DATUK Mukhriz Mahathir is his father’s son and proud of it. Without any prompting during the interview with The Nut Graph, he dives right into how the leadership style of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is sorely needed in the current economic and political crises.
Undoubtedly, “Mahathirism” is deeply entrenched in the Malaysian psyche, symbolised in so many ways from the Petronas Twin Towers to our obsession with ethnicity. Hence, it is probably no easier for the youngest son of Dr Mahathir and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali to break from that mould.
But who then is Mukhriz apart from his father? Does he have his own political identity?
It is now five years since Mahathir stepped down as the country’s fourth and longest-serving prime minister. Mukhriz has survived his father’s ban on his involvement in active politics to make his way up in Umno Youth. In March 2008, he emerged victorious in the general election to become a first-time Member of Parliament (MP) for Jerlun.
Following Barisan Nasional (BN)’s dismal performance in the elections, Mukhriz was among those most vocal in calling for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s resignation.
Mukhriz is now setting his sights on the Umno Youth chief post. At 45, Mukhriz is the oldest of the three Youth chief aspirants — deputy Umno Youth chief and Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin is 33, and former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohamad Khir Toyo, 44.
In this first of a two-part exclusive interview, Mukhriz talks about Umno Youth and what change for Umno means.
TNG: Let’s start with a warm-up question. How has the past year as a first-time MP been?
Mukhriz: It’s been a learning experience. Even though my father was an MP since 1964, the year I was born, I never really got to know what he did in Parliament. I’ve had to learn the ropes myself. It was a baptism of fire. Can you imagine, with almost half the MPs representing the other side, the debates can get quite heated. So I learnt by jumping into the deep end. It has made me more aware of the issues that truly affect the rakyat, and how to represent the voice of the people when we debate in the Dewan.
On a personal level, how do you juggle your time?
It’s been a challenge, particularly when mixed into all that is the party politics and the upcoming party elections. I admit I’ve not been able to spend enough time with my constituency, and that’s something I regret, because I can’t really use the party elections as an excuse. And Parliament takes a lot of time, not only when we are in the Dewan, but also the preparations before coming in to debate, which is not something I take lightly.
How do you cater to your constituency if you’re unable to go back as often as you’d like?
I have a service centre located in Kota Seputeh, in Jerlun. Those with problems will head there and speak to my officers. And the feedback I get is that people are quite satisfied with the service, even though I’m not always around. We have two state constituencies under Jerlun, and the issues tend to be more rural, because it’s 70% padi farmers, so I try to bring up as much as possible issues pertaining to agriculture in the Dewan.
You’re in a three-cornered fight for the Umno Youth chief position. What do you think gives you the edge over the other two candidates?
When I speak to the delegates, I find that they are looking for change. True change.
They see that this is a contest between the old and the new, the yesterday and tomorrow. And although I may be the eldest among the three, they seem to see me as the one representing tomorrow.
Who represents yesterday?
Well, there are the two other candidates. I’m talking based on policies. The kind of actions that were taken by the previous (Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s) administration of the party. Some decisions made then did not go down well with the rakyat and therefore we were handed quite a serious blow in the 8 March elections last year, followed by two by-elections (in Permatang Pauh and Kuala Terengganu).
So within Umno there is a desperate cry for change from the past four years. In fact, a lot of people come up to me and say that they long for the “good years” during my dad’s time. And they see that I represent that, and I don’t deny that at all. You can call it whatever you like, Mahathirism or whatever, but I see that the delegates, even if they are young, they hold him in high respect, and they see that I represent the return of that sort of leadership in Umno.
So by “change”, you actually mean a return to your father’s style of leadership?
A return but of course adapted to the times. Because between 2003 and 2009 there may be certain things that have changed quite dramatically. For example, how information is disseminated and how that impacts people’s mindsets.
Your father’s leadership has been described as authoritarian among other things. What’s your own description?
I should say that it was strong leadership in the sense that it was decisive, there was no wasting of time, in the case of the economy, for example. He presided over the NEAC (National Economic Action Council) which met every single day (during the 1998 financial crisis) looking at every single statistic, like how many motorbikes were sold yesterday, you know, to that extent.
And that was how he formulated policies to first stop the slide, and then to reverse the trend. To arrest the slide in confidence and then to build up confidence again. If you consider that authoritarian, that’s being negative.
But against what people see is happening right now, I still think they seem to prefer that. They need strong leadership. Sometimes, because we are practicing democracy, we still need to be dictated [to] on what ought to be done for our own general good. You have a thousand people. You’re going to have a thousand different opinions. You’re not going to get anywhere. So we still need someone who unifies our thinking, and sets the tone on how we should go about looking into very complex and difficult issues, and solving them.
And I think the financial crisis of ’98 and how we handled it, exemplifies the kind of strong leadership we are used to, the kind we really need right now. And the crisis looming ahead of us now is going to be greater than that time.
Do you think you got the most nominations because of your father?
To some extent, yes. It was more so when I first contested in 2004 because people then didn’t know me so much. But this time around, although my father’s name crops up once in a while, people know me a bit better and they know what I stand for.
