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and we entered into a loose arrangement based on what we believe is right. I believe it has been effective. We can’t fight this war alone. We need Tun and a few others, including Warisan president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal and the other opposition leaders. We have to get ourselves together.

 

How do you feel about being the party president while Tun is the chairman of Pakatan Harapan and the prime ministerial candidate?

I embarked on this journey not for my own glory. This is not a battle to be won by one person . ..  it has to be fought on a united front. I know this arrangement has got some people confused.They say how can there be two imam (leaders) in Bersatu? But it is a special arrangement. Who would not recognise Tun Mahathir as not only an iconic person but also an inspiration to all? How could I put myself on a par with Tun Mahathir?

At the same time, in order to move a political party, a lot of time and effort must be put in, and I don’t want to put Tun in that sort of job. So I am the president, I move the party, establish the organisation and set up branches, recruit people and do whatever is needed. And we will give support to Tun with the programmes, so there is nothing to be concerned about.

At this stage, whatever you say about Tun Mahathir, he is still Mahathir. Even though he is old, he still has a lot of drive — in terms of physical, spiritual and mental energy — to move things forward, and it has shaken the guys on the other side to the core.

 

How is the registration of Pakatan Harapan as a formal coalition progressing?*

They fear to register us. Not that I am sceptical or pessimistic, but they might not want to approve it. As far as I am concerned, we have fulfilled all the requirements. This is a free country, a democracy. People have the right to get together for a common cause.

They fear that a cohesive opposition will be more trouble for BN. More so when the opposition has personalities such as Tun Mahathir, Anwar (Ibrahim), Wan Azizah (Wan Ismail), (Lim) Kit Siang, (Lim) Guan Eng … People could never imagine that all these personalities will be on the same platform, fighting on the same turf, on issues of common interest.

It has taken us more than nine months, not a single response from the Registrar of Societies (RoS). From the information that we gathered, maybe they might not want to approve it at all.

(Note: This interview was conducted before the RoS’ announcement that it cannot process the application to register PH until PPBM submits the information it has been asked to provide to the registrar.)

 

Does this mean that you are really on a very strong footing?

I think it is because things are not moving much in BN’s favour. The ground has shifted. States that have been known as Barisan strongholds, now people say they are not anymore, in particular Johor, and states that have been pro-opposition, the support for the opposition is becoming stronger. If you start counting parliamentary seats and state seats, as done by independent think tanks such as Merdeka Center and IDEAS, [along with] INVOKE, they all indicate that things are not safe anymore for Barisan.

The mood has moved away from the standard norm. It is not because of political parties, but the mindset, and the info that has been gathered to a very extensive extent shows that voters have become much more aware and informed. They don’t read mainstream newspapers any more. Social media has been very crucial, which has impacted the thinking of many Malaysians.

Even on the major matters like ‘only Barisan can bring Malaysia forward, only Umno can fight for Malay interests’ — that sort of belief that had been etched in their minds for decades — now has changed.

 

What about the fear of the Malay voters that if the opposition wins, their rights will be taken away and that sort of thing?

This is what has been entrenched in the minds of the Malays — that the only saviour is Umno. Without Umno, the Malays will die. Well, when I was on that side too, I put those kinds of things in their minds because we wanted them to continue to support Umno.

Now we ask them, do you want to support a party that has created all these blunders, that has deviated from the original struggle for bangsa, agama dan negara? You want to support a leadership that has been involved in scandals and what not? And who can guarantee that things will get better if you do not make the change?

We tell them that Umno is not the sole fighter for the Malay cause. We can fight for the Malay cause as much as we fight for the rest of Malaysia. We are upholding the constitution, we talk about the position of the sultans. We talk about the rights of the bumiputera. Even DAP has acknowledged that. We talk about Islam as the official religion, the status of Bahasa, about fighting corruption and institutional reforms.

And, of course, we talk about the burden that the people are facing in their livelihood, about the GST.

Now I think many have recognised that BN is not the sole saviour ... Umno is now Najib’s party, not a party for the Malays.

We have been pounding our way, especially in the Malay heartland. Even PAS people are listening to us — in Kedah, Terengganu. We went to Bachok (in Kelantan) recently — 8,000 people turned up, even though it is the Malay heartland where PAS is strong, and Awang Adek (Hussin) has an organised team with a few hundred people.

