The Edge: You won’t be contesting in this election?
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah: I have been in Parliament for over 45 years. I have been in Umno for over 60 years with a short break (when Umno was declared illegal in 1988 and he formed Semangat 46). I don’t aspire to anything anyway. A person has to be very ambitious to be in politics. I no longer have that ambition.
Your name always pops up as a candidate, though.
Because [I guess] they have no other name.
From your experience in Umno, what is wrong with the party today?
It has lost its way. Umno was formed to fight for the rulers and for the Malays who were left behind [politically and economically] during colonial times. After independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, under his leadership with his team, made Umno the leader of the country, looking after not just the Malays but everybody. But of late, it doesn’t seem to be that way. People have become too materialistic. And people think it is only through their position in politics that they can gain extra wealth. And so they go all out to secure a position of influence in politics. When they get there, of course they want to maintain their position.
And then the other side of things, whether Umno can continue. I’m sure it can continue but whether it will regain the regard and respect it used to enjoy, that’s another big question mark. You are not attracting good people, intelligent people, or seasoned people or those with high moral values, so where do you go from here?
What can Umno do better?
It must go back to the old ways. We were never corrupt. It was not like it is today. We always told the truth, we spoke the truth. Can’t we go back to that? And let’s embrace everybody. And bring in new talent, for heaven’s sake.
Is Malaysia a difficult country to manage?
It’s not easy because, for one, it is a multiracial [and multireligious] society. When we gained independence, the leaders then were determined to prove to the world that they could make something out of the country, which they did. People rallied around their leadership and that is how we defeated the communist insurgency.
But of course, later we had to accommodate the demands for the politics of race and religion. We had to give them their say, and this is what we have inherited. This is the problem. We must put a stop to it if we want to unite the country and have a democratic, united country.
What do the people want from the government today?
I don’t think the people want much from the government. The people want the government to govern, not to dictate. The people are clever and wise enough to do things for themselves. Governance must be upright and the government must uphold the constitution.
How has Barisan Nasional fared in governing the economy?
Well, it’s a free enterprise [economy] but there is intervention by the government in how wealth is distributed and the balance needed to ensure certain sections of the economy are looked into. In this regard, there is steady intervention. It may not be done in the way people expect, and I think the people must have a greater voice in this because, after all, the government is spending [the taxpayers’] money in its interventionist policies.
By and large, the government has done the right thing but it has not achieved the expected results, partly because some civil servants are not enterprising enough to run industries or commercial enterprises (those owned by the government). The economy is now more diversified and it opens up more opportunities for people, but of course there are accusations of cronyism and nepotism. I admit there is … there are pitfalls and we ought to get rid of all this. I’m against it. The people must guide the government and tell it that these are things they do not encourage or want it to continue.
There is feedback that the government is not listening to grouses about corruption, wastage of resources and leakages in the economy.
Well, there are two things — the budget deficit may not necessarily be due to leakages. It could be because of borrowing too much or overextended spending. In order to finance the deficit, the government borrows. In my time, the government did borrow but we were never in continuous deficit for a long period. Currently, the budget has been in deficit since 1997.
We borrowed in order to fulfil our requirements. I admit there are leakages and that is corruption. You cannot deny there is corruption. The problem is that the big fish have not been caught; they are catching only the little ones. We have to plug the holes and stop this nonsense once and for all.
Do you think issues such as 1Malaysia Development Bhd have weakened BN?
Yes and no. You see, 1MDB is an issue which has not yet been proven [in Malaysia]. None of the accusations have been proven, none of the people who have been openly accused have been detained, arrested or brought forward to answer the questions that were raised. But I don’t think it has escaped the attention of the people. Even the rural people have taken note of what has happened. But whether it has influenced their thinking, that is another thing.
The people are concerned about the high cost of living.
Yes. It’s not just the rising cost of living but the government has cut allocations for important things like healthcare and education and ministries are experiencing difficulties with how to adjust. We have come to a stage we have not experienced before.
So what do you think is the cause of this?
One word — mismanagement.
What is your view of what Malaysia can be?
I thought we would have achieved this some time ago, not now after 60 years of existence. I thought after 25 years, 30 years at most, when we had oil and everything, we could have achieved that status where our people would have a very well-rounded education. This sense of belonging to racial groupings would have disappeared and we could have become one, including Sabah and Sarawak. We should have become richer than Singapore, talking about the per capita income of our people. The government income from Petroliam Nasional Bhd [and other oil companies] alone over the last 30 years [is enormous]. We could have been like Norway (its oil sovereign fund is about US$900 billion). During the peak of oil prices [when they touched US$147 a barrel in 2008 and remained above US$100 a barrel for most of the time until 2014], the government was getting RM90 billion a year from Petronas [and the oil industry] … Where has that money gone?
What is your view on the next general election?
I’m not a prophet but I think the same party will come back to power because the opposition [parties] are not together.
What is you view on this Sarawak for Sarawakians, Sabah for Sabahans thing. Are these states still safe deposits for BN?
They have always been saying that, even before the formation of Malaysia. Yes, it looks like it. But I think the situation in Sabah is a bit different from Sarawak.
This might be BN’s toughest challenge.
It’s always the toughest challenge. Even the 13th [general] election was tough. The easiest was when [Tun] Dr Mahathir [Mohamad] left because people were fed up [with him]. Sadly, [Tun] Abdullah [Ahmad Badawi] didn’t take the opportunity and we are back in the same rut.
Some Malaysians say we may need a new government.
Some say, but will the [majority of] people respond to that wish? It doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen. You look at the opposition parties, they all have problems. [There is] not one party in the opposition that doesn’t have a problem. So how do you get your act together and go ahead and tell the people, ‘I’m replacing this government’? People might say, forget about this [opposition] and let’s go with this government.
Do you think having Mahathir in the opposition makes much of a difference?
He is still [the same] Mahathir, whether he is in the opposition or not. Look at the party he’s formed. There is a post for president … but he is the chairman and runs everything. That’s Mahathir for you.