Updated at 4:45pm, 27 Jan 2011
Corrected at 10am, 25 Jan 2011
“WHEN the word ‘Malaysian’ comes to me, I always think of diversity,” Datuk Seri Nazir Razak says at the CIMB headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, where he is the bank’s group chief executive. It is our diversity, he adds, that has allowed us to build what we have today.
Yet, Nazir, the youngest son of Malaysia’s second prime minister and the youngest sibling of the current prime minister, expresses disappointment that not enough is being done to harness this diversity. He suggests that what the nation needs is another national consultative council on national unity.
In a 30 Dec 2010 interview, this award-winning banker, who is currently on a Chevening Fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, talks about his Bugis ancestry and what it means to him to be Malaysian. He also recounts his memories of 13 May 1969, and the need for a revised affirmative action policy.
TNG: When and where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Nazir Razak: KL (Kuala Lumpur). 1966.
At 13, you went off to England to boarding school, right?
[I was there] for the whole of the 1980s. From 13 to [when I was] 21.
You know, apart from the indigenous peoples in Malaysia, we’re all from “pendatang” stock. Can you trace your ancestry?
Oh, yeah, of course. We were from Sulawesi. [Editor’s note: The Razak family are direct descendants of one of the rulers of the ancient kingdom of Gowa, who left Sulawesi, also known as Makassar, and ended up in Pahang.]
So, that’s your father’s side of your ancestry…
I think my mother’s side is also Bugis, but through the Johor lineage. My father’s side, there were a few stories of how they got [to Kampung Makassar in Pahang] … and I’m not sure what the true story is. One [story] says [my ancestor] was actually the daughter of the sultan [who] married an admiral or something. Then they just sailed off like most Bugis do.
The earlier story was that they were just a bunch of pirates (laughs) along the east coast of Malaysia until they stopped at Pahang.
(Laughs) And which is the accurate version?
(Chuckles) Well, it’s a whole lot more appealing. What generation Malaysian are you?
I have no idea. I’m sure if you go to the [Tun Abdul Razak] museum [in KL], you can add it up.
So, where did you grow up for the most part?
What is the strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
KL those days was about being in St John’s … I think it was a really different place then. I mean, it was the school. It was a national school but it was very Malaysian, very multiracial … And from the poorest to the richest Malays, Malaysians, [they] would be there at St John’s.
Were you aware of the notion of race at that point? Were your classmates aware?
Well, yes! And I think one will always be. And I’ve always maintained that there is nothing wrong with racial awareness. But at the forefront must be a Malaysian consciousness.
And you know, I’ve written a piece about strengthening diversity from a corporate perspective, and I do believe actually that the success of Malaysian companies abroad exceeds those of other Asean countries, and it’s primarily because we’re very comfortable with managing diversity.
When you say that there’s nothing wrong with identifying with race but that we should have a Malaysian consciousness upfront, does that translate into arguing that people should actually say, “I’m Malaysian first”, rather than saying, “I’m Malay, Indian or Chinese first”?
I don’t like to answer that question because it’s become politicised. People get categorised because they say they’re “Malaysian first” or that they’re “Malay first”. And that’s completely unnecessary. I’m a Malay. I’m a Malaysian.
What kind of stories did you grow up with from your family?
I come from a political family. I guess a lot of conversations those days among the elders and the parents centred around politics.
And I remember [in] the early days being very conscious about May 1969. About what happened.
How old were you when 13 May happened?
I was [three years old]. But it wasn’t so much memories of the day itself. It was more the anniversaries of May 1969. And the early days were like, “Whoa!” As if it would happen on the same day again, you know. The anniversary would trigger something off. So, I was quite conscious about that growing up.
I remember May 1969 disturbed my late father tremendously. And strangely, if you look at the whole era, there was a cadre of nation builders around him. Malaysians – Malays, Chinese – who really believed in their responsibility of nation building within those [who] spearheaded the social re-engineering of the country.
Basically, all Malaysians at that point pulled their weight?
Yes. Well, you know, as I keep saying, [my father’s] main comment about the NEP (New Economic Policy) was that [it was] a blueprint for unity.
Do you sometimes feel that the fear [that 13 May would happen again] still exists today?
Yes, I think it remains something that we must be very conscious of and make sure that we manage the tensions such that it doesn’t repeat. It was tragic.
Do you think Malaysia could benefit from a kind of reconciliation process in the same way that South Africa did, for example?
(Pauses) No, I think there is probably a need to (pauses) … I don’t like the word “social contract”, but I think there probably is a need to reaffirm some of those values of nation building that came with the rebuilding of the nation post 1969. Many of the younger generation don’t remember that era, and many of the older generation don’t accept that things have changed. And therefore, some of the thinking and approaches need to be modernised for the present.
What does it mean to you to be Malaysian?
(Pauses) When the word “Malaysian” comes to me, I always think of diversity. Maybe it’s because of the political education that I had. And it’s about being a diverse, multiracial, multicultural country. At the same time, being proud of having this diversity and making a success of it.
You know, those days I remember. It was Malaysia [and] Sri Lanka in terms of this ethnic consciousness. And I remember [Prime Minister SWRD] Bandaranaike telling us, “You guys are just a few years behind us.” And of course, this was in the 60s. Sure enough, a few years after, they started imploding because of racial tensions. And we had 1969.
But there was a difference. We basically called on national unity, drew our leaders together, drew our people together, introduced the various policies to bring the nation together, whereas they didn’t. Thereafter, we went through a period of strong economic growth and stability whereas they continued to struggle.
So that’s what makes me proud. We, as Malaysians, have been able to build what we have today despite the diversity but also because of the diversity.
Do you think that enough is being done to tap into that diversity?
