Moving forward to becoming a developed nation

Still fresh from hosting the ASEAN summits, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi met with a group of international journalists, including The Jakarta Post's Endy M. Bayuni, at his office in Putrajaya near Kuala Lumpur last week. He talked at length about his vision and the challenges Malaysia faces. The journalists were part of a Visit Malaysia program organized by the Institute for Strategic and International Studies. The following are excerpts from the interview.

From The Jakarta Post of December 26, 2005

Question: When you succeeded Dr. Mahathir Muhammad in 2004, people said you had a tough act to follow. What is the philosophy of your leadership?

Answer: To be firm about many things and not only about whether I am trying to be strong or trying to be weak, trying to be soft or trying to be hard. The substance of decisions that leaders made must be fair to all. Fairness and justice must be the strong reasons for why you want to do certain things.

How do you distinguish yourself from Dr. Mahathir?

My emphasis has been on the development of human capital. You can give soldiers the best weapons, but if he does not know how to shoot, then what is the use?
Some people accuse me of taking Malaysia back by several years by turning to agriculture. But now, with biotechnology, the possibilities of making agriculture a fully growth sector is there, because there, more and more people are involved.
On good governance, accountability and transparency, that's what I am aiming at. I have already set up the National Integrity Institute. We must battle corruption. Corruption is a disease, like a type of cancer, that if allowed to spread, the entire society will crumble. It's not easy to fight corruption.
Malaysians today are free to express their views and opinions. We have a very strong majority of 90-percent plus. I have allowed my backbenchers in parliament to ask very tough questions for members of the government. I told them that your role is to be constructive in your criticisms.
This nation is moving forward to becoming a developed country by 2020. We're carrying Dr. Mahathir's vision forward. This is a government that is a continuation of the previous one.
The style of Dr. Mahathir and mine are different. We're two different persons. We have different ways of doing things, different perceptions of what needs to be done and how things should be done. I am not concerned about that. I've been given the biggest mandate ever obtained by any Malaysian leader.

Are you reviewing the affirmative action policy of favoring the indigenous Malay?

We introduced the New Economic Policy in 1971 with a set of policies to help promote the Malay people who were lagging behind, not only economically, but also in education and in many other aspects. We don't want another problem of race riots. We would not allow this situation (disparity) to remain permanently because socially it is not good and politically it is going to be destructive in the future.
There is nothing wrong with trying to strike a better balance, there is nothing wrong with giving a handicap to those who are lagging behind. When you play golf you have a handicap, right? So we give them handicap.
People must have equal opportunity to do well.

Is this not discriminatory? Do you plan to end it soon?

It's a policy of expanding the cake and of distributing it equitably. If you're giving somebody more than what they have before, and you have to take that portion from somebody else's share, then you are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
But if you expand the cake, percentage-wise, may be you're getting less but in reality you're getting more. Thirty percent of a small cake is small, but 20 percent of a big cake is big, and 10 percent of a much bigger cake is big.
The approach is to level up those who are down without forcing the others to come down. If am able to come to a situation where the balance is acceptable, we'll go on improving. It's just a matter of time when this (policy) will not be important anymore. It takes time to restructure society. This policy is supported by the national government of the National Front, a coalition of 13 political parties representing all the races.

What are the main challenges to the Malaysian economy? How do you see the rise of Chinese and Indian economies?

The main challenge is competitiveness, that is, the ability to compete for everything, for the market and for the resources.
China has emerged as a competitor. Many countries see China as a threat. We look at China as a friend and an opportunity. A good neighbor who is doing well is an opportunity for us. We can't be doing what China is doing. We cannot go for industries that rely on low cost labor because we don't have that anymore. We have to find a niche for ourselves. Something that we can do, something we can face favorably.
We look at ASEAN as a group. Economically speaking, the integration of ASEAN is becoming more and more intensive. ASEAN has a population of 530 million, an area rich in natural resources and human capital. We are among the top traders. Malaysia is the world's 18th largest trader. Thailand and Singapore are also world traders. This is a thriving area. We can position ourselves favorably vis-a-vis China and India. I don't want to say that we are powerful, but we're very viable to face the competition.

Is Malaysia trying to become the most "Muslim" nation in the world?

It is our duty to be a good Muslim. We work hard. When we do the right thing, people will look at us, give us some recognition. We have to make sure that we continue on this path. We're happy if people say that Malaysia emerges as a model of a very successful Muslim country with a government that pursues a policy of national unity.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"