[Exclusive] 'We won't let anything jeopardise transition'


THIS November, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will return to lead PKR when he is announced as having won the party president’s post uncontested. It will pave the way for Anwar to take over as Prime Minister, in accordance with an agreement signed by the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition prior to the 14th General Election. New Straits Times Press journalists interviewed Anwar recently to ask about his preparations to become Malaysia’s eighth Prime Minister.Question: There are two contenders for the deputy president’s post, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali and Rafizi Ramli. Rafizi openly supports your (ascension to prime minister) and Azmin is said to be the choice of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Council of Eminent Persons chairman Tun Daim Zainuddin. Is Azmin your rival for the premiership?

PKR incoming president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. PIX BY ASYRAF HAMZAH

Answer: I do not take heed of such perception as both of them are important party figures who are committed to its struggles and agenda. Each of them differ in character and focus on issues. I stand by the approach that in a democracy, we must give room for healthy competition. Leaders must express their views and discuss healthily and freely. When it comes to the perception that (Azmin is the choice of Dr Mahathir), which is being bandied about, I do not think it will influence party supporters.Q: There is talk among kampung folk, Netizens and people in political circles that you will not become prime minister. What do you think about this?
A: It is an agreement that was signed. I have much experience in waiting for decades. People say to be tawakal (trusting in God’s plan). We can only work towards it. I do not view it in a complicated way. It cannot be denied that this is the usual game in politics. When it comes to Dr Mahathir and I, we are continuing our rapport.

We always try to meet often and counter any attempts (to halt this transition). If there are any (attempts to stop this agreement), I do not think it will be a problem as I have gone through the bitter experience of 1998. Therefore, I know better now. I am not as naive as the last time. There are some concerned friends asking me whether I am facing (similar circumstances) like the last time. (People) will tell me not to be like this and that. But we do what we can, and I think our efforts are at maximum. There is an agreement and this was announced. Dr Mahathir has said it many times. For me, that is enough. I do not think that, aside from Allah determining that I should go first (die) or something, I do not think (anything will put a stop to it). I think that the transition (to premiership) would become a reality, insyaallah.Q: You mentioned a couple of times about the existence of an agreement that was signed and witnessed by a lot of people. Is there a specific time frame for you to take over from Dr Mahathir? Did the agreement actually mention a two-year time frame? A: No, the agreement did not stipulate a date or precise time frame because I was in prison. Nobody was certain. It was not certain what was to be the outcome. There was no categorical assurance from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong at that time, for example. But now that the episode is over (imprisonment), there is a consensus among the (party) leaders, and I share their view.

But I have repeatedly said this, and I have articulated my position on this matter with some clarity.

I will repeat it now and say that we should give the latitude and space for Dr Mahathir to conduct the affairs of state without encumbrances or being pressured.

That is precisely why I said I am not particularly keen to discuss the issue of time frame because the moment you put the time frame, then you immediately (have a situation where), say, six months before that, the leader will become a lame duck. People will then say well, what decisions can we make? The concern is that without a time frame, will he (Dr Mahathir) leave? Well, he’s 93 and he made it very clear that he has an immediate task to ensure that the country’s transformation and transition of power are done peacefully, and that the initial promises for change and reform can take place. I think we will leave it like that. In the meantime, I will just have private chats with him (Dr Mahathir) on a weekly or fortnightly basis, and we’ll continue to discuss things.Q: You met Dr Mahathir in Putrajaya recently. Was there any discussion on a time frame? A: No, I made it very clear in private and to the public. For example, I told him that I am going to enter Parliament. Insyaallah, if I win (a by-election), it will be before the end of the year, maybe next month. I will then focus on supporting all the initiatives towards parliamentary reforms and the running of this country. There is this complementary role between us, which should continue. But of course, I want to exercise my right to explain and discuss things with him.

And he certainly would want to know about the parliamentary reforms that I am embarking on. That sort of arrangement is, in my mind, done.Q: While you are not keen on discussing the time frame, many observers want to gauge when it is going to happen. In your opinion, what are the tangible key indicators that it is time for you to take over? A: The initial phase of a transition of (premiership) must take place and it has. I mean, there is a sense of this and efforts are being done to (fulfil) our (election) promises, to uphold the country’s institutions, (improve) the civil service by bringing back professionals, and put in place measures for judicial reform and media freedom. Things like that.

This is because sometimes, you still find some odd statements contrary to what we promised. (For instance), some people are (identifying) all these people who are not supportive of us, and it is said that such people should be taken out (of the civil service), which is something I think is contrary to what we stand for, particularly in the reform agenda.

That task is now with Dr Mahathir to ensure that this is observed. And, of course, we have a very strong position against corruption and cronyism, which to me, is getting somewhat endemic. It is a major task for him in this initial period.Q: When you talk about re-entering Parliament, which parliamentary seat do you want to contest in? A: What’s your suggestion?Q: We can’t say. There have been many offers, such as an offer from Sungai Petani (member of parliament Datuk Johari Abdul, of PKR). A: There are several seats that I am considering. But I have not made a final decision because when I consider (a seat), I will look at the performance of its member of parliament. If his or her performance is very good, it will be a waste (for me to take the seat).

So we must consider all that. But there are several seats being considered, just that I have not made a decision yet.Q: Perhaps you are more comfortable being an elected representative in areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Kedah or Penang? Which is the most likely area for you to contest (in a by-election)? A: Pekan (media group laughs). Saja je, saja je, It’s not that one (The seat is being held by former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak). There are some (MPs) who gave serious offers (to vacate their seats) which are not announced. Some offered their seats, but we need to consider things and not just accept it. It’s not about offering seats, but it is about me wanting to serve in a seat I am comfortable with. Like in Permatang Pauh, I left the seat but I enjoyed it as the constituents and I have become like brothers and sisters. We can joke. I feel very, very confident with them (the constituents). To reach that level (of support) is not easy and we built it.Q: There is talk that the offer from Sungai Petani (MP) came with a caveat as he hopes to obtain another position, such as (Kedah) menteri besar. Did you hear about that? A: I read about it. There is a suggestion from PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia) and the Kedah (party committee) brought it up. But I want to advise (Johari) that if there is an actual basis for the offer, then it is okay. After meeting with him (Johari) recently, I found out that this was not the case.

He only brought it up if ever (Kedah menteri besar) Datuk Seri Muhkriz Mahathir vacates his post. But as long as Mukhriz is there, the consensus among PKR is to support Mukhriz as menteri besar. That is the party’s stand. Q: Let’s talk about the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP). When you become prime minister, what happens to the CEP? What are your views on the council? A: He (the interviewer) gets to ask the difficult questions (laughs). We allow the leader to have the prerogative to determine the framework that he feels suitable. He has a cabinet and he feels he needs to have an advisory council in the form of the CEP.

And all of this is occurring on the backdrop of a completely new landscape. There are currently many differing opinions on this. After 100 days in power, the prime minister felt that the council should continue, while (CEP member and economist) Dr Jomo Kwame Sundaram said there was no need to continue. We must scrutinise both opinions. My stand is that it is the prime minister’s prerogative. If he feels there is a need for such a group of advisers, then they can continue with it. But in our (political) system, when it comes to main policies, it is up to the Pakatan Harapan Presidential Council. In terms of government, there is the cabinet. But again, I have to say we must give some space and flexibility for it to be decided by the incumbent prime minister.Q: There are some in the opposition who are pitting you against Dr Mahathir. Can you explain how is your relationship with Dr Mahathir? Are both of you close? Is it more of an older-younger brother sort of relationship?

PKR incoming president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim says he has made peace with Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad so change can take place under a new administration that will fulfil the aspirations of the people. PIX BY ASYRAF HAMZAH

A: When it comes to Tun Dr Mahathir and I, if in terms of close relationship, there has not been anything like it in history, especially when we talk about two (political) figures. There was never any other instance in history when two such figures have battled it out so heatedly.

Now, we have made peace, change can take place under a new administration that will fulfil the aspirations of the people.

He knows it, and I know it. We will not allow anything to jeopardise this plan. It is a plan for the people’s wellbeing and it overrides negative sentiments.

For me, the positive thing is that access to the PM is very easy and I do not merely meet (Dr Mahathir) to discuss work or projects for 20 to 30 minutes.

We have heart-to-heart discussions about issues on the national leadership and things of national concern, about racial sentiments and its effects on the Malay community and policies.

We discuss these things deeply and there is no reason to think this may jeopardise (our) relationship. It does not hinder our ongoing efforts, but I do not think that after having gone through such heated political turmoil that Dr Mahathir will prevent me (to rise to premiership).

I do not wish to pretend. It does not mean I will always agree with every action made by Dr Mahathir, but he is the PM now, so I give room to him.Q: One of the reasons given for the extension of the CEP’s tenure was the inexperienced cabinet. This may be the cabinet you will inherit. Do you agree that the line-up is inadequate to run on its own, and that they need the CEP for advice?
A: I do not deny the necessity of anyone giving help, assistance or advice. The prime minister has the latitude to solicit views and advice from cabinet members. My advice to the cabinet has always been to be fast on the learning curve, to listen a bit more and to be more circumspect in terms of your quick announcements (pronouncements) rather than backtracking the next day.

These things must be avoided. Although many of them are new, you need to set this up.

The trend is every minister wants to set up his own advisory council. I do not believe that is necessarily the best option, although that is their decision, and there are hundreds of groups on education, health and the economy, as well as the many experts out there.

They must be prepared to listen. I am not holding any position, but I spend hours daily listening to economic reports, papers presented on projects and economic policies, reviews on new housing initiatives.

I mean, that is what you need to do. So I don’t know. When it is specifically about the CEP, I am amenable to the fact that we need to listen to many quarters and not only CEP, but others to digest their views.Q: There are many stories about the Pakatan Harapan manifesto and promises that have yet to be fulfilled, such as issues relating to the economy. What will you say about these unfulfilled promises? A: Whatever we promised, we need to work towards fulfilling them. Promises are promises. But even after we make all the effort and discover problems, we apologise and ask for more time. Do not dispute our own promises. That is in terms of our approach. Not all promises can be fulfilled because we do not know how complicated the economic problem was and how high the country’s debts were.

Since this was the case, we apologise and tell them (people) what we have done because there have been promises which have been fulfilled. Those which we have not fulfilled, we set a time frame and we apologise for not being able to fulfil them.

Being humble is a noble trait that people and leaders must possess. If they cannot be fulfilled, quickly apologise.Q: But Netizens are saying things like: “This is what you get when you vote Pakatan Harapan as they never fulfil their promises”. But what you are saying now is that you are only asking for more time? A: If you think about it, this is reasonable. For example, if we scrutinise the facts in some of those pledges, they could not be carried out. We need to say it.

When it comes to Netizens who criticise through the media, we must accept that. The media is given the space and freedom. If those views are widely shared (by the people), then we must answer them. Don’t worry about people criticising. We earnestly made promises and part of them could not be fulfilled. Apologise-lah. Ask for time. I do not think the people are that insistent and want it all to happen in one day. If they want to dispute (us) for making so many promises, what can we do?Q: The prices of goods is an issue that is questioned by some quarters. And there are some people who recently spread again an old campaign video from the 2013 general election, in which a promise was made by a politician for fuel prices to be reduced on the very next day after he is voted into power. A: But in the 2018 manifesto, there is no such promise.Q: When Pakatan Harapan was drawing up the 14th General Election manifesto, was there no inkling that the situation was this bad for you to make those kind of promises? A: I wasn’t privy because I was in prison. But, of course, I was informed every time I appeared in court or through my lawyers. But from my understanding, I have been very critical of the government since 2008 and in exposing the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal. We relied on what was published. It is quite true that when we were crafting the manifesto, we were not privy to the real problems. For example, we talk about wastage in (government) contracts. We went through most of the contracts, and there were serious flaws. As a former finance minister, I was shocked at the extent of the total excesses involving ministers. (Funds) were drained by the billions and there was wastage. Other than exposing the excesses of the past, people also want to know what is your programme. Okay, we know about the excesses. What do you want to do (about it)? And what do you intend to do?Q: What are your views on the cancellation and reviews of several mega projects? A: Dr Mahathir’s decision was because the cost was too high and the (government) could not bear the cost as it would burden the economy.

The consensus (among the leadership) was that some needed to be renegotiated. I think this is a critical approach as we do not know the impact from the agreements. It is a heavy burden as I saw that several big projects cost billions. It was worrying and we had concrete reasons to at least review the projects.Q: There are rumours that Umno wants to cooperate with you. Are you ready to do that? What do you think about the possibility of cooperating with Umno? A: Me? Or do you mean for (Umno) to work with Pakatan Harapan? That is a rumour because I do not know about it. In my speeches, I am not too hard (on Umno), so some may think ‘Oh Anwar is soft (on Umno)’. I adhere to the Pakatan Harapan’s policy and I always meet leaders and MPs. My approach is that I do not make personal enemies. This is where many people have misunderstood. I have told the public that (former prime minister) Datuk Seri Najib (Razak) and I have met personally because I do not have personal problems (against him). I am not seeking vengeance for my imprisonment or (accused of being a threat to) national security.

That’s not an issue for me. I am not judging Umno. I am not here to seek ill will for anyone. There is no basis in that. I believe Umno needs to be a good opposition.

But I have not heard of any collaboration. No one from Umno has approached me for collaboration. There is no basis for such a thing. There may be better things to be done for Malay unity, (encouraging) their participation in the administration and to make things better.

But there are also attempts to pit some (leaders) against each other. If there is basis (to it), I will comment. There has not been any statement or opinion from any leader on this (collaboration).Q: When you become prime minister, who will be your deputy? A: This is not decided by me. We are a coalition and we have a consensus (when deciding on such things). What is important is that I have to assume the premiership first.Q: When that happens, what will your leadership style be like? What kind of prime minister would you like to be known as? A: You know me. I am Anwar like before. My style. Hopefully, I have matured in the process. Older and wiser. I am a democrat. I strongly and passionately believe in justice. I hate oppression and injustices. They should know me. It is important to be consistent, whether as an opposition or otherwise. Being part of the ruling (party and soon) part of the government, I have my own ethics and character. That is what the country needs. Dr Mahathir has a major task and that task will be what I am expected to do later on because change is taking place now. I wish him all the best. I am enjoying myself, frankly speaking, giving interviews.Reporting by HIDIR REDUAN, MOHD NOOR ASWAD, ROHANIZA IDRIS and MOHD ISKANDAR IBRAHIM © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd