KUALA LUMPUR, 22 March 2009: International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, a candidate for the post of Umno deputy president at the party elections on 26 March, was interviewed by Bernama recently on his views on various matters related to Umno politics and the country.
The following is an excerpt of the transcript of Muhyiddin’s interview with Bernama deputy editor-in-chief Zulkefli Salleh, assistant editor Ahmad Fuad Yahya and senior reporter Noor Hayati Muda.
Bernama: Tan Sri, you had said you were not an ambitious person but now you are contesting the post of Umno deputy president. What are the factors which drove you to contest the post?
Muhyiddin: Yes, I am not ambitious in many matters. It had not been an ambition of mine to hold senior posts in the party or government. My records are indicative of this over the last 38 years I have served the party and government …
However, in the present context, I decided to contest the post of deputy president because, if we are to follow the chronology of events following the last general election whereby I gave my views through the media and in interviews, of the fear that unless we bring about a drastic change in the immediate future, we may face a major problem in the next general election.
What I was giving importance to was the question of the survival of Umno and the Malays in the country. As such, I gave my views on the transition of power and now, praise be to God, a compromise has been achieved. In the process of engagement on the party leadership, including Datuk Seri Najib Razak, it had been said there would be a transition and there would be a vacancy for the post of president and Datuk Seri Najib offered himself for the post and a vacancy arose for the post of deputy president.
Earlier, I did not expect a vacancy because under the initial transition of power the president would have defended his position. In the new scenario, I thought it would not be wrong to offer myself because it would not be a question of challenging anyone for the seat or position but to offer my services at a time when the political situation was grave.
The situation Umno was in had never occurred in its years of history. It was critical and required us to have fresh boldness and wisdom to resolve the problems, including the question of leadership and others. This was my opinion based on my experience, both in the party and the government since the time of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. I thought the time had come for me to offer myself. I did so on the premise of using the wisdom of my experience to offer assistance.
You have always talked of change and “wow power” which Umno now needs. Can you explain?
Firstly, we have to analyse the position of Umno. In the bigger context is the position of the Barisan Nasional (BN) which has been given the mandate and power for more than 52 years since independence. In the last general election, I found that there had been a change in the political landscape of our country. We were familiar with the previous results but the last results showed that the Malaysian people, the young, were no longer thinking as in the past.
What we had agreed upon in the past may have been easily acceptable [then] but today it was being questioned. Did this show that the Umno we had known was no longer acceptable to the Malays and the people as the principal partner of the BN? What caused this? Was there weakness in our leadership? Were the political pattern and culture we practised out of sync with current developments?
We were seen as being aloof in terms of the interests of the people and the Malays. We were seen as proud, arrogant. We were labelled as corrupt. Negative images and perceptions cropped up.
I found that all these … did not portray something good. A party which had championed the struggle since its formation to fight for and gain independence was being questioned.
Secondly, in the bigger context is the BN. We found the non-Malays rejecting the component parties. The Chinese had changed. The Indians were no longer like before. These showed a political situation unlike in the past.
Upon analysis, we found that people had begun to question what we had agreed upon in the past, in terms of the social contract, what had been enshrined in the constitution, and our good policies.
As such, I said that if we want to regain the confidence and support of the people, would it not be appropriate for us to look at the position of our party and its weaknesses? How do we correct them? What should we do? Not the question of leadership but the question of style and approach which were alright in the past but which were being questioned now.
More so, there is a cohort group of young people, comprising a large portion of the electorate, which is not obliged to the agreements by past leaders. This group represents 50% to 60% of the electorate.
Umno has to relook the question of leadership and policy not only in terms of the packaging but also content, … issues such as the New Economic Policy (NEP), distribution of the national economic cake, language and education, religion and religious freedom and social justice, which the people were bringing up now.
We may have to re-establish a fresh understanding. If Umno really wants to survive and the BN wants to continue to be accepted, we must sit down and discuss because there are voices of discord contrary to the BN policies of the past.