What else do you think can be done to tap into this diversity?
And I think we don’t do enough [to tap into our diversity] because unfortunately over the years, positions have hardened, if you like. You know, just like with any policy, we need to acknowledge where mistakes were made as a first step towards improving them.
When you say “policy”, you’re referring to the NEP? Mistakes were made with the NEP?
NEP and various development policies where mistakes were made or execution has had its shortcomings, then you address them and make them better.
And you think your brother as prime minister is slowly trying to address this?
Yes, he’s doing it at a pace that may be necessary, which, for some, may not be fast enough. But for others, it may be too fast. So, in a way, you got to get that balance. I think, you know, the NEP was right for its time, and we continue to need some form of affirmative action. But what form that should take and gaining national acceptance of a new version of the NEP is a process that we need to go through.
If you could, what kind of affirmative action would you put in place for Malaysia?
If we look at the two pillars of the New Economic Policy, which is ethnic rebalancing and also poverty eradication, I would advocate a third leg, which is the creation of a competitive bumiputera race. And I think if you bring that to the forefront, then that would mean creating NEP execution policies that acknowledge the need for introducing competition in everything we do.
My biggest grouse with the implementation of the NEP is the lack of competition among [the] bumiputera. And that, I think, is a flaw because it then creates [an] easy-come-easy-go [mentality]. It creates the kind of rent-seeking behaviour that I think is not helpful to the race in the long-term.
And of course, you know, in talking about needs-based affirmative action, [the] PM is making it very clear that there are many, many people who need support, economic support. And they are Malay, Chinese and Indian [Malaysians]. So, there should be a [policy] shift in bias towards [being] more needs-based.
You’ve come under attack though by the likes of (Datuk) Ibrahim Ali for just making these views known. How do you respond to these kinds of public criticisms?
Everyone is entitled to their views … But to be fair to Ibrahim Ali, I think (pauses) he misinterpreted my views inasmuch as others did as well. Some people think that I want the abandonment of affirmative action. Some people want me to believe that, so they twist my words as well. So, people on both sides took that opportunity. But the truth is, that is not my position.
What do you think of 1Malaysia as a campaign?
Well, I think it is something that is extremely powerful, and when [Najib] first introduced it, there were some, the extremists again, who said, “That’s Malaysian Malaysia”, “That’s abandonment of the New Economic Policy”, etc.
But I think over time, it is bedding down rather well. It is a call for unity in diversity. And you know it’s a powerful reminder that we’re all Malaysians.
Over the past several years, there’s been a trumpeting of this notion of “ketuanan Melayu” and a tendency to label non-Malay Malaysians as “pendatang” or “penumpang”. Do you think that is what it’ll take for Malay Malaysians to succeed and gain what is rightfully theirs? If not that, then what do you think it would take for Malays in this country to really be successful and not feel as if they’re being shortchanged in some way?
Well, you mustn’t (pauses) give too much credence to the views of extremists. That’s certainly not the majority view. So, I think at the end of the day, the PM is pushing forward with, first and foremost, the concept of 1Malaysia. I don’t think this discussion of “ketuanan Melayu” etc. is really something that’s necessary.
I think at the end of the day, if you go back to what I said earlier, we do need affirmative action. We do need to refine the way the NEP is being implemented, and I think that should be the basis of helping to achieve the initial objectives of the NEP in the first place.
And you know, (former Prime Minister Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) not so long ago was talking about Bangsa Malaysia as an eventuality.
Do you think we have the political will to do what is necessary to move in that direction?
(Pauses) Well, I think you have to have the right political environment to do that. And unfortunately, (pauses) the hard truth is, these kinds of big changes need to be made when the government is very strong. And with the new political landscape here, it makes it a lot tougher.
But you could take the other view – if the government is very strong, they might not be pressed to make these changes.
… When I look at what the PM is trying to do, I take my hat off. I think he’s right, but again, we go back to [the fact that] even a strong Mahathir struggled with some of the things that he wanted to do. Today, unfortunately, the government is not as strong as it used to be. And there’s a huge task of transforming the country that [Najib is] embarking on.
… One thing we have to remember is that there’s a lot of pushback … There’s also the lag time for implementation. And sometimes, more is being implemented than you think, which may not be said.
Sometimes, you know, we keep harping on these kinds of things. It’s not as if these issues are unknown. A lot of them are known. But the reality of implementation is very different – it is a challenge. So, the public needs to have more patience. And as I said, this voice of the moderates needs to be a bit louder.
What kind of Malaysia would you like for yourself and future generations?
(Pauses) Well, I think for the children, I want a Malaysia where more children can be what they aspire to be. And I want (pauses), I guess, for them to live in peace and harmony. And that’s about it.
I want Malaysia to be economically successful. And I think that obviously, there are concerns which have been well articulated about that.
They’re not big ones. I don’t think anyone really has big ones. And yet, one wonders whether we will get there.
Are you worried for Malaysia as a citizen, as a banker?
Ya, I have said it before. And today, I am less worried because I’m clear that the government knows of all these problems, and that’s a start. If you ask me what I’m worried about, it’s the implementation.
Let’s flip it around. What do you think Malaysian citizens can do to help turn this country around?
I think Malaysians have to be more patient. Be more supportive of the good things that have been done. Spend more time on the good things and less time on the bad things. But people are so skeptical.
I’m not saying don’t make noise. I’m saying, we should not always be negative about policies and things that are being done.
So, you’re convinced that your brother has the right ideas and vision for this country, but what’s holding him back is the implementation.
Yes, and that starts with execution.
The book Found in Malaysia, featuring 50 of our best interviews plus four previously unpublished ones with Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Ramli Ibrahim, is now available at all good bookstores for RM45.