Do you see this Umno Youth chief contest as a proxy fight between your father and the current PM?
No, no, that was never the intention. I think … me and Khairy, we are both, I guess caught up in circumstances. It’s just coincidental that I’m Mahathir’s son and he’s Pak Lah’s son-in-law, and we’re both going for the same post.
But I admit that I tend to gravitate to my father’s thinking about things, although I don’t always agree. But most of the time, I’m with him. And I’m not apologetic about that at all.
I think he has vast experience that we can tap on. Experience that is actually being tapped by people outside the country. I don’t see why we should push him away and re-invent the wheel. Of course some of the problems now are new and unprecedented in the country, but still, if the Arab League can seek his advice on how to handle the global financial crisis, I don’t see why we can’t do the same.
Which is probably why Khairy said in his interview with The Nut Graph that you have problems “disengaging from your father’s thought bubble”.
I don’t see it as a problem. People kind of expect me to do that. Because they long for the continuity. You know, we’ve had 52 years of independence, and we’ve been lucky to have enlightened leadership from the time of Datuk Onn Jaafar, and then the Tunku (Abdul Rahman), all the way up to Pak Lah, I suppose. And with each of them it’s as if we had been changing gears, moving from a low gear to a high one, so the momentum is set.
Unfortunately in the last four years we’ve slowed down. I won’t go to the extent of saying that we’ve gone in reverse, no, but we went down a couple of gears, and we’ve kind of lost direction. Things that were never a priority suddenly overtook things that were important. To the extent that the opposition has made quite a huge breakthrough, and political stability in the country seems to be at an unprecedented disturbing level which has affected the economy. So people expect us to get back on track. And I think Datuk Seri Najib (Razak) represents that.
Because some of these things are considered liberal, they are nice to have, but I’m questioning whether the rakyat really wants these things or not …
Liberal things like what?
For example, all this openness, all this transparency, it’s … these are, basically I lump them up as “Western thinking”. And these are things I consider “nice to have”. But are they really necessary at this moment?
From BN’s point of view, from Umno’s point of view, I think that there are other things more important. And we seem to be straying away from staying focused on the economy, from making sure that we have political stability, and for that to happen, Umno and BN need to be very strong. So with a weak BN and partly also caused by a weak Umno, everything seems to be falling apart, it seems to be disintegrating. Of course, we’re not as bad as some countries in the region, but still, relative to what we’re used to, this is really chaotic.
So if such “liberal” things are not necessary at the moment, then what did last year’s general election results tell you? That the electorate wants such things, a new preference for multiracial politics perhaps?
That to me is opposition propaganda. I must admit they’ve made headway in terms of influencing the mindset of the people, but I feel it was more protest votes against BN that benefited the opposition. They did not expect to win this many seats in Parliament, nor did they expect to take over five states at the time.
But when I look at it, the election results are somewhat perfect. It is enough to convey a very strong message from the rakyat to us, but still not such a killer blow that puts us at the right side of the speaker in the Dewan Rakyat, that means becoming opposition. That means we have a second chance. It’s now up to us to do something about it.
In 2008, people knew we had troubles, and yet we had the audacity to ask the rakyat to decide first before we did anything to solve our internal issues, and we were delivered a blow by the rakyat. So I thought that was a mistake. It has always been said, every time we lose, it’s not because the opposition is so strong, but it’s because we had our own internal problems and we were not united in winning the general election.
Some people have said Umno needs to rise from the ashes, and the question is when is this going to happen. Is it going to be after or before the next general election? If it’s after, that means we’ll have to lose the general election first and then work on rebuilding Umno. But how long will that take? It’s a scary thought.
We’ve seen this happen in Japan with the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party), with the Congress Party in India, with the Tories in the UK, even the Kuomintang in Taiwan. So my fear is that Umno won’t change in time for the next general election, and that we’ll lose, and then I don’t know how long we will take before we recover.
What about your own path in Umno if you don’t win the Youth chief post?
I’ve contested for every single position that I’m in. I lost my first contest (in 2004), for the Kubang Pasu Umno division Youth chief post. That was a good wake-up call for me not to get big-headed. My father was in Kubang Pasu for 35 years, and I couldn’t win in my own division.
From early on I knew that I would not go all out to win. I do not go into a contest to win at all costs. There are certain boundaries I do not step over. I felt very good, ironically, of losing in Kubang Pasu because everyone there knew that I did not indulge in money politics, and because of that, I lost with my dignity intact. [Later] when I contested for the national Youth exco, that was the reputation I had, that I was not one to dish out money to buy votes, and yet I won with the highest votes.
And everyone tells me that. They say, we voted you in though we knew that you were not so generous with your money. That made me feel good, not only about how I conducted myself during the campaign but it gave me hope that Umno is still open to that. So no one can tell me that I had it easy. I never won uncontested for anything. Some people have said that my political career has been meteoric, but I think I took my time, although I was not allowed to play an active role in party politics when my father was around, I had to wait until he left [in 2003].
Has Umno become irrelevant, and as we saw from the March 2008 general election results, are young people no longer interested in its brand of politics?