I asked, “Why raise these?” They should be a part of us. It is unnecessary to raise these. These were raised again because of the need to maintain the support of the Chinese for their party, the Indians for their party and the Malays for Umno. I find that these matters should not be questioned. They have been enshrined and had been accepted. Now, they have become issues again. As such, perhaps the Umno format has to be studied again, including the question of structure, organisation, work culture, people-friendliness and people-centric programmes.
The BN should be easily accepted because the basis of our struggle is fairness for all communities in the country, the Malays, Chinese and Indians. Seen in terms of unity of the people, that is what we see as the best.
But today, this is beginning to disengage. Can we then sit down again to discuss and achieve a fresh understanding on the principles which we had agreed upon before? Perhaps to do that, should the give-and-take policy of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman be used in the new scenario or should there be sacrifices on the part of the parties representing the various communities, to converge at a point so that it is not seen as sacrificing the principles of the Malays, with Umno giving up the struggle for the Malays, the MCA not championing the Chinese and the MIC not fighting for the Indians.
As such, I proposed a new BN format. This is part of the wow factor, a draw which was easily discernible previously but no longer attractive now. No longer attractive as before because the mindset of the new generation is no more drawn to the old way of thinking. They have new expectations. If we have to remain relevant, we have to adjust. That is why there have to be sacrifices.
This is a fundamental matter which needs discussion. That’s why I said that the faster we discuss it, the better. So far, one year has gone by. But we are not seen to have changed. We are engrossed in our politics, on resolving the question of leadership, transition of power, elections. It doesn’t matter, we can resolve these. After this, we have to act fast.
You mean there is a need for firmer leadership and [for] matters already agreed like the social contract, there is no need for a compromise between component parties?
Umno leadership must have a new confidence, a new trust and it should take the party to a position where the people regain confidence in it. I feel that today we have yet to reach that level. People have yet to regain confidence in us. When we do something, the people dispute it, not to mention the problems caused by the opposition making up various stories. There are still rain clouds in the sky. We have to find ways to get the sunlight through again.
As such, it is not a question of leadership alone but also a new understanding. Maybe new leadership because the younger generation [does] not have much awareness about the agreements made by the founding fathers and [tends] to reject us. So what do we do? Follow the old style and get rejected or change so that they accept us.
If we do not change, if we continue to want to defend the old principles of the original Umno without even a little give and take, people might find it unacceptable. Like what Datuk Seri Najib said, we still uphold the NEP, but in his last statement, he said we want to ensure it is a good policy, but people had doubts thinking it only favoured some and so he reiterated that under the policy all races would benefit from it.
It is a good policy but might have had some implementation drawbacks which we want to correct so that the Chinese in MCA and Gerakan and the Indians in the MIC say “Good Policy [NEP]“.
However, new approaches must be taken. Not that we want to sacrifice anything, but adopt a new approach with renewed commitment so that they say the BN is serious about correcting the old weaknesses. Like the power sharing concept and consensus building in the BN, if we followed the old ways, there were no problems.
But I do not know because of our own weaknesses or a change in the mindset of the younger generation, it’s not seen as something attractive anymore. They want reforms. What reforms? So we need to get feedback from the new generation, “What do you expect from BN?” When we know, we change, make the reforms and get back to them and ask, “Is this what you want?”
The answer should be, “Wow this is the one,” and be seen that we can change. Otherwise they will think we are only making superficial changes.
Sorry it’s a bit long, but I don’t speak in short cuts. I’m a very serious thinker. To do this Umno needs to sit down first. What are the things where we are ready to give and take? If we follow the old thinking — no, no, you have to be fighting this, this one you have to accept it — if you say that’s the one, you are not willing to compromise. The Chinese would say Umno is not willing to give way. Then when the election comes, people do not support us and we lose.
The non-Malays hope the new leadership will compromise on several issues like the implementation of the NEP while the Malays are wondering if it will “over compromise”, so how can a balance be reached?
