Despite his soft-spoken demeanour, he has not shied away from controversy, no less because of his ties to his outspoken father, retired Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
In the 2006 Umno general assembly, Mukhriz wasn’t reticent about expressing disappointment with Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s presidential speech. He called it unoriginal, sparking a wave of protests from some quarters within Umno.
In 2008, soon after the March general election, Mukhriz, by then an Umno Youth executive council member, became one of the early voices to call for Abdullah’s resignation following the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s dismal performance. He wrote Abdullah a letter, exposed on the internet, which told Abdullah resigning would be the “honourable thing” to do.
In the second part of an exclusive interview with The Nut Graph conducted on 3 March, Mukhriz revisits his controversial statement about closing down vernacular schools in favour of a single-education system. He voices his concerns about Malay Malaysians being left behind, and talks about the Perak impasse. Mukhriz also shares how he views himself as a politician in a changing Malaysia — whether as a Malay one first, or as a Malaysian.
TNG: You’ve said a weak BN is partly the result of a weak Umno. But the other component parties have said that Umno is like a bully, and that it doesn’t treat other BN parties as equals. What is ailing the coalition as a whole?
Mukhriz Mahathir: That’s a very unfair statement. We’ve been extremely tolerant. I admit sometimes the rhetoric can be quite heated, but it has been that way for some time. It was from 2006 [onwards] when we had a live telecast of our general assembly, which [had] never been done before [then].
And we aired for public viewing the kind of rhetoric we use in our closed-door meeting. I thought it was funny, that at the start of the proceedings the media reps were asked to leave the hall, and the doors would shut closed, and then … it was live! (Laughs incredulously) It was even on the internet. I thought it was just insane. I know we’re in this era of transparency and openness, but that was too much.
Unfortunately, the kinds of things said in the meeting brought out some adverse reactions from other people. But I think the general assemblies of other political parties are equal … if not worse rhetoric is used, but their meetings are not aired live. In some cases, it’s in a language that Malays don’t understand, so we’re not able to respond in kind to the things being said in their meetings. So I think it is unfair.
Umno being the dominant party within the BN, right from the word go, we were open to, in fact we propagated this whole idea of power-sharing within the BN. And we defend that all the time by making sure that the number of seats allocated during the general election meets the requirements of all the parties involved.
Secondly, we do not practise a policy of assimilation. We consider the Malay culture as being the dominant one, but we do not force it on anyone. You do not see us going the way of Indonesia or Thailand, where other races are expected to immerse themselves into the dominant culture to the extent that their original cultures are nonexistent.
I felt quite insulted when Lim Kit Siang in Parliament congratulated the Americans for picking Barack Obama as the president, although he’s black. And he went on to say, when is Malaysia going to do the same? I thought that was uncalled for, because do you see anything African about Obama? Does he even speak a word of Kenyan? You see in Obama an American leader who will always have American interests ahead of everything else, and because of that you don’t see the colour of his skin.
Here in Malaysia, the constitution doesn’t specify that the prime minister has to be a Malay or bumiputera. But until the time comes when it doesn’t matter what your name is, even if it’s not an Ahmad or a Mohamad or an Abdullah, but if people can see that you are a truly Malaysian leader, and you take care of the interest of everyone, including the Malays, I think the Malays won’t have a problem picking that person as prime minister.
But how is that going to happen when we have problems with different school systems going their own separate ways, in different languages, different cultures, and then expect them to integrate when they get into university? By then it’s far too late already.
You can’t expect people to unite once they’ve passed their impressionable years in primary and secondary schools, and then complain about, “Oh, when is the time when non-Malays can become the prime minister?” I think that’s too much to ask if you still want to defend the vernacular schools.
You are referring to your controversial statement calling for a single education system, which would in effect close down vernacular education. You were seen as shoring up support for your Umno Youth chief bid.
I said it with national integration in mind. We have never gone so far as to say that the non-Malay cultures should not be practised. We’ve always thrived on the diversity that we have. That’s why it’s integration. It’s not necessarily unity. But national integration is something you start from the ground up.
And I find it odd and ironic that in the Dewan Rakyat, everyone from both sides of the fence complains about polarisation. But when I suggest something to address this issue, they start jumping on me. And I thought it was odd because I don’t hear anyone else suggesting an alternative idea. I’m ready to listen to suggestions. Mine seems to be the only idea that has been mooted, but so many out there are against it, and I find that very strange because if you look at other countries in the region, the education system is key in promoting integration among people.
