Finally, a moment of truth: PM's BFM interview


IT HAS been a whirlwind September for most Malaysians. We have had three long weekends in a row, celebrated the coronation of our much-beloved King, followed by Malaysia Day and grappling with the haze situation once again, which only going to get worse – according to the experts. At the same time, the political temperature continues to rise with the inking of a formal pact between Umno (and by extension, Barisan Nasional) and PAS that will likely alter the political dynamics and compel the government to adopt a more “Malay/Muslim” focus. The economy remains anaemic as we grapple with the trade war between China and the United States, and commodities continue to be priced in the low region – putting a strain on the pockets of Malaysians. However, despite all the humdrum and melancholic news – we enjoyed a much-needed moment of truth from our Prime Minister that I hope will set things in perspective and serve to manage the expectations of Malaysians. I listened intently to the Prime Minister’s interview on BFM 89.9 on Sept 18,2019. I must praise the questioner for his courage in asking tough questions – something that is sorely lacking amongst journalists today. Allow me to digress a little – the media plays an important role and serves as the fourth estate of democracy. Journalists need to ask the tough questions, so the truth gets out, and the people are sufficiently informed. Knowledge is power, and with that power, Malaysians will be able to make the right decisions for the future of our country. The proliferation of social media especially Facebook and WhatsApp have dented the credibility and prevalence of the traditional media, i.e. print, radio and television but I still believe unverified news obtained from social media is bad, and it can cause conflict and misunderstanding. One of the failures of the previous government was its ability to communicate – truthfully and effectively – and that caused it to lose support and the election eventually. I say this with the caveat that communication was not the previous government’s only problem; indeed, they were many more. And I recall how Barisan ministers would be ridiculed in Parliament by the opposition over many issues because explanations lacked honesty and credibility. Now that this same group of former opposition lawmakers find themselves in the seats of power – they are exhibiting the same malaise. Let’s take the example of the Minister of Finance. It is evident that the national debt has gone up under the Pakatan Harapan government and Bank Negara has confirmed this. However, Lim Guan Eng refuses to acknowledge this fully. Second, the current Minister of Housing wants to sell unsold properties to people from China, Hong Kong and other East Asian states. However, not so long ago, the central campaign plank of her party and coalition was against the purchase of properties by foreigners and the Forest City project in Johor was used as a whipping boy to drum this message. Third, Pakatan berated the former Minister of Federal Territories for perceived dodgy land deals in Kuala Lumpur that benefited developers disproportionately. However, the current FT Minister refuses to recant any of these allegedly dodgy land deals. Now let me return to Dr Mahathir’s interview with BFM 89.9. It was a rare moment of truth from Pakatan, and it is good that it came from the No 1 man himself. Dr Mahathir was sharp and incisive despite being a nonagenarian. He took on the hard questions – ranging from the economy, politics, national unity, Zakir Naik, succession, the performance of his cabinet, Malay/Muslim consolidation, vernacular education, tolls and much more – answering each question clearly with nuances. On the economy, the Dr Mahathir admitted to headwinds due to both local and global factors and recognised that more needs to be done and asked for Malaysians to be patient. It was not the most comforting answer, but it was honest. He also confirmed that he would hand over power to PKR president, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim once the country is on a stronger footing. While not seeking to downplay Anwar’s strengths, I believe the PM believes he needs to complete his mandate before handing transferring power. The PM also touched on the sensitive issues of vernacular education. Education is a divisive issue in Malaysia as ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians want the option of having their children educated in their mother tongue. I, for one, have never been a fan of vernacular education. I do not see how we can unite as a nation when not all of us can communicate in a single language. While learning many languages is an asset, we need to mix to understand one another. I think there needs to be a debate on education in Malaysia on vernacular education and all options must be on the table, including abolishing it. On unity, racial politics and Malay-Muslim consolidation, Dr Mahathir was as usual self-contradictory. The PM said, “Racial politics has no role to play if we all forget our origin and believe we are all Malaysians.” However, his party Bersatu is exclusively for ethnic Malays and native Malaysians only. So I think on this account, the PM must walk the talk and open up the membership of his party to all ethnic groups. The PM also disappointed me on the issue of Zakir Naik. Dr. Mahathir admitted Naik was a problem but is unwilling to return him to India. Even though the PM said there had been no explicit request from India for Naik to be extradited; India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar confirmed some hours after the interview that India wants Zakir Naik extradited. Considering the close economic, social, political and cultural ties between India and Malaysia, it would be wise to ensure Zakir Naik is returned to India to face answer for his actions. The PM also admitted that the government could not abolish the tolls on highways because it would cost too much money and the government could ill afford it. In summation, not all of Dr. Mahathir’s answers were music to my ears, but at least it was an honest account of the government’s work and the constraints it faces. I believe, moving on from this, Pakatan should reassess its manifesto and tell Malaysians which promises it can keep and explain those it cannot. While they will be seen as a “U-turn” government by some, in doing so, they will earn the respect of Malaysians for being honest and truthful. It is also a lesson to all other political outfits in Malaysia – be careful with what you promise and be even more cautious with what you wish for.

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