The Malay mindset has shifted in a significant way and they are no longer scared that if BN losses, Cina perintah, Kit Siang will be the prime minister. How could Kit Siang become the prime minister? We have nominated Tun Mahathir as the prime minister, Wan Azizah as the deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim as the eighth prime minister. How could DAP rule? They only have 34 seats, it doesn’t reflect majority support. It is only one party, and without the other races, nobody can form the government.

If FELDA people are turning up at our events, BN should be fearful. We have never seen this before.

 

When you were in Umno, there were not much change, but now that you have left, you are fighting them. Why didn’t you change things when you were in there?

Even then, we recognised that those were problems that we have to fight, and, of course, I supported all moves to fight the major social problems like corruption.

The state of corruption in this country is unbelievable. I have always been against corruption. I am not one of those corrupt leaders in Umno. You can dig anywhere.

But why do I speak louder outside of Umno? Not because I am now in the opposition,but because we have to take a strong stand because the issues are getting seemingly out of hand — in terms of the economy and whatever else you can imagine.

They say dulu Muhyiddin senyap. No! I have always been a fighter inside, but the way I fight inside and the way I fight outside are not the same lah. And then they say when you were in the government, why didn’t you speak up? Well there is a certain decorum, certain way of doing things, like what have I said about 1MDB. I said it inside, and of course he felt shaken when I started to talk about it. Wah, Muhyiddin is now seemingly going towards certain areas and he is not afraid.

We were not well-informed about the 1MDB issue. In fact, none of the Cabinet members knew really what the issue was all about because it has not been reported to the Cabinet.

What we knew was 1MDB wanted to borrow money, and nobody knew what it was all about until I saw that this was something serious. So I started questioning, and then, of course, WSJ came up with an article, and I texted Najib. I said, this is a very serious thing. Is it true? You have to explain it. He said, yes, he will explain it. But it was only a very simple statement from the PMO. In the end, he actually confessed. So when I asked him, where did you get this money? Oh well, from some Arabs. This is a huge sum of money, why did you put it into your personal accounts? So, from then on, I knew that this is something very serious.

I did issue a statement regarding the 1MDB issue. I said that we have to appoint an auditor to audit 1MDB, and that it should be forensic auditing. He asked the AG to do it. Okay, that was the first statement, but they couldn’t make a decision because he needed the ministers to come and support him. I put in my own decision that it had to be forensic auditing and there should not be any bailout. Dia marah. What do you mean by forensic? That means you have to go to the very core, where the money ended overseas, but he didn’t allow the AG to go beyond that. So it stopped at the border. But a lot of things happened outside.

 

In June 2015, we were at the airport when you were coming back from a holiday. Your supporters turned up. They were shouting Hidup Tan Sri, expecting you to fight Datuk Seri Najib. But it never happened. Then by mid-July, you were already out of the government. So, did you make the push, to fight him within the government?

Fight means what? I made a stand. Fight within the Umno election? I fought in the Cabinet. The Cabinet agreed that it should be audited. But they were undecided whether it should be a forensic auditing. So I think he must have sensed that I tried to persuade the others to [decide on a forensic auditing].

He did not allow me to speak at the Umno assembly, remember? I was the deputy president of the party. Not even a word. That was how he treated me, because he was so fearful that if I were to deliver a speech, that would provoke a lot of the delegates.

 

About Cambridge Analytica’s claim that it was used to sway voters — this happened in the previous election. Was this known in the government?

I was the director of the BN election campaign. I was never informed about Cambridge Analytica. Maybe Najib knows better. You should ask him, because he is up there. I was like a workhorse, campaigning in the normal way. I do not know if they had this help.

 

People were saying that nobody talked about 1MDB because everyone was paid off. Is this true?

I can tell you before this thing came up, a few of the ministers, when they came to see me, they were asking me to talk to Najib about the issue. I told them, ‘You go lah, I don’t want to get involved, because he might think that I want to topple him. But they did not want to talk to him.” Then the supreme council of Umno, they are the top leaders who are supposed to make change happen. But why didn’t they say anything? They should ask them, don’t ask me. I think one [reason] is because of the fear of losing their job.

Do they look stupid? They look smart but maybe they are not smart enough lah. They were fearful, takut nanti kena buang macam saya.

I didn’t care, I spoke out. I didn’t care about my position in the government. I am happy that I got removed because as a Muslim, there is a blessing in what has happened to me, and I think people respect me more now than when I was in the government because I did the right thing. It doesn’t matter that I have no position.

 

All these measures such as not allowing the registration of Pakatan Harapan, Bersatu not being able to stand under its own logo ...  will they affect the chances of Pakatan Harapan doing well in GE14?*

We know these are the ways that the government will do to frustrate, to make sure that you lose. For example, the possibility of Pakatan not being registered is obvious, possibility of Bersatu being deregistered, maybe, could be coming.

We know that they want to take action, but we have plans. Under the constitution and the law, we can still contest — as independents or whatever it is.

We have already finalised the seat negotiation — 52 parliamentary seats and more than 100 state seats have been allocated to us. So, what will we do? We just contest the seats so that we are not at loggerheads with each other. That will remain. Then, what about the logo? Well, we can use any of the other parties’ logos, so I can choose any of the three logos.

(Note: Pakatan Harapan parties have decided to use the PKR logo as a common symbol in GE14.)

 

Some people say the opposition is made up of ex-Umno guys, so how different can it be?

Yes, I’m an ex-Umno leader, Tun is also an ex-Umno leader, there are others who are also from Umno. Because when we formed the party, I made a very important decision when I asked them, what will this party be? Multiracial or Malay-Muslim-based? Why? Because we have done studies. The reason why the opposition loses all the time is because they have not been able to win the Malay hearts. The Malay votes were not forthcoming. Even with 52% of the popular vote, they couldn’t make it.

Nobody says that you are a racist party, because we are not racist. This is the strategy and it is working very well. So, wherever you go, you can see Bersatu coming in. I think they see that, and they will try everything possible not to allow it to happen.

Yes, we are ex-Umno, but there are many types of ex-Umno, and being a new party, we cannot be so choosy. I think it is part of the growing-up process. As we get along and become more mature and understand better, that, in a way, has gone into deep Umno heartland.

We can see that we have got the numbers. When we do a survey, we can see that it is not just the members who are supporting but the non-members who are still part of the Umno structure are supporting as well. They are now slowly getting into  ... I’m not saying Rais (Yatim) and Rafidah (Aziz) are supporting us, but they sounded like us. These are the top people, and the second level, third level? I would believe come election, they will be with us.

 

How important is Johor to Pakatan Harapan’s campaign, especially Bersatu?

Certainly, if we can win Johor, we can win Putrajaya. It is part of the campaign strategy because Johor has been the stronghold of BN and Umno. This has been broken down. The bastion of Umno has been broken down, so what happens next? So I am the chairman of PH in Johor, I have the experience, I do not have a lot of people who followed me when I was removed, but I know the sentiment down there, because they know what is happening.

Winning Johor for me is like winning Putrajaya. Johor has one of the largest number of parliamentary seats, with 26. So, we now have six, five plus one. We are leading now in 16 seats. I do not know, but this is an analysis by INVOKE ... you can believe it or not. We have all the facts and figures, that it is doable to win Johor.

 

Pakatan is seen as a fragile coalition. Can you comment on that?

No, comparatively, or relatively, we are much stronger than they would imagine. They thought the opposition is in disarray, the opposition is not united, they cannot agree on anything. No. We have agreed on the distribution of seats, much earlier than Barisan Nasional, which has never happened in the earlier Pakatan Rakyat arrangement. We have agreed to form a coalition, which was never done before in Pakatan Rakyat. We have agreed to name who should be our candidate for PM and DPM,which has never been done before. So, relatively or comparatively, are we not better united than before? So, that’s obvious.

 

With the system of democracy in Malaysia, the first-past-the-post system, that was why Pakatan Rakyat didn’t win in 2013. Do you think it is very hard for the opposition to win because you have to really win big before you can form the federal government?

In 2013, when there were no such big issues like there are now, what was the result? The opposition won the popular vote. They gained 52% while BN got 48%. But it was not enough to make the shift. So I asked, will it remain at 52%? I did speak at the Umno assembly with the youth. If we have even 2% lower votes in the next election, we will lose, I said.

I imagine the shift is bigger than last time, maybe it is 55%, maybe 57%. Then we will win the federal government. Najib’s rating being the lowest — all surveys indicate he is not gaining popularity, he is losing popularity.

 

Will Sabah and Sarawak still be the kingmakers this time round?

Take Sabah, for example. Shafie’s party Warisan has been making quite big inroads. Based on the quick response from many Sabahan ethnic groups, we have achieved an understanding not to contest each other, so they are in a way, part of our extended coalition pact.

There is a history of BN jatuh di Sabah. And because Warisan is a Sabah-based party, the ‘Sabah for Sabahans’ sentiment is very strong. That is part of the strategy, that is why we are not into Sabah. Anyway, we are a new party, we can’t stretch too far. Sabah is about logistics, getting into the interior divisions.

 

PAS is still very much a partner in the Selangor state government, and they hold a number of seats as well. So, in the election, there will be three-cornered fights in a lot of the seats?

Pakatan Harapan in Selangor is led by PKR. Earlier, they requested that we allow them some time. Obviously, being part of Pakatan, they should be bound by the understanding of the parties. Basically, PAS is no longer part of the coalition. So when the election comes, all the seats that have been allocated to PAS before, we can put our candidates to contest there.

Some of the seats that they won in the last election was because of Chinese support. But now that the Chinese have shifted away from PAS, they will lose those seats. I think they could be the biggest loser. Because the fact that they have become friendly with Umno, although not part of BN, people are like, apa yang you nak sekarang? Are you Islam ke, apa ke? Those who are fence-sitters, they will shift to Pakatan Harapan, because the way they see things happening with PAS, especially with the allegations that they received funds from Umno. PAS members are very angry with that.

 

Talking about the Pakatan manifesto, a lot of economists are saying that it is quite impossible to be implemented, especially in terms of abolishing GST. How exactly does Pakatan Harapan plan to do this?

We have teams of good people to prepare the manifesto, it is not just plucking things from the air. But we are responding to the public’s concern about GST. If we do not respond to that, that means we are deaf.

Can we do away with it? I think based on the studies that we have made, yes, we can do away with it. But it is not like a total removal of tax or opportunities for tax evasion. In the old system of SST, the government collected RM28 billion, the new GST is about RM45 billion. When we say that we will do away with GST, we will look back at SST in its revised form. But do not look at GST as one singular factor. We have to look at the bigger things. Because of tax collection, because even with SST, from RM28 billion, maybe RM34 billion, so there is still a shortfall of RM7 billion to RM10 billion. So how do we recover the shortfall? Najib says we can’t do that.

But what has been happening, because of the issues with governance and management, there is so much wastage and leakage. Based on the Auditor General’s report, there are many cases of wastage and leakages, to the tune of RM15 billion to RM20 billion.

Here, we promise good governance. We have to take it very seriously. How do you run the government? How do you ensure that money is well-spent? There must be due diligence done to ensure that we don’t mess up with the figures.

Some people are focusing on GST alone, and that is what the government has been saying. They don’t want to acknowledge that corruption is rampant. So, when we took that into account, and we will revise the taxation system that will lessen the impact on the cost of living, because if we put money into the people’s pockets, that will go back into the system. It builds up the economy and creates more jobs.

What has happened today is that many graduates are out of jobs, so all these policies are interrelated to create an environment for businesses to grow, incomes will increase, investments will come in, jobs will be plenty, money flow into the system, and, of course, we have to deal with the issues of debt, many things.

We promised that we will be a better government. What does that mean? In terms of economic management, resource management. Like Tun Mahathir said, we didn’t have to introduce GST, but we had enough funds. We didn’t have to borrow.

Now, the government’s revenue collection is not like before. So why is the money allocated for development expenditure only about 14%? It used to be about 25%, 20%, it keeps on shrinking, and money spent for what? The PM’s Department alone spends RM8 billion. Basically, we will look into the budgetary policy, the fiscal policy, the incentives, pro-business environment.

And going rampant on borrowing. Anyone can borrow, but when your gearing bursts to the sky, and it reaches the stop, how could it be? You don’t have money, don’t build the railway.  A railway is not going to make money. And all these funds are going to the Chinese — can you pay that?

 

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