Run-Up to GE14: Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani, Finance Minister II - BN always emerges stronger after a testing time

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 19, 2017 - June 25, 2017.
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The Edge: How do you think the Barisan Nasional (BN) will fare in the [next general election]?

Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani: I am confident that the BN will continue to govern post-GE14. If you look at the Sarawak state election in May last year, and more recent to that, the Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar by-elections (June 2016), despite all the ‘noises’, BN still managed to win with more than a two-thirds majority in Sarawak and commanded very healthy wins in both Kuala Kangsar and Sungai Besar.

Many say that this will be the BN’s strongest test to date.

If we were to look at our recent history, I remember the period when the BN had to face a string of issues in the 1990s, especially in the aftermath of the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, which spawned the Reformasi movement. It was also the time when the country was facing the Asian financial crisis. At that time, there were people who said that ‘this is Barisan Nasional’s strongest test’. My comment would be, BN emerged stronger each and every time we were tested as we were willing to learn from our mistakes and shortcomings. I am confident that the BN will continue to get the mandate from the rakyat.

Several senior leaders have left the BN. How much of an impact do you think this will have?

The issue of people leaving and joining other political parties is common in a democratic country. The BN is not unique; there have been cases of people leaving the opposition parties as well. Even newly formed political parties like PAN (Parti Amanah Negara) and PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia) were not spared from instances of members leaving. In a democratic country, changing one’s political allegiance should not be seen as the death knell for any particular political party; it is just healthy democracy. At the end of the day, the power of the rakyat will determine which political party will govern the country.

Since the last general election in 2013, how do you think the BN has fared in terms of governing the country?

The BN has proved itself again and again as the foremost choice of the rakyat when it comes to forming the government. Although I cannot deny there are weaknesses here and there in the system, overall, despite all the challenges, the BN is still able to provide political stability and continue to grow the economy without fail.

Do you think issues such as 1MDB have weakened the government? Any other areas you think the government has failed?

The 1MDB issue has admittedly created an unfavourable perception, but I am confident that we will overcome this in due time as long as we are focused in what we are doing now. The government has taken note of the weaknesses that came to light with the 1MDB, especially in respect of how companies operate. As I have said before, 1MDB suffered from weak management, poor corporate governance and wrong business model. There are lessons to be learnt from this experience. There may be other areas within the government system that can be improved, but we are surely far from the stage where the government is deemed to have failed in managing the country.

How has the economy been since 2013?

As far as the economy is concerned and notwithstanding lingering external factors such as the volatility of commodity prices, particularly global oil prices, anticipation of further hikes in the US interest rate, China rebalancing its domestic economy, Brexit, ongoing geopolitical tensions in some parts of the world, we still managed to record continued expansion in the economy. From 2013 until 2016, the economy continued to record positive growth rates of 4.7%, 6%, 5% and 4.2% respectively. For 2017, we expect GDP growth to be better, at 4% to 5%. We also managed to diversify our economy, with the services sector forming 54% of our economy; 23% in manufacturing; 9% in the mining sector, including oil and gas; 8% in agriculture; and 4.5% in the construction industry. In terms of government revenue, in 2013, oil-related revenue was about 41% of total government revenue, but in 2016, it was only 14%.

From a total trade of RM1.4 trillion in 2013, we have managed to grow to RM1.5 trillion in 2016 with what can only be described as a well-diversified trade structure across products and markets, and we have also made our country open to the world. As far as our trade diversification is concerned, China makes up 16% of our trade; the European Union, about 10%; the US, at 9.2%; Japan, 8%; and Asean, the largest, at about 27%. I would say that despite the challenging environment, we are doing pretty well and I am very confident that we will continue to prosper in light of improving global economic outlook.

Are there any urgent measures that need to be taken in governing the country?

Integrity, transparency and good governance are key to bringing the country to the next level as a developed economy. We also need to manage our government expenditure so that every ringgit we earn from taxpayers will be productively spent for the development of the country and economy. Further, we need to make sure the gap between the rich and the poor, or income inequality, be minimised by having a more inclusive growth. Inclusivity also means that the government should be mindful of the impact of the rising cost of living on the rakyat while effectively managing inflationary pressure. All of these will create a good economic environment and boost investor confidence to continue investing in Malaysia to stimulate economic activity and create employment opportunities for the rakyat.

Do you think Sabah and Sarawak will remain safe-deposit states for the BN?

I don’t subscribe to the notion of safe deposits states in politics. You can no longer take the rakyat for granted. Nevertheless, based on the performance of the BN in the recent Sarawak state election, I am confident that the people of Sarawak and Sabah will continue to give their mandate and support to the BN.

There are views that without PAS and in an environment of three-cornered fights, there is no hope for the opposition to win. What do you think?

I am not privy to the composition of voters in all [constituencies in] the country. We must, however, acknowledge that we are facing a more sophisticated and savvy [generation of] voters whose outlooks correspond with those of the rest of the world. The political landscape of the country and its fate will ultimately be crafted and decided by the voters. No political party can take the voters for granted and their expectations of leaders are ever increasing. Whether you have straight or three-cornered fights, it ultimately depends on the ability of the parties and the candidates to convince the voters.

In your opinion, does the opposition offer any alternative?

At the risk of sounding patronising, at this moment, in my opinion, there is no likelihood of the opposition being able to offer any alternative as they lack the ‘cohesiveness’  compared with the BN. Furthermore, I cannot see the opposition parties reaching a consensus on who should be their candidate for prime minister before GE14.