But many Malay and Indian Malaysian parents send their kids to Chinese schools because national schools are not up to par. Shouldn’t we address that first?
I admit there is an issue there. And I’m all for improving our national schools. But the excuse that I hear being used as an argument against my idea is that they want to defend their right to teach in their respective languages and to maintain their cultures.
It’s not about the national schools being okay or not. I expect that if we improve our national schools, then perhaps many will come back. Having said that, our national schools are not so bad compared to some schools in neighbouring countries; the kind of results we get are a lot better.
But it’s not just academic performance that concerns non-Muslim parents; it’s fears about Islamisation in schools.
I’ve heard that. I’ve talked to quite a number of non-Muslims about this and they complain, for example, about the school assembly. They don’t mind that you start off with a doa. But even the principal’s speech has religious tones. And they’re not comfortable with that. I think we can look into this and try and improve.
I think that this whole philosophy of growth with equity needs to be continued. I agree that there may be some focus that may need to change to adapt to the current situation in order to move forward. But the main philosophy, I can’t see it changing.
Because the disparity that we find between the races is still there. We’ve been very successful in eradicating poverty among all races. That’s a huge success story emulated by other developing countries. But in terms of restructuring society, in terms of providing enough jobs for bumiputeras so that they can be in high productivity segments of the economy that give them enough income, I think we’re still behind.
As MP for Jerlun now, it’s more apparent to me that there is a certain segment of society that seems to be left behind. I’d like to see what Najib and Muhyiddin mean by certain amendments to the NEP. Because if it means that, for example, we’re going to stick with growth at all cost, I think this is going to be a problem if the economy grows fast but we leave the disenfranchised behind.
In 1990, at the end of the NEP, we did that. The distribution [of wealth] part was made second fiddle, and we just focused on growth. And at that time it was necessary because economic growth worldwide was at unprecedented levels and we didn’t want to miss the boat. We needed to get on the bandwagon and attract foreign investment. So we moved away from commodities to manufacturing in a big way. And we were extremely successful then. But at the same time, although more jobs were created, the involvement of bumiputera in high-growth areas was still very lacking.
It shows you that when the NEP was being implemented fully, it was not just the Malays benefiting from it. The government was focused on ensuring that the economic pie was growing bigger, and obviously non-Malays benefited from it as well.
Secondly, the emergence of a Malay middle class provided a market for non-Malays to tap from. If in ’69 when the riots happened, sundry shops and cars were destroyed, you could be sure that these shops and these cars did not belong to the Malays. But now try and do that, and more often than not, the Malays would be affected because we’ve done quite well throughout these years. And I think it’s all due to policies like the NEP.
Do you think cronyism and corruption in government and in Umno are what’s causing problems to the NEP’s implementation?
Yes. That’s where a good policy like the NEP gets derailed.
How should Umno address it?
It’s not easy, when one has to make a choice between one bumi and another bumi, one is going to be very happy and the other is not. And there will be accusations of cronyism and such. If you see that only a certain few benefit from government policies, then you know there’s something wrong with the implementation. But still, in that sense, I think there needs to be enlightened leadership to make sure that people have a certain trust in the system.
You know, this thing about defending the Malays when we are a multiracial nation… On the Perak crisis, you recently called for the Sedition Act to be used against Karpal Singh. That kind of remark gets a lot of support within Umno, but non-Malay [Malaysians] watching don’t feel comfortable. How do you see yourself — are you a Malay politician first, or a politician for all Malaysians?
You know, Umno equals Malay. It’s a Malay party. And therefore we are expected to hold the interest of the Malays first. I’m unapologetic about that because the Malays, after all, constitute the majority of the population. And I think the majority has certain rights. And this is prevalent even in other countries.
But at the same time, the minorities also have certain rights, so this is something we must protect and preserve. I consider myself a Malay politician first because I firmly believe if the Malays are on a good footing, it will never be at the expense of other races. And the other races benefit from it also.
When the Malays feel that their rights are not being protected, that they are constantly under siege, I cannot see how the country can be stable. It’s happened in some countries before where the majority loses control over their political power because they are weak economically. That’s happened in Fiji, in Papua New Guinea, and to some extent in Sri Lanka. And I don’t see how we can let that happen in Malaysia.
I know my comment about Karpal Singh was not taken lightly by certain people. But people consider me a moderate; I’m not associated with extreme views, so if a person like me can say such a thing, imagine what people who have stronger views than me are thinking. I think it is better for me to say these things than to let the far, far right take things into their own hands.
