KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 7 (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi used national television on Monday to deny accusations of nepotism and to defend his squeaky-clean image, which has come under heavy attack by his predecessor.
After months of turning the other cheek, refusing to respond directly to criticism by former leader Mahathir Mohamad, the premier finally answered some of the most sensitive allegations.
Abdullah denied that his businessman son, Kamaluddin Abdullah, 38, and son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, 30, had profited from government favours or abused their connections.
"I don't want to quarrel with Tun Mahathir," Abdullah said in the 40-minute interview to be aired later on Monday. Tun is Mahathir's honorific title, the highest in Malaysian society.
"Kamal' has never abused his ties with me. Eighty percent of his business is from overseas," Abdullah said in the interview with TV3, excerpts of which were made available to Reuters.
"He is not involved with other local firms or government concessions. He has never asked help from the government or anything that required a bail-out for him."
Once the unchallenged "Mr Clean" of Malaysian politics, Abdullah and his cabinet have ended up facing the same kind of allegations that haunted Mahathir during his 22-year reign.
The irony is that Mahathir himself is leading the charge.
Mahathir, who at 81 years of age still has a sharp tongue and an acid wit, feels betrayed by Abdullah's decision to shelve some state projects that were proposed by the previous government. He says he wants answers, not Abdullah's downfall, but his attacks threaten to erode Abdullah's authority within the ruling party.
Mahathir has accused Abdullah's government of lacking "guts" and selling out Malaysian sovereignty. He has also lately attacked the business dealings of Abdullah's family members.
Kamaluddin was one of Malaysia's richest men last year with 330 million ringgit ($90 million) in wealth, according to a Malaysian Business magazine survey. He controls oil and gas services firm Scomi group
Son-in-law Khairy owns a minor stake in investment bank ECM Libra
Abdullah rejected any suggestions of nepotism, telling TV3 that his conscience was clear.
On Khairy, Abdullah said: "He bought shares to become a partner in ECM Libra...I knew he took a loan for that purpose. There is no proof that he seized government projects."
A devout Muslim, Abdullah recited some Koranic verses during the interview, part of his new tactic to respond personally to Mahathir's allegations. A nationwide roadshow is on the cards.
Abdullah's government has also embarked on a heavy spending spree, prompting speculation that he no longer has the political will to end the costly Mahathir era of mega state projects.
One of his first acts after gaining power from Mahathir in late 2003 was to shelve a major rail project.
But Abdullah recently unveiled some mega projects of his own, including a 15 billion ringgit development plan for southern Johor state. His government is also studying a proposal for a 8 billion ringgit bullet-train between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Abdullah asked Malaysians, increasingly impatient with him after securing a big reform mandate in 2004 elections, not to compare his style with Mahathir.
"This is like playing football, hardly ten minutes and people have punished me. I'm just warming up and raising the tempo," he said. "My style is different from Tun Mahathir...But I've never deviated from my long-term goal. I know where I am going."
This is the full interview of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi with Bernama chairman Datuk Annuar Zaini broadcast on TV3 Monday night.
1. Q: What are the main thrusts to fulfill the general election manifesto that were reflected in the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP)?
A: My core values are to build quality human capital. If we don't have that, we cannot achieve success as outlined in Vision 2020. We must also add value to our human capital. Lastly, we want to close the economic disparity between races and overcome unbalanced economic opportunities so that everyone, regardless of their race and economic standing, can have a better standard of living.
2. Q: Things that were your favourites or priorities did not take long to implement. Are people getting used to the physical development now?
A: The approaches being taken to achieve success in Vision 2020 must be continuous. Meaning that they will continue in 10MP, 11MP and beyond. Many projects had been announced for 9MP - to develop new areas, new corridors and other areas which needed development.
3. Q: A total of RM15bil for 880 development projects have been allocated under 9MP. Is this all?
A: This is fiscal and it is not over yet. This is just the first phase. More will be announced in time.
4. Q: Previously, the public noticed that the Prime Minister was worried about the national deficit. But suddenly, we have this big RM15bil announcement. How did this come about?
A: The country was facing a deficit economy when I took over the Prime Minister's post. The rate was quite high. It should not be allowed to go higher or it could bring negative effects. As Finance Minister, I immediately took measures to successfully reduce the deficit from year to year. The deficit and inflation rates managed to be controlled and reduced over a period of time, and the economy became a bit healthier. This in itself is a good achievement. We then decided that we are ready to set aside money to spend (for the 9MP). In fact I will announce more development plans from time to time. But when the oil prices surged at that time, what can we do. So we decided to spend money and use other approaches like PFI.
