DATUK Shahrir Abdul Samad is a political enigma. On one hand, he was stinging in his criticisms of the Pakatan Rakyat, implicitly justifying the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s takeover of Perak.
On the other hand, he has displayed maverick tendencies within Umno. He opposed the 2008 Internal Security Act (ISA) arrests of journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, the DAP’s Teresa Kok, and blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, although he stopped short of demanding a repeal of the ISA.
He also resigned as Backbenchers Club chairperson in 2006, disappointed by lack of support for his call to refer a BN Member of Parliament (MP) accused of corruption to the Parliament’s Rights and Privileges Committee.
Back in the late 1980s when he was federal territory minister, Shahrir was sacked from Umno in the events leading to the 1988 judicial and constitutional crisis. He then resigned from his Johor Baru parliamentary seat, forcing a by-election.
He stood as an independent, and voters returned him to Parliament with a resounding victory. However, while Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah went on to form the opposition Semangat 46 party, Shahrir rejoined Umno a year after his by-election victory.
For an Umno veteran who has had one of the more interesting political careers in Malaysia, he does not talk much about his personal experiences of the country. True, he writes on his blog that he was born on 22 Nov 1949 in Kuantan, Pahang, to a family of teachers. And that his father, originally from Muar, Johor, was a civil servant who was posted all over the peninsula.
But what does Shahrir want for and from Malaysia? What is his experience of Malaysia? Not merely as minister of domestic trade and consumer affairs, or even as Umno supreme council member, but also as a citizen? In this exclusive interview with Found in Malaysia, Shahrir talks about the experiences that shaped his outlook and his career.
TNG: You write in your blog that you were born in Kuantan, and grew up in Kuala Pilah, Kota Baru, and Kuala Terengganu. What is your strongest memory from these places that you grew up in that you can remember? An incident, a certain place, a person?
Datuk Shahrir Abdul Samad: There are too many memories. I remember being in Kuala Pilah. I remember traveling to Kuala Terengganu and Kota Baru. Those were the days of the Emergency. Then I remember the ferries; they had so many rivers to cross. And I remember the floods on the East Coast, and travelling in an army lorry to go across to get back to Kuala Terengganu [and] Kota Baru.
Did your school have a more mixed environment, racially?
It was definitely more Malay. Because I [studied] in the Malay College (Kuala Kangsar, or MCKK). But I think the most important thing was the teachers; the teachers were multiracial. We didn’t become racialist because we came from one race and environment. That, I think, is interesting in a sense.
We had Indian, Chinese, European teachers, and Malay teachers as well. So the example we took from them was that you just have to work hard and excel both academically and in sports.
We knew that our ambitions didn’t end with just attending Malay college. We knew we had to go further than that, to go to university and then — life.
Were you in Malay college at the same time as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim?
He was my senior.
He was your senior? By one year, two years?
I think two years. Pasal umur, I was the youngest in class. Yang my class pun, lagi tua daripada saya.
Were you an advanced student or something?
I was a genius when I was in primary school.
We had this express class. So from Standard One I went to Standard Three. I didn’t go to Standard Two. So then we’d go to Standard Three express, then Standard Four express, then we continued at normal pace. So I saved maybe more than a year.
So the ministry’s in safe hands? (chuckles) Do you have any stories or teladan from your parents, grandparents or teachers that you remember?
My father was a teacher for a while. And his life was more on working with the fisher[folk], the cooperatives, the farmers.
So I travelled a lot with him, just followed him. Kept him company and saw the rural side [of the country] lah, although I’m perhaps a bit more urban-centred.
In politics, when I was offered Johor Baru, I thought it was okay, it was quite a good constituency for me.
And I think in the family, there seems to be this righteousness, this wanting to always serve, because of tradition. At that time, when you entered politics, the idea was to serve. If you wanted to make money, you didn’t come into politics.
And maybe [that’s my] background. My father was a civil servant, and [my] growing-up experience in all the less-developed states — Kota Baru was a small town, Kuala Terengganu was a small town — I don’t know if it was a natural thing, but to serve others was part of the family psyche. In the sense that if you entered politics, you shouldn’t make the family feel ashamed. They should feel proud of you that you are serving the community or you are serving the country … always try to excel and do the best you can.
I interviewed your brother, YB Khalid (Abdul Samad, PAS MP for Shah Alam) in November, and it came through. That desire to serve was very much evident in my interview with him.
(Chuckles) I think it’s quite natural that what you do, you should do as best as you can. So if you are in politics, then you should do your job as well as you can. If you are a minister, you do your job as well as you can. And try to do the best for the largest group of people, benefit the biggest group.
Do you find that the notion of Malay-ness now in 2009 is different from what it was when you were growing up?
I think that we sometimes forget the basics. This overemphasis on Semenanjung politics — Umno, Malays — may not be in sync with what we really need now.
And I’ve been unhappy with this overemphasis on urban development and the theory of the spillover.
There was a very deliberate attempt to create Malay billionaires, for example. So that from these Malay billionaires, they could create Malay millionaires. And then Malay millionaires would create Malay thousandaires.
It’s all based on the idea of the spillover, kan. That you create the wealth, and the wealth creation would spill over and everybody else benefits.
I don’t believe in that theory. I believe more in bringing everybody up by raising the standard everywhere. Then, the clever, the hardworking, will always be able to take care of themselves.
I’m different in Kuala Lumpur and I’m different in Johor Baru. In KL, I [have to] represent people who have voted me in — my supporters and my constituents. In KL, I appear to be arrogant, or a bit too open, straight talking. And then people in KL say, “How can he become a Member of Parliament? He can’t be a politician.” But there are two different areas.
To perform in a more urban context, in the power centre, you have to be more aggressive. But when you are at your base, you have to be more grassroots.
So I have a problem sometimes. In the corridors of power, they are all [saying], “He’s aggressive lah”, “He’s abrasive lah”, “He’s too straight talking lah”, “He does not mince his words lah”, “He’s not gentle lah”, apalah.
But I’m not the same when I meet my constituents at the grassroots [level]. And I think it’s just necessary to have that kind of approach so that you really perform your roles more effectively.
Your ideas seem reformist.
Am I reformist? I don’t ask anybody to reform.
Well, even in the early 2000s, there were websites flourishing about Umno reform and you were looked at as one of the leaders who could reform Umno. But this question touches on your personal motivation. What is the kind of Malaysia you would like to leave behind for future generations?
A real Malaysia where it is not about race, but about the whole of Malaysia. I don’t think we have yet a very Malaysian approach.
My thinking for the future [is] you cannot just focus on KL. And I see this preoccupation with Umno. And then we are preoccupied with Semenanjung politics.
Whereas it is not just [about] Semenanjung politics, it is about Sabah, it is about Sarawak, together with Semenanjung.
I think the next step would be that the Malaysian political paradigm is one where when we think of Malaysians, we don’t think about a Malay, a Chinese or an Indian. That’s Peninsular Malaysia. We must think about the Sabahans, the Sarawakians, and Semenanjung as Malaysians.
We look at, katakan, Sabah and Sarawak. In Sarawak there is one chief minister and two deputy chief ministers. And it works.
But then in Semenanjung Malaysia, people say, “You must have an MCA or a Chinese deputy chief minister.” And I don’t think that’s the way. I think it should be a Malaysian format rather than a racial format. Even for the federal government. Or national leadership. So national leadership should not be seen as Semenanjung leadership. It should be real national leadership.
Are you proposing there can be more than one deputy prime minister?
I think there can be more than one. But not on a racial basis, you see. More on a regional basis. You could have one from Sabah, one from Sarawak, and one from Semenanjung. It doesn’t [necessarily] mean that the deputy prime minister becomes the prime minister. You still have to go back to who has got the biggest number of seats.
[Our] connection [should be to a] national leadership rather than a dominant Semenanjung leadership.