It’s the same thing when I brought up the issue of a one-school system. For the six months preceding it, we felt really under siege because one after another, leaders who should know better, coming from BN component parties, were making very hurtful statements.
They were questioning the social contract, they were recommending for the 30% bumi equity to be taken away. There was a statement that the Malays too are immigrants, and there was a question about Ketuanan Melayu, and all this went unanswered by Umno. How much tolerance can we handle? At the same time I find that a lot of Malays were feeling very disappointed with Umno for not defending our rights.
So I thought, okay, enough is enough. I brought up the issue for the schools, and I think it had an effect in that people stopped talking about these things.
One other example: MCA from Jerlun put out a statement in Nanyang Siang Pau that they regret having voted for me in the 2008 general election because of my statement. And to me, that’s exactly right, that when their own MP or their own representative says something that they don’t like, that they should feel some regret and that it should be a lesson to the MP to always consider the feelings of their voters.
Because those incendiary statements by other MPs, some of them deputy minister and even ministers, some of them component party leaders, saying hurtful things about the Malays, and yet they were elected in constituencies that had Malay-majorities… did they have any qualms saying those things? Shouldn’t we be asking the Malays in those constituencies if they regret voting for those MPs? You don’t see Umno leaders in those constituencies making statements that they regret having voted for their MPs. So that’s the kind of tolerance we have and we hope others will also temper their statements.
A lot of people say, oh, it’s time for multiracial politics. Well, the other BN components are definitely representing their respective races. The way I see it, MCA, Gerakan and DAP, all three of them are racing to show that they are championing important causes for the Chinese, so why shouldn’t Umno continue being a Malay party?
As long as there’s economic disparity, there will always be a need for a political party like Umno that represents the interest of the Malays. If there is total equality, especially in economic terms, then I think the Malays themselves will feel that we no longer need the NEP, we no longer feel we need a Malay party like Umno, and it will come naturally.
Can it come naturally when you’ve been so used to it?
It’s not going to be possible as long as the Malays feel that they are economically behind. The playing field is not even. We need government policies that even out, that give us a bit of a handicap so that we can compete on a meaningful basis. If that is not sorted out, then forever we’ll have race-based politics.
The prevailing mentality in Umno Youth now is to rally support for the Perak Sultan and defend the royal institution. It appears hypocritical to outsiders, because under your father’s time, laws were made to curb the powers of royals. And now, in the Perak crisis, it appears convenient to justify the BN’s takeover by hiding behind the Sultan.
I see a very vast difference between what was done then and now. At that time, there was the issue of laws being passed in Parliament not getting the approval of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong in a timely fashion. A law was passed so that within 60 days, after Parliament passes a law, if it’s still not signed, it’s considered approved and gazetted.
The other thing was when it came to criminal matters, if we had royalty who was involved in criminal activity, he would not be able to seek refuge by way of his standing as royalty. And there would be a special tribunal to handle these sort of cases. I think that’s fair. Even the Conference of Rulers accepted it. That in no way took away their standing as rulers. And in no way were we disrespectful of royalty.
But now [in the Perak crisis], a commoner has questioned the position of the Sultan. I think that really runs against all that we hold important in this country, the Rukunegara, the federal constitution, and I think that’s too much.
But it wasn’t a questioning of the Sultan’s position, it was a questioning of his decision not to dissolve the state legislative assembly.
But he has the absolute right. The way I see it, the decision made by the Sultan of Perak was in accordance with the state constitution, and I don’t see what Tuanku did as favouring us (the BN) particularly. And I might add, this whole idea of party-hopping was never one that we propagated in the first place.
The political situation in Perak is in an even worse mess now, with so many suits being filed. The situation is so unprecedented that don’t you think snap state elections is the best way to resolve things?
No (chuckles). I mean, I think it is still within our constitutional right to take over the state that way. Because as it is, the law as it stands right now, party-hopping is not unlawful. It is still considered a part of democracy.
I’m just hoping that everything cools down because we really ought to get back to work. Because by now a lot of people are pretty sick and tired of politics from both sides. They don’t really care for the BN, nor do they care for the opposition parties. And I feel for them. I remember this advertisement taken out by a concerned citizen pleading for politicians to not lose the plot, and at this particular moment it’s the economic crisis that we should be looking at.
See Part I:
Being Mahathir’s son