5. Q: What is the mechanism to ensure fair economic distribution and opportunity under the 9MP?
A: There are 880 development projects in this to be shared by everyone. We are not talking about big projects alone. Everyone - from Class A to Class F contractors will get a fair deal. This is not announcement that just concentrates on mega projects only. If that happens, the small-time contractors would be left wondering what would be left for them although they had been waiting over a year to secure 9MP projects.
6. Q: That is the Prime Minister's vision to do it openly and have a fair participation.
A:This will spur the sluggish construction sector and at the same time hardware shops will also reap the benefits.
7. Q: You are working hard to implement the policies. But some say you don't have the time to micro-manage. This could create a dissatisfaction and doubt that the implementation will be successful.
A: That is why, as I mentioned in thrust earlier, the fifth thrust relates to the implementation. To implement things in a better manner, we formed the National Implementation Action Body, of which I am the chairman, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak my deputy and the ministers are the members. We want to oversee that projects are implemented quickly and efficiently without any hitches. Implementation and good coordination is also important. Obviously I cannot go down and micromanage. I don't really like micro-managing things...managing details. That's not the Prime Minister's job. If the people concerned cannot do it, then get someone else. However, to ensure that the projects are implemented properly, like it or not, I still need to go down to the ground often to visit the states to find out if the right things are implemented. Recently, I visited Terengganu, I was given briefings in the district office and I asked the officers there for all the details and I pushed for things to be carried more quickly than before. I don't want delays.
8. People can see your determination. But the issues raised are on economic opportunities, tenders and how to get benefits from it. The media reports on the RM15bil projects was that it was an open tender but it had already been awarded.
A: That's not right. These allegations are giving the impression as if I had lied to the people. They give an impression that I'm lying and that I have given the RM15bil allocation to other people. This is slander. If it is true, then, put in writing. I want to know where did they get the information from. Berani kerana benar (Be brave because if it is the truth) and then we will take action. I want proof, if there is none, then be prepared to face the consequences.
9. Are you ready to open your door to those with such proofs to come and see you and give information?
A: Write a letter to me, and make a copy to others such as the police, the Anti-Corruption Agency or the related agencies. Show me the proof. I want an explanation on how he knows this happened. If these are lies, they are trying to hina (insult) me and the Government. How can they do that?
10. Q: You are noted for your clean image here and internationally, but there are talks as if your name has been damaged. How can such a situation occur?
A: I don't know how it had happened. Such people are trying to belittle me and make wild accusations. Maybe they are doing so because they have a hidden agenda. If I'm accused of being corrupt, please write and tell all. But these people seemed to only know things and nothing else. That is not sincere.
11. Q: Some believe that you still have the clean image. Others say that people around you are very influential on you. For example, your son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin.
A: Khairy once worked with me. All officers have their roles. They give their reports and views but it is my decision whether to accept or reject their views and decision. When stories came up about an influential 28-year-old in the Government, he resigned and did not want to work with me anymore. But he has to make a living like the others. He bought a small amount of shares and became a partner in ECM Libra and he took his own loans. But there is no proof that he hijacked and took over a government project.
12. Q: Is it a dilemma to have a family member as a member and political influence in Umno?
A: I've spoken frankly when he wanted to become a youth member. I remember when Hishammuddin (Umno Youth Chief and Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein) was angry with me, he would say that he (Hishammuddin) decided and suggested that Khairy should be the deputy youth chief. He told me jangan kacau (not to interfere). "Pak Lah jangan kacau. (don't interfere). This is a youth matter and the youth chose who they want. We want him…" he told me. As a youth deputy, he has to do work and how far of an influence he has on the government depends on what he can do and the work he has achieved. I don't think him (Khairy) being the son-in-law is the number one factor. We can't do something just by assuming that he is anak si polan (so-and-so's child). But as someone's child, people want to know how far is his capabilities. First, he was booed at the Umno AGM (Annual General Meeting). But when he has the capability to raise a motion on youth and economy, he was cheered and praised. Before that it was another story all together.
13. Where is the line between a family relationship and the relationship between a party president and the deputy youth chief. For example, when he comes up with business-related proposals. Does this happen and what happens then?
A: When he attended youth meetings, I was told that he never took part in pushing for this or that. When he attends youth meetings, he stands and speaks as an Umno youth representative. He has never spoken, asked, pressurised or threatened the government to give him anything. He has not come to me and said "this is my project and I want you to approve". No, he has not done that as he knows I will not give it to him.
14. Q: Is there a possibility that he is being used by some people?
A: Maybe. Some people might be looking to use him. There are people out there when they want something from a person, they seek after the person's children, son-in-law, wife and best friends. I have had cases where people have sought after my old hometown friends. Some have gone to Kepala Batas looking for me. A person who wants something will find ways to achieve their goal. Some have accused me and said that I have become a Prime Minister for so long but until today, they have not received anything while there are others who just keep quiet and don't complain much. We have to be fair and can't just give things as we like.
15. Q: There were talks that the Prime Minister was being too careful and this resulted in delays in approval of development projects.
A: If it's important we have to take the time to think over a matter, I only took over the Prime Minister’s job 2 and ˝ years ago and yes I have immense powers but I have to be very careful and there was one thing I knew when I became the Prime Minister that whatever decisions I made, good or bad, would have a bearing on the people. If it is a bad decision the people would take the brunt of the consequences and if it is good, Alhamdullillah, but I worry when it is a wrong decision many would suffer in agony.
16. Q: You are known to be a man of a gentle character but the Machiavellian political concept says that a leader should be popular and feared. Do you agree with this?
A: As a Muslim we cannot adopt the Machiavellian concept as a practice. We cannot legalise our actions at any costs. That is not the way to go and I do not hold to such philosophy.
17. Q: Singapore had personality like Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammed and compare this with you, extremely gentle and sluggish.
A: This is not a question of being gentle or tough. The question is that are we able to be firm on our standpoint and what one thinks is true and appropriate. What is important is truth and justice and that is being firm in one’s decision. I normally make hard decisions but make it look easy and I have no reasons to show this to the general public.
18. Q: The media has a perception that there are Ministers that tackles issues in two different tones. What is your comment?
A: There are certain people who speak with an ordinary tone. Samy Vellu (Works Minister Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu), for instance, speaks in a tough manner as if he wants to fight with someone. Others like Mustapa (Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed) who speaks normally without a high tone. What is important is not to differentiate from the substance aspect. I reprimanded some of them (tegur). Just read the papers. I give them a call and tell them that things should be rectified and asked them what were they talking about and told them to fix it. Previously, when Datuk Seri Law Hieng Deng was the Science, Technology and Environment Minister, I called him and asked him to check on open burning activities. He then rushed out to get to the bottom of the matter.
Another instance was when I read a story that 200 vegetable farmers were evicted although they claimed that they were legal farmers. I then asked Khir Toyo (Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo) to investigate the matter before things got out of hand and before there was a stand off between the Chinese group and the Malay-led government. I told him to handle the matter and get information and he came back and told me that the farmers had been there for quite some time and 80% of the vegetable supply in KL (Kuala Lumpur) came from this area. I solved this problem by approving the land, which is now being cultivated, by the Malays, Chinese and Indians and they have now set up a co-operative. Everything is well now.
19. Q: As we approach our 49th National Day, questions have cropped up about foreign ownerships of local companies especially by Singapore companies, which is a sensitive issue.
A: This means they have confidence in our economy. That is why they bought Malaysian business entities. The most important thing, however, is that our control over these companies are not taken over by foreigners. And none of our local companies has been taken over. Malaysian companies shares have been bought by US, Japan and Korea, people keep quiet about it but they start furore when it involves a Singapore company. I don’t know why.
20. Q: At the Umno AGM (Annual General Meeting) last year, the party’s sentiments was on Proton. Today, some say it no longer receives attention under the Pak Lah era. What is your comment?
A: This project is getting the attention it needs, as this is a national project and the pride of the nation. I will not allow Proton to tersungkur (fail). I will do everything in my power to help Proton and I know Proton is a national company. Proton has many vendors. If Proton is ‘ill’, it will directly affect many vendors. I will make sure that Proton does not fold.
21. Q: Does this mean that the National Automotive Policy will be reviewed?
A: If there are shortcomings to the policy, it will be addressed quickly.
22. Q: You are known as Mr Clean and Mr Nice Guy. Sometimes that intention is disrupted because of business interests. Besides KJ (Khairy), your son Kamaluddin is also in business and has he misused or taken advantage of his relationship with you to excel in his business?
