Koh: Don’t miss window of opportunity

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PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is unveiling today the broad objectives of the government’s New Economic Model (NEM) towards extricating the country from the middle-income trap.The government transformation programme (GTP), which is premised on six national key result areas (NKRAs) and ministerial key result areas (MKRAs), and national unity form core complementary parts of NEM. The man tasked with drawing up and implementing the GTP is Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon, the Gerakan president and former Penang chief minister. Speaking to The Edge Financial Daily (TEFD) recently, Koh described the last two years as an “adjustment” period for the government, Barisan Nasional (BN) and Gerakan. The 61-year-old Penangite believes that the GTP and Najib’s 1Malaysia policy will play a key role in improving the coalition’s fortunes. In this first part of a two-hour interview, Sharon Tan and Chan Kok Leong talk to Koh about the challenges facing the country.

TEFD: What is your assessment of the country, two years after March 8, 2008?Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon (KTK): Well, I would liken this to the aftermath and aftershocks of a major tsunami and earthquake. We are now still in the period of adjustments.

I would say there is still too much politicking and posturing. After elections, the government entrusted with the mandate either at the federal or the state, either Barisan (Nasional) or Pakatan (Rakyat) should actually focus on governing, on delivering what the people expect us to do.

TEFD: Has BN settled down? KTK: We are still going through the process of adjustment, some quite painful. But overall, I would say that what happened in ‘08 until now perhaps can also be seen positively as a process of maturing and growing of a democracy working itself out.

While before March ‘08, you wouldn’t have imagined that it would have been possible to see what had happened. The opposition was shocked. Four months into his job, (Lim) Guan Eng was still telling people, even in front of me, that he was still in a state of shock.

TEFD: Looking forward to the next two years, leading to the next general election, how well do you think the country would fare economically, socially and politically? KTK: Speaking objectively, the next two to three years are extremely crucial for Malaysia. First of all, in terms of our economy, we have to make sure that we are competitive again because we are up against a lot of competitors that have emerged in the last 10 to 15 years. We are no longer in that privileged position that we used to be in, before the emergence of China, Vietnam and India.

It is absolutely crucial to drive the transformation of government in order to ensure good and effective delivery of benefits to the people and the economy. Najib as PM has gained some confidence from investors because he has a very good grasp of economics.

Politically, I hope that political parties will settle down within the next few months. Then perhaps we would be able to have a period of real governing and real delivery for the people. Otherwise, I think we will be in for trouble, we will miss this window of opportunity to turn things around for the country.

Many of the problems that we are handling today, frankly, came from the past. But there are also new problems emerging, new challenges that were unexpected. For example, the economic crisis in the last two years triggered off the collapse of the “house of cards”, posing tremendous challenges that need to be handled.

Hence, prospects for the next two years depend on whether there will be less politicking, less posturing, more real governing, real work. That is my analysis.

TEFD: What happens if we miss this window of opportunity? KTK: Then I am worried. We are at an infraction point, if you want to look at it in terms of a curve. We can either go up or go down. That is why we must have a sense of urgency and a focused sense of purpose.

TEFD: And the government is doing all it can to make sure that we will make full use of this window? KTK: From working together with PM Najib and my colleagues in the cabinet, there is definitely this sense of awareness, this sense of urgency. We still have to struggle with some legacies of the past. For example, this whole issue of fuel price, fuel subsidy, electricity tariffs that ... were framed by decisions of the past, which are very difficult to immediately unwind.

From my observation and working with PM Najib, there is definitely a will to do more. He is doing his best and we are doing our best, but we need a lot more understanding and support in order to really turn things around.

TEFD: What is it like working for the PM? KTK: Well, I find it challenging because he is highly intellectual. He has a very good grasp of economics and the world situation. From what I know, he is an avid reader. Every time he will try to push the limits and see how much we can do.  

Of course, in a complex society like Malaysia, very often we still need to settle for a workable equilibrium and an acceptable equitable arrangement so that you won’t tip the balance completely, leading to an unstable situation which will not be healthy.

It is a process which we are engaged in and the exercise in the GTP actually gave us a strong sense of confidence that if we are focused, we can actually get a lot of good strategies by syndicating and getting ideas from the people, the stakeholders.

TEFD: How do you find the 1Malaysia concept? Is it working? KTK: The 1Malaysia concept with its emphasis on unity in diversity, as well as on people first and performance now, is a good rallying cry for a country as complex as Malaysia.

First, on unity, by emphasising on accepting and not just tolerating, respecting and appreciating diversity, we are taking a major step forward.

1Malaysia also actually fits in very well with the Gerakan ideology and with my own personal world view that we should be accommodative and inclusive, and looking at diversity as a strength and as an asset to the nation.

For example, in the economic sphere, we can leverage our cultural connections with China, India and the Islamic countries and with the Western, English-speaking world. So if we can really look at it from a positive point of view, 1Malaysia is definitely a good philosophy to guide us.

However, because of the complexity and the diversity of our society, 1Malaysia will also mean that we have to accept the reality of divergent views, some of which may be quite extreme.

So how do we manage it? How do we manage the polarity, people holding two different polar positions, quite diametrically opposite sometimes? We have to then take an inclusive approach.

Secondly, “people first” is a good slogan to remind political leaders why we are elected in the first place and the civil servants why they are employed to attend to problems if it is not for the people. “People first” in the context of 1Malaysia also means that we have to treat all Malaysians justly and fairly