That is what I meant. There are two groups, Malays and non-Malays. Umno is seen as the champion for the Malays. In this we are guided by what is contained in the constitution, but also the interest of all races in the country which does not seem to be highlighted. We are only seen as championing the Malays, but being the backbone of the government, we have to do a balancing act whereby everyone’s interest is protected.
This has also been addressed in the social contract, and the question that arises now is whether we should still continue to uphold it. If you ask the Umno leadership now, it is “yes” but there needs to be a new understanding as to why the policy should be defended, why it is the basis of the struggle.
But in the process, definitely there will be consultation, not imposition. At some point there must be sacrifices on both sides. When you say, “How to balance?”, that we have to sit down and discuss. Not easy. We also cannot be seen as neglecting the interests of the Malays. Some in Umno are saying we are no longer championing the Malay cause, Umno is neglecting Bahasa Malaysia, Umno is not [giving] importance to the economy of the Malays. Meaning we have sold out.
On the other hand non-Malays are saying Umno, government policies do not favour them, they are being marginalised. We have to seriously look into this.
Do you think race-based parties will continue to get support with the new trend now?
That is a big challenge for Umno and the BN. I say this because other parties like [Parti Keadilan Rakyat] are claiming they are the true champions of Malaysians irrespective of race or religion. They claim they are [fairer], this is what they are selling and we see [that] the younger generation [seems] to buy their pitch and [favours] such parties when it comes to voting.
But actually they have no idea what the opposition alliance stands for, the parties in it do not have a common ideology or even a symbol to show they are a united force. But the younger generation might not want to think hard and long and look more from the ideological standpoint, and feel that what the opposition [is] selling is in tune with their ideas.
So it might seem we have lost our value, what we used to say [was] good before, now is seen as behind time and therefore this question comes up. For me, a new thinking has not arrived for us to dissolve Umno, MCA, to form a new party as suggested by some leaders in the BN itself.
To me, there is still the need (for race-based parties) but we need to show a new understanding. Umno does fight for the Malays but all this while, Umno has also compromised by sharing power with the non-Malays. So if that is the case, what new format must we take? There are some who are demanding that the BN becomes a single party representing all the races. We have not reached that stage yet.
The ingredients are there but not as a single political entity. The opposition is also an alliance of parties but we are definitely better than them. It’s only the presentation that we need to make adjustments, taking into consideration the things mentioned earlier.
How far do you share your vision with Datuk Seri Najib in this matter, and isn’t it too early to expect changes to take place at Umno’s general assembly?
I followed what Datuk Seri Najib stated in several situations lately and I think the approach he has taken is like what I mentioned earlier, which is greater openness and willingness to receive feedback.
In fact, he has said that if there are existing government policies that are seen as not people-friendly and need improvements, we will be willing to make changes, be more accommodative, be willing to hear the views of others, which I consider is important. This is an attribute of leadership that is willing to change. If we shut ourselves out, that will become a problem to us.
I say the coming general assembly will be the starting point for the delegates and leaders to lay a new foundation and in the draft resolution I will be tabling in thanking the president’s address, I will touch on several fundamental issues, firstly that Umno needs a reform process in the BN to send a strong message to the people that the process of change has started, and the improvements we will be making. That is where the voice of the leaders must start. If not, people will be saying it is the same old story year after year.
No. This one, the message must be strong. We are ready to open a new chapter, lay a new foundation so that the people can have confidence in us again. We have to steer, drive national politics in the direction that will give birth to new hope. This is a beginning of a new hope for Malaysia under the new leadership, we are ready…
Do Umno members understand the tough challenges being faced by Umno?
I have had the opportunity to go to many places but do not promote myself as a candidate for the deputy president’s post. I tell them that they already know me, my smiling or not smiling face is of secondary importance, but the basis of our struggle today is what is important. I explain to them the challenges Umno is facing now, and I get positive feedback.
I instil a sense of fear in their hearts. The situation now is indeed frightening and it is best that I convey it. If they are not afraid, they will not know how to react. Being in a comfort zone is very dangerous. After listening to my talk lasting about 30 minutes, they come to me and say they did not know the situation was so bad and they too are frightened by the unfolding scenario.