We need to engage young people to find out what are their concerns. I find that many, particularly in the rural areas, to some extent it’s also true in urban areas — young Malays feel that Umno has betrayed them. In that we have strayed away from our struggle, the usual agama, bangsa and tanahair. And that we indulge ourselves in things that brought ruin for everyone — corruption, abuse of power, we weren’t interested in taking care of people, in being of service to the people.
I’ll give you an example. When the government decided to cancel the scenic bridge to replace the Johor Causeway, the government’s excuse then was that the people of Johor didn’t want it. They actually said we’re cancelling this bridge because Johoreans don’t want it. [Actually], when we talk to any Johorean, what they don’t want is for their sand to be sold to Singapore, and for their airspace to be opened to Singapore jet fighters.
But no one ever said they didn’t want the bridge. The bridge was important to them because congestion at the Causeway was affecting business in Johor Baru, and the inflow of traffic from Singapore into JB or the other way round. And yet the government could say it was cancelled because the Johoreans didn’t want it.
I brought it up in the Youth exco meeting, that if we continue this way, not only are we ignoring the people, but we are actually blaming the rakyat for the decision, then in no time at all, we’re definitely going to become irrelevant. And this was in late 2005, and now we see what has happened.
When people ask how do we make Umno relevant again, to me the answer is so easy though it may not be easy to do — just stick to what the rakyat needs. As long as you can make the rakyat satisfied with our service, then obviously the rakyat will vote for us.
You don’t get votes by ordering them to do so. If we could do that, then with our membership of 3.5 million in Umno, if you include BN, it’s close to five million, there was no way we could have lost five states and one federal territory if people can just go by instructions. It was obvious our own people voted against us.
What are the things in your view, which stops Umno from changing?
We’ve been too long in the comfort zone and we don’t realise it. To use the analogy of a frog that’s slowly being boiled. The frog will never jump out of the water. It will die a slow death because it doesn’t realise it’s being boiled to death.
But what needs to change?
The mindset has to change. I remember 1993, when the party president at the time was my father. In his policy speech in the general assembly, he said he was worried that Umno, which at the time was still dominated by teachers, will eventually be taken over by business [people]. He’s not saying that’s a bad thing, but he worried that Umno will be governed by people with business interests and everything we do will be dictated by that approach or mindset.
I think that’s already happened. It’s been 15 years and the number of teachers holding important positions in the party is very much less than before, and that’s very disappointing. I’m not saying business [people] have nothing good to offer the party, but you can imagine the kind of thinking that prevails in the party when they dominate. Can we be certain that they hold the interest of the rakyat ahead of their own interest?
I’ve brought it up, I wrote to all the branch heads asking them to … that while they’re conducting their branch meetings, to nominate who they want for the top leaders. Because the branches are not permitted to vote for top leaders at this moment. But they can pass resolutions at the end of the meeting to recommend to their divisions, who they want to see as their president, deputy and vice presidents, and supreme council. I think that’s important because that way, it will make branch meetings more interesting. It’s a way of getting directly involved in party elections at the highest level, and we won’t have any problem in fulfilling the quorum for branch meetings.
Secondly, we will get top leaders to meet grassroots members more often because they know the grassroots have a say. And thirdly, I think it’s not going to be possible for money politics to be perpetuated at that level.
Then instead of nominations, which don’t necessarily translate into votes, why not have direct elections to let all three million-plus members vote for the top leadership?
Yes, that’s something that needs to be deliberated upon. We always complain about the fact that 2,800 people who are delegates to the general assembly will be the ones deciding who will be the prime minister of Malaysia, I mean not just the president of the party, but the PM. Not only that, they also decide who will be the deputy prime minister.
And they represent our 27 million population. Putting it back to the 3.4 million members, at least is a whole lot better than just 2,800 people. But still, the 3.4 million is deciding on behalf of 27 million. But that is the system we practise at this moment, and I think the party should seriously re-consider this after the party elections.
On to Pemuda. Umno Youth is seen as brash and aggressive, most recently harassing Karpal Singh as he tried to enter the Dewan. Shouldn’t this image of Pemuda change?
I think we need a different approach. There are certain times when we need to be very vocal if we feel very strongly about a certain issue. But at the same time, with regards to the rakyat, we have to appeal to their good sense to vote our way. And that means we need to perhaps go house to house and talk to people nicely, rather than have all these big gatherings and throw (around) a lot of rhetoric and all that.
For example, Pemuda goes around wearing a t-shirt that says “sedia gempur“. And the rakyat will ask, who exactly are you going to gempur? Of course it’s something that’s supposed to be internal, to fire up our own spirits to get the job done. And to some extent, because the opposition tends to be very aggressive, we also need to defend our own position, that’s where the sedia gempur comes in. But it should not be in our image, it should not be in our branding. We have to be very people-friendly.
I believe that Umno Youth has to function like an NGO. Unfortunately, in the past four years, we’ve been acting as if we were (the) government. We’ve been the government’s mouthpiece, even when government decisions were unpopular. We do not play the role of check and balance within the party, within the government, and this has been a major disappointment for a lot of young people.
See Part II:
Malay dominance and rights