Much has been said about “Malaysia Baru” and, more often than not, the concept has been discussed in terms of the destination – Malaysia should be “this” or “that”. What about the processes that need to be undertaken to reach that destination? ISIS Focus reached out to YB Khairy Jamaluddin, Member of Parliament for Rembau, Negeri Sembilan, to share some of his thoughts concerning the nation.
ISIS Focus: How would you define Malaysia’s national interest?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: I think the issue of national interest is something that is not well understood, not just by the public, but also by people who are involved in the political process. My concern is that members of the new administration are unfamiliar of what the national interest is.
As I understand it, and traditionally defined, national interest would encompass three major areas – political, social and economic. But I would also add a distinct category, namely strategic – this concerns all measures of security for national interest.
Politically, our national interest would be to ensure that we have a political system that respects the will of the people, yet still ensuring stability. Because we are a highly combustible country, the political system must deliver stability, but not at the expense of democracy. So, I would argue that May 9th was a good thing as we showed that we can deliver a change in government through stable and peaceful means – the country did not come apart. In that sense, we have passed the test of a maturing democratic country.
Economically, we need to ensure that we are not dependent on just one sector. As a trading country, we safeguard our resilience by diversifying our sources for growth. Currently, we have oil and gas, commodities, manufacturing, and even a growing services sector. This ensures that if one or two of the engines of growth falter, we have other sources to count on.
Socially, the big question for national interest is social cohesion, and this is tied up with all sorts of issues that come under the rubric of identity politics. Basically, this is to ensure that we do not kill each other. Within the establishment, some understand what it takes to preserve this federation and some do not.
In their haste to be perceived as reform-oriented by the international community, the new government misread the grounds concerning the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). And the Malay backlash was real. The previous administration did not attempt to push for the ratification of ICERD because we knew we could not convince the Bumiputera community. We need to understand implicitly what the national interest is socially. If we cannot achieve social cohesion, then we will be in trouble.
The fourth is the strategic element, which relates to security. It is more than just law and order and securing our borders. New threats, like cybersecurity or foreign in influence operations, can disrupt our way of life.
Long-standing issues on the environment and sustainability are not just about recycling, but securing our natural resources – making sure that we have enough water, that our forests are not being taken over by poachers, that our fauna is not being patented by foreign companies. Security is a comprehensive issue, yet things like these are not typically viewed as a security concern.
ISIS Focus: The present administration has not said much about pursuing TN50 or any of its aspirations. Do you think there is a substitute?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: A lot of people dismiss it as propaganda, but we were trying to future-proof the country for the next 30 years. The TN50 programme was carried out because of the national interest. We have an ageing population. We face urbanisation and demographic changes. Jobs are being lost to automation, robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI), among others. If we get this wrong, the future is going to be in jeopardy.
I have encouraged the government to at least look at the deliberations and proceedings because the report is completely non-partisan. It addresses sustainability issues, stewardship of natural resources, the future of education, demographic changes, food supply and security, and so on.
A lot of thought has gone into the next 30 years already. They do not have to reinvent the wheel – just have to look at it or change the label, if they like. These megatrends, which were identified not just by the government then, but also by agencies, universities and think tanks, remain relevant today.
ISIS Focus: Assuming there is no substitute, or credible substitute, to TN50 aspirations, how would you push for a public discourse on megatrends of the future?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: Well, I have to do it in parliament and continue to raise these things. It is a challenge because the government’s narrative has been that they have to sort out the mess they inherited, which I think is not entirely accurate – sure, some circumstances were not great, but by and large, I stand by most of what we did in the last government. To use that as an excuse of not looking beyond the immediate horizon is irresponsible because we live in highly disruptive times; the room for manoeuvre is much smaller. Essentially, the current government’s focus and narrative is very short sighted in nature.
We do not have the “next time” to think about the next 30 years because of the mess we inherited. Governing a country is like being the captain of a huge oil tanker or the Titanic. It takes a while for that tanker to even shift by a couple of degrees, so in a highly disruptive world, if you are not even turning your steering now, it is going to be too late – you are going to hit the iceberg. But you can see the iceberg because we have already done that for you through TN50.
ISIS Focus: Let’s move on to good governance. What is your prescription of good governance?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: Integrity is paramount in good governance. I suppose that was where we (Barisan Nasional) faltered, resulting in our loss. People must be able to trust the government not to steal, not to go against the will of the people and not to govern against the national interest.
But good governance is not just about integrity. It is also about being able to execute one’s vision, fulfill promises and respond to the current environment in a timely and decisive manner. Tackling the problem of cost of living, for example, is not just about having open tendering, but also growing the economy, increasing wages and ensuring job creation.
Lastly, we always need to monitor and check against the government. Nobody, as well-meaning as they are, can deliver on good governance unless there is a check against them. Power does corrupt. So good governance requires not just a strong democracy and a credible opposition, but also a free press and informed citizens.
ISIS Focus: So how do we create an effective and corrupt-free institution? Is this even possible?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: First of all, elections must be free and fair. People must have the confidence that they can change the government when it falls short on governance issues without fearing that the country will collapse.
Secondly, there has to be a “sunshine policy” on most things. “Sunshine” in the sense that most parts of the government should not be hidden from the public. We should have open data for as many things as possible. Certain areas, I concede, should remain secret, like the tactical plans of our army. But most things should be up for scrutiny. This is the only way we can ensure that people do not get away with corruption.
Thirdly, there must be competency in the bureaucracy. In open tendering, for instance, we really need technically competent and efficient people who are able to tell us that these specs are wrong or things are overpriced. The procurement process should be transparent and involve an independent technical evaluation that is clear, thorough and professional. This is where I think we can strengthen governance.