We want to support the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib and we begin now so that we are seen as [being] willing to change. Not change in terms of new clothes, new packaging or re-branding …
Umno is seen as party with a lot of “yes men”. Can this situation change?
Yes, when it is right, yes, we support. If not, no. We must be honest with ourselves and it certainly won’t be good if it is said that all Umno leaders are nothing more than “yes men”, meaning blindly following whatever the leader says.
Yes, it is important to be a good follower but we must be willing to give our views, sometimes forward constructive criticisms but not destructive ones; or give input that can be used in formulating new policies, building renewed confidence in us. This is the time [when] all leaders are asked to voice their views and contribute.
I have never been a “yes man”. I say yes for the party, whatever is right for the party. If there are leaders who give incorrect views, I will question, that is my trademark … and I think we should be more sincere.
But I know it is not as easy as it sounds. Being humans we tend to give more importance to status, positions, worry about the possibility of being dropped; I admit some of us are more driven by self-interest because we are afraid of losing our posts and easily say “yes sir, yes sir, yes sir”.
If everybody does that, it can be very unproductive. One needs to speak out but with sincerity. Leaders like Datuk Seri Najib are very open, willing to listen to the views of others. I have joined many discussions with him, he sits and listens, and reacts intelligently. His prime concern is what is good for the party, the government and the people.
But if the leaders present are not willing to provide feedback, the top leaders will not know what is being thought on the ground, and as such, we have to step in and help.
What is the time frame to make the changes and how long do you think it will take to regain the support of the people?
Umno must quickly institute change and renewal to restore its strength and influence. The party only has four years to change before the people again pass judgement in the 13th general election and in that most limited time frame, all quarters must be committed to restoring the party’s image while the members must be prepared to accept change.
Some people say Umno has reached a crossroad [but] I say Umno has reached the end of the road. The final period is four years. The task will not be easy but the Umno leadership should be prepared to get on with it even if it has to face opposition from certain quarters.
I would say that if you follow the time frame for reform, we have to start immediately after the (Umno) general assembly. Let’s say that in about nine months after that, we have laid the foundation, all party leaders are brought together to be informed of the approach to be adopted by Datuk Seri Najib with assistance from me and colleagues.
Breaking down the schedule, firstly it should be going back to political school, that is attending courses. All Umno leaders need to go back to school, understand the basics of Umno’s underlying struggle so that we are seen to have returned to the right path. Let there not be any more negative attributes …
I notice in the last 10 to 20 years, we seem to have deviated, many people see us self-serving — anything it must be Umno that gets it first, contracts Umno first, projects Umno first. During the time of Datuk Onn Jaafar (Umno’s first president), it was not like that. Then the people came first, it was okay if the freedom fighters did not have a good life, others must have a comfortable life.
Now it is not like that. Now we must serve ourselves first, division chiefs must take care of branch chiefs, who then have to take care of the members who are the ones finally having to reach out to the Malay masses. We are looking at the party [with the expectation] that it must serve us first. This is wrong. That is why I am worried.
So when you ask how long is enough, like it or not, that is the time we have.
Meaning we have to get started the first year, run hard the second, see how’s the reception among the Malays regarding the reforms and if the wow factor has returned, and in the fourth be ready to face the electorate.
There are still allegations that when people ask for help, they are asked whether they are Umno people?
It does happen. It could be because of the person’s love for the party. But we must also remember there are non-members who support Umno. Does this mean they are to be sidelined? Obviously not, because we have three million members but there are 10 million voters and furthermore, out of the three million, only one million are registered voters. There will be an additional two million voters in the next general election. So we must get our priorities right and be seen as serving the community.
I give you an example. Previously in my constituency, if a problem involved a Malay, I will ask Umno to look into it, if Chinese the MCA and Indian, the MIC.
But now I do it differently… imagine Umno Youth doing gotong-royong in Chinese and Indian areas and vice versa. Initially people would say they are gimmicks but if done often, it will put to rest any criticisms …
Can Umno members accept the change?
