Cover Story: Azmin talks business and politics

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SELANGOR Menteri Besar Mohamed Azmin Ali is indeed the man of the hour.

He has taken up the reins of office at a time when the popularity of Pakatan Rakyat has waned and worse still, when the cracks in the loosely forged alliance are deepening.

Much of the flak Pakatan Rakyat has come under stems from the “Kajang Move”, which involved Parti Keadilan Rakyat assemblyman Lee Chin Cheh stepping down in an effort to nudge Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to take over from Azmin’s predecessor, Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim, as Selangor’s menteri besar.

The eight-month crisis, which came to naught, resulted in public appreciation of Pakatan Rakyat fizzling out and the coalition slowly disintegrating.

To make matters worse, the deposed Khalid — who had folk hero status because of the Dawn Raid that brought Guthrie back under Malaysian control — has a strong set of supporters who are now disgruntled.     

It is against this backdrop that Azmin, 51, has surfaced and he is seeking to set things right.

“I’m still optimistic that Pakatan Rakyat will remain strong and a formidable force in the mainstream of Malaysian politics … [but of course] there are issues from time to time,” Azmin says in a tête-à-tête with The Edge, brushing aside the negativity.

On whether Pakatan Rakyat will pull through, he says, “I believe so. We have gone through worse; we should be able to overcome [these obstacles].”

When asked if Pakatan Rakyat would still win Selangor if an election was held now, Azmin’s reply shows his political astuteness. “I’m happy to note that soon after I came in, we [Pas, PKR and DAP] managed to consolidate and move as one team. The expectation of our political enemies out there was that even with my appointment, the cracks will continue to deepen, the crisis will become bigger. But it turned out otherwise … within a very short period of time, I managed to consolidate the party.”

Azmin has hogged the limelight since taking the helm of Selangor in September last year. Earlier this year, he said he would be willing to work with Barisan Nasional for the betterment of the people. This started speculation that Azmin might be looking to forge an alliance with BN or its largest component party Umno — of which he was a member before — to unite the Malays who make up about 60% of Malaysia’s population.

How Azmin handles the ongoing problems in Selangor will also place him in the full glare of publicity. First, he has to grapple with the water consolidation exercise. The first offer of RM5.7 billion by the state was made on Feb 13, 2009, which means it has been exactly six years since the exercise commenced (see accompanying story).

Azmin’s budget of RM2.4 billion for this year includes RM1.1 billion to improve infrastructure, which augurs well for the state. The budget deficit, concerns about which Azmin shrugs off, has prompted comparisons with the seemingly tight-fisted Khalid.

Azmin also talks about plans to consolidate the many state-owned property companies in Selangor, which could see the state unlocking billions of ringgit of value from its landbank.    

In a nutshell, all eyes are on Selangor’s present leader. Here is an excerpt of the interview.  

The Edge: How has it been since you took office in September last year?
Mohamed Azmin Ali: The notion of the first 100 days actually is the usual benchmark but I thought we should not be too caught up in this window dressing.
I mean the baton has been passed to me and I think now I will continue to run the race, hopefully faster, but as I mentioned earlier, my administration will be more responsive and we will stay focused on the priorities of education, housing, infrastructure and healthcare.

Is your administration very different from that of Tan Sri Khalid?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, this administration will be proactive. You must connect with the rakyat and the stakeholders.

Has the sultan been friendly?
I have had no problems. I must say there is a good working relationship between the state and the palace. I have regular meetings, weekly meetings, every Tuesday afternoon.

Education, housing, infrastructure and healthcare are your priorities?
Yes, these are the four pillars that I mentioned in my budget speech and I think these issues must be pursued. No 1 is education, boosting tertiary education through the state-run UNISEL (Universiti Selangor). Also, our recent plan for a higher education foundation to provide full scholarships is both a crystallisation of our efforts to build a knowledge worker base and stemming the brain drain. Some RM60 million has been expended on UNISEL to improve its infrastructure and facilities. As for knowledge workers, Selangor produces over 10,000 of them a year.
We also focus on public housing because it is our commitment to build more affordable homes in Selangor. With the cost of living escalating, the unavailability of affordable homes has hit not only the low-income group but also the middle-class city dwellers. We have embarked on a major programme to build 15,000 affordable homes over three years from 2015 (in Selangor).
I was recently in Rawang to launch affordable homes that meet our criterion of being below RM250,000 and I also announced some incentives by the state, such as reducing land premiums from 25% to 10%, waiving the developmental charge for developers, giving them approval within 60 days …

Other than Rawang, where else?
Bangi, Shah Alam … the location must be strategic. With the highways now — LATAR (Kuala Lumpur-Kuala Selangor Expressway), North-South Expressway — the location is very strategic.

But is RM250,000 considered affordable to the low-income group?
If you look at the statistics, when we built low-cost houses in some areas, there were no takers because I think the young graduates and newly-weds are willing to pay a bit more as long as they get better facilities, better quality, better services and also bigger built-up area.
So, we are providing all of that to these people and demand is very good. Look at Rawang.

The property development sector is competitive and PKNS as a brand name is not that strong …
I’m here to support PKNS and to push it to get involved in the development of affordable homes for the public with better incentives and policies. Before, PKNS was forced to pay market-price land premiums.
For example, in Bukit Botak, we subsidised more than RM50 million to complete the project — landed properties for 1,400 households in Selayang.

And that will also gel well with the Sungai Buloh land …
It is private land but I will meet Kwasa Land and the EPF soon because I want to see the concept that they want to implement in that area and certainly, we will impose our conditions …

Do you have a timeline of when you will give the project the green light?
It depends on their submission. I’m still waiting for them to come to the state and present their case and we will certainly give our support.

The last water concessionaire is SPLASH …
SPLASH (Syarikat Pengeluar Air Sungai Selangor) was given a time frame of one year to conclude an agreement with the state. And that was in the master agreement that was signed by my predecessor.

In the meantime, what will you do when it comes to a water shortage?
We have our plans to overcome water shortages in the future. We don’t want a repeat of the problem we had last year and the year before.

The people of Selangor are accustomed to low water bills …
Certainly, there will be no change in that policy.

What about Gamuda saying the state offer is too low? Have you looked at it?
I don’t want to speculate because (Pengurusan) Air Selangor and SPLASH have started negotiations.

So, there is a possibility of a compromise between the state and SPLASH on pricing?
Now, they are crunching the numbers, they are looking at the details before we can come up with an amicable solution between these two parties.

How about Langat 2? Is everything okay?
Langat 2 was approved before I came in; all the approvals were given.

There was an issue of a lot of property projects being delayed because of the water shortage …
I admit there has been some delay in approval from the authorities, including Syabas, because of the water shortage. But we have managed to overcome that.

Once the water consolidation is done, will NRW (non-revenue water) be reduced?
You can’t eliminate NRW completely. Even in Singapore, NRW is about 12% to 15%. But we must try to achieve a certain target because the wastage is huge — a few hundred million ringgit.

What’s the target?
An acceptable amount is 15%. If we can lower NRW from 36% to 15%, imagine how much we can save.

How long will the pipe replacement project take?
It depends on the conclusion of the consolidation … If we can conclude early, then they can embark on it earlier.

Any estimate of how much the pipe replacement will cost? Considering that NRW is 36%, it must be quite a large amount.
I don’t have the figures now but certainly to reduce from 36% to 15% is a major task and involves huge capex (capital expenditure).

How do you feel about KIDEX (Kinrara–Damansara Expressway) and DASH (Damansara-Shah Alam Elevated Expressway)? The public outcry against them?
The state has made its position very clear. Even if I addressed it in my budget, there are three conditions that need to be met by KIDEX. They have until mid-February to comply with the conditions. I mentioned to LLM (Lembaga Lebuhraya Malaysia) that we are not opposing any highway in Selangor, but they must comply with the conditions set by the state.
We want to know the return on investment. They have to disclose that because it involves toll rates — that involves the cost that might be imposed on the public. So, we need to be informed about it and they must share the concession agreement with us.

Do you find it difficult to balance the expectations of the rakyat with those of the business community?
This is Selangor, the expectations are very high. We are facing a different segment of people, they are very knowledgeable, very exposed and the only way is to engage them. I think that is the only way we can understand the aspirations of the rakyat — by meeting them, by engaging them and reaching out to them.

There seem to be some cracks in Pakatan Rakyat. Can you comment on it?
We have seen so many contentious issues in the past but then again, with the strength of Pakatan Rakyat, we have been able to resolve them. We were able to discuss openly but in a closed-door manner among the leadership and finally we worked on consensus.
Pakatan Rakyat is strong because we have clear common policies, common programmes.

Is it true that you are close to Datuk Seri Najib Razak?
I’m close to everybody.

Do you think there is a possibility of PKR — in the context of uniting the Malays — merging with Umno?
It won’t happen. Because I think after 50 years of independence, we should not talk based on race and religion. We have to go beyond that. If you want to succeed in this country, we have to go beyond racial lines.
I urge all parties, especially Umno, to stop this gutter politics and start working for the rakyat, especially now that we are facing a major challenge economically. We need everyone to work together as a team.

The verdict on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will be coming soon. A lot of people say Pakatan Rakyat will be weakened considerably without him. What’s your take on that?
Certainly, Datuk Seri Anwar has played a major role in getting Pakatan Rakyat together. I think everyone accepts the fact that he has been able to glue Pakatan Rakyat together, and now we are a strong political force in Malaysia.

 

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 9 - 15, 2015.