ISIS Focus: Do you think the opposition has a concrete plan of action towards good governance?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: There are things that we have put forward to make parliament a stronger branch of government and hopefully the speaker will consider our plans. Apart from the select committee, we have suggested for an equitable access to development funds; this was neither the case then nor now.
We have also asked for greater transparency – something in the form of the prime minister’s time, where he has to come on a weekly basis to answer queries by the opposition. It is standard practice in other Westminster legislatures to have an Opposition Day in which the opposition sets the agenda. We can then bring in our motions or opposition-sponsored bills. It may not be passed because we are the opposition. But at least we get to debate the motion, legislation or bill.
ISIS Focus: What reforms do you believe are necessary for the Malaysian government today?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: They ought to continue with institutional reforms. For example, they created this parliament select committee of key appointments, but have yet to define which positions should have parliamentary oversight. We should not underestimate the capacity of the members of parliament to vet people for key positions like the Attorney General, Chairman of the Election Commission, Chief Commissioner of the Malaysian Anti- Corruption Commission (MACC), Inspector-General of Police and even the Chief of Defence Forces.
But I am most interested in economic reforms. I presented a shadow budget which was based on the philosophy of trying to address the issue of inequality. I believe this is the biggest economic challenge in Malaysia today. If we have a very unequal society, we cannot grow the economy because most people are unproductive, underpaid or inherently poor. So I would like to see an economic system that moves a bit more to the left. Simply put, I think we should tax more from rich people and corporations. I suggested a few things like amending the threshold for income tax and introducing a wealth tax.
The economic system that we have today is centre-right, or normally referred to as “Malaysia Incorporated”. It is actually a creation of Dr Mahathir. His view is that if you create opportunities for the people, their boats will float up. In reality, it does not really happen.
I know a lot of people say that we are slow at reforming and opening up, but some of these things require time and proper buy-in. Otherwise, this careful balance that we have created over the past 60 years will falter. I think we have to be mindful about this.
ISIS Focus: Perhaps the opposition and current government have not negotiated enough towards the path for reforms…
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: I think the select committee is a good start. I hope there is a spirit of bipartisanship in the committees. We may get a lot of political theatre in the parliamentary chamber, but the select committee should be a place for real bipartisan work because we are not performing for anyone. Let us see how it goes.
ISIS Focus: How difficult would it be for us to reach a consensus on social cohesion?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: I think it is very difficult. Certain red lines cannot be crossed in Malaysia whether you like it or not. We do not want to compare to Western notions of identity politics. Some identities are obviously problematic in the Malaysian context, for instance, the LGBT community.
It is difficult to normalise homosexuality in Malaysia, but my position is very simple; I believe we must look after the dignity of every Malaysian. Look after somebody’s dignity – do not persecute, shame or discriminate against them. Even in Islam, what happens behind closed doors is none of our business, so long as these things are not manifested in the public. Malaysia is a conservative society, hence public displays of sexuality or affection are inappropriate and against social norms whether one is heterosexual or not. If we universalise our language, then nobody will feel targeted or discriminated against.
There is no real solution to identity politics, simply because for as long as there is identity, for as long as we are different – and we will always be different – there will be people who want to take advantage of these differences. These are just things we have to deal with.
ISIS Focus: There is now a Special Cabinet Committee on restoring Sabah and Sarawak’s rights. Since you were with the previous administration, can we ask how they planned to deal with it, and why was it closed-door?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: We had a Special Cabinet Committee on the devolution of powers to Sabah and Sarawak. We had already gone through the concurrent list in the constitution, which detailed areas that come under both federal and state, and also discussed the concessions that we were going to make for devolution with the state government. For instance, the youth and sports department should be jointly administered.
Many of the items in the list had already been agreed upon, but some were more difficult and had to be handled carefully, such as payment of royalty, land issues and the issue of Islam. These are the things that could affect the integrity of the federation. We had to balance between being transparent in discussing these issues and preventing the idea of secession from Malaysia from overcoming the public consciousness.
Politically, we were quite uncomfortable, but agreeable with a more assertive Sarawak nationalism under the late chief minister Tan Sri Adnan because that would be able to check the “Sarawak for Sarawakians” movement, which in its extreme form leaned towards not just autonomy but also secession. So, we were tolerant of a more assertive identity by the ex-chief minister because we felt that, at least to the Sarawakians, he was doing the right thing by standing up to the Semenanjung.
ISIS Focus: As far as the future is concerned, how do you plan to turn your own ideas into action?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: It is difficult to do it alone. I always think that the greatest talent that a politician must have is the ability to build a coalition of people to support his or her cause. That coalition of people should not be restricted to just fellow politicians, within or outside one’s party, but also extended to other stakeholders and society at large.
If you cannot do that, then you are not even able to sell the narrative; you cannot capture the ground. So, the most successful kind of politician is one who is able to command and move the ground in the direction that he or she envisions for the country.
ISIS Focus: What happens if it is a cause that you and your coalition feel to be the right direction forward, but one that is difficult for the public and opposition to swallow?
YB Khairy Jamaluddin: As a politician, you must be able to build a coalition. Two, you have to pick your battles right – you cannot do everything that you set out to do. You cannot go into every single thing that comes your way and hopefully get more done than less. You have to properly sequence the reforms that you want to do and make sure that when you go in, you go in with the ability to win.
Gaffes happen and mistakes are made when you go in without having done the groundwork or homework of understanding issues, having a clear communication plan, creating the buy-in, having the third party validation ready and convincing the people. Contrary to what people believe about the government, ministers do not control everything. There are lots of moving parts that you are not aware of sometimes and those are the things that can blindside you.
Firdaos Rosli is the Director of Economics, Trade and Regional Integration, Izzah Khairina Ibrahim is a Researcher in Foreign Policy and Security Studies, and Nursalina Salleh is an Analyst at Social Policy,