Firstly, the leader must explain what we should do. There should be cohesion between the leaders and members on what is our agenda and the process must be explained. If we don’t do this, it will be risky for us. The most dangerous thing is to lose power …
If you ask whether Umno is ready, there is no choice. If you don’t change they will change you. If we wait for 10 more years there will be nothing left. I imagine if we were to lose power, to get back to power is difficult. So what is the choice? There is none except to change. Umno and BN are not having many choices.
How would Umno woo new voters to support the BN?
New voters cast their votes in the third and fourth boxes and most of them are not supporting us. The signs are that the new generation are not ready to accept us under the present circumstances. You can’t blame them. They have [their] rights. You said you have brought progress, they could not accept it. The younger generation make up 60% of the voters. If we don’t change, these third and fourth [ballot boxes] won’t support us.
What makes them attracted to the other side? It’s the perception that the other side is better than us, the other side is pursuing a struggle in the interest of social justice, and so on but they don’t understand that PKR is bogged down with complex sentiments. They don’t know that but they were led to believe that it is a good party.
We have to explain. And at the same time, design something to meet their expectations. Engage them. In the decision making process, maybe we can involve them. Have more Youth representatives in councils and committees, we must be open and listen to them. Don’t dismiss them. They must be part of the important component in the formulation of policies. Do not make them feel they are being sidelined.
On the internet, many bloggers are giving their opinions and we are not doing much, so the negative perception spreads. Do not sideline them just because they are not involved with Umno Youth.
You are outspoken and too assertive. Maybe it will be difficult for you to work with Datuk Seri Najib?
It is not difficult at all. All the while, we have been working together. He knows my style, and I know his. To me we can work together …
There are no identical leaders, but the ambition and fighting spirit are one.
That is important. The direction, the vision are the same, the styles are different …
What is Tan Sri’s hope for the delegates?
I think that they are shouldering a big responsibility and their decision will give a big implication not only to the party but also the country. Whatever the decision they make is closely watched by Malaysians in general as they have a vested interest in it. So on this premise, the delegates will have to make a wise and rational decision, and not be influenced by campaign gimmicks and so on.
A community survey put Tan Sri a favourite candidate. How do you assess your chances in the elections?
Good chance and I have to show that I am confident of winning. If you place your bet, place it on the horse which will win. I am not boasting, but merely joking. I notice that in the last few months as the day of reckoning is closer, the thinking is getting sharper that we will go back to the fundamentals, that is to choose the country’s leaders and a deputy to assist the president …
Are you going to continue to be outspoken after winning the election?
If by being outspoken I can help enhance the people’s confident in the party and the government, why not? If what I voice out is not meant to destroy but to strengthen, why not? If not voicing out could cause problems to us, I will not be responsible. An irresponsible leader should not be a leader, he should be a follower …
When I do things, there must be a consideration in terms of the hukum (judgement call). The hukum is sunat (optional), wajib (must) and haram (forbidden). Anything to save the country is a pahala besar (reward). Never mind what will happen, but I will voice it out … If we are Muslim, we know good practices will be blessed while bad practices will be punished … That is God’s law. As such we can solve anything through religion …
One of the biggest challenges [for] Umno is the religious issue. Under the new leadership, what are the new approaches to solve the issue?
I see it more [as] a matter which we should manage, because our strength all this while is … we are an Islamic country but we do not prevent other religions from being practised. This is enshrined in the Federal Constitution.
But in light of the present development, we see the differences between the religions becoming serious, but must be managed, otherwise the imbalance can be a threat. The basic issue [is] how we can ensure that religious freedom is upheld.
Never allow the people of other faiths to feel that they can no longer practise their religions freely. Or the Muslims feel that we are compromising too much with other religions in terms of the building of new religious houses, practices, the use of the name “Allah”. These are examples of issues which had raised doubts. It’s a touchy subject and I do not want to elaborate. We have to manage. Datuk Seri Najib knows this is an important factor as it is an important ingredient in achieving national unity. — Bernama