A: Kamal has never used his relationship with me to advance in business. His business is in a field which only has two companies in the world. Of the two integrated oil companies, one is in the US (United States) and the other is his. He is not involved in many other companies and he operates overseas. Sometimes people ask why is he overseas. He tells them that since his father has become the Prime Minister, it is difficult for him to make a living here. That is why he opted to do it overseas. Eighty percent of his contracts are from overseas and that is where he gets his rezeki (livelihood). Petronas usually participates in international open tenders. Any tenders he gets is too small compared to what he gets overseas and he also has to compete for the tenders with other companies. He usually gets tenders from companies like Shell and Esso because it is related with oil and gas. He has never asked for help from the Government. There is also no bail out. None.
23.Q: In your capacity as the Finance Minister, has his company obtained government tenders?
A: No, not at all. To my knowledge, he has not received any. He does not manage the business and is only the major shareholder and had made a move to buy a Singapore company with 188 ships to transport coal.
24. Q: Some say that the Penang monorail is reserved for Kamal. Is that true?
A: Siapa cakap? (Who said so?) I tell you, it is hard to be nice.
25. Q: Maybe it is time now not to be too gentle?
A: I am worried as well that things might turn out to be difficult if I push it too far.
26. Q: I cannot run away on why Datuk Seri is said to remain quiet on Dr Mahathir, to be evasive and not face reality
A: I chose to keep quiet because I do not want to quarrel with Tun (Dr Mahathir) in the newspaper. Tun said in a statement that he was slighted because he did not get the information he asked for and if the Prime Minister does not speak, let the ministers speak. I chose to let the ministers speak. There are a lot of things he raised come under the ministers' jurisdiction. They should be responsible to explain to the people. People want to know and many Cabinet ministers prefer that I don't speak. Many feel that it is better that I don't speak, many say that Paklah go on and speak. So it became chaotic. Let the ministers speak; this is not about being evasive. The questions raised were directed to the Government and the Government answers.
27. Q: Some questions were directed to you and your family members
A: I don't like to bring up matters relating to my family. That is my view. I know that my children are not involved in things as claimed by certain people. Since you asked, my answer is that my children are not involved in companies and concessions that are appointed by the Government or hope for the Government's assistance and bailout and ask for this and that. Khairy Jamaludin as a son-in-law does his own work. He looks for his own job. He cannot live without a job, how to take care of his wife and children?
28. Q: The misperception, from a rumour can turn big. What are the steps that should be taken? As a leader you need to think about a powerful formula
A: I felt that if I play football for less that 10 minutes, people should not punish me. My style is different from Dr Mahathir's style. I don't run away from the Vision 2020 in view of the current situation, the escalating oil prices. So I have to choose my style and I am responsible for what I have chosen. People say that I do things as Khairy says. There is no such thing. How can I suffer for so many years in politics until I become the Prime Minister and then surrender my power to him?
29. Q: You have a huge agenda for the people, but the Government seem to be giving more emphasis to the poor among the Malays rather than those among non-Malays.
A: We want to eradicate poverty regardless of race. We want to eliminate hardcore poverty at least by 2010. That policy has never changed, but many among the poor are the Malays. It seems as though we are focusing on the Malays and we neglect the Indians. Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu always asks for special allocation to help the Indians. I strongly uphold to the strategy that whatever developments must benefit the people. We can't run away from that. I am Barisan Nasional chairman, I am the Prime Minister to Barisan Government and all races. How can I not help other races? Justice must be upheld. I hold on to the fact that Allah wants me to be fair. Fair to the people, that is the responsibility entrusted by Allah. I hold on strongly to that. To me I should be a pious Prime Minister, fulfilling the fardu kifayah, with the power as a Prime Minister certainly I want to increase charitable work, surely I want to be fair to all, that is my belief.
30. Q: When you took over with a huge mandate between three and six months after the elections, you reminded the Mentris Besar that their honeymoon is over. You honeymoon all your life with Endon.
A: Her love is fair and sincere. That is Endon. She does not doubt that and I proved it. My love is fair and sincere. That is my belief. That is why when people cannot see me, I feel sad. They say I have a lot of other work. I have to ask whether they come from far. If they come from far places, even how small their intentions are, they are big enough to them. How can they come from far and spend so much money unless they have high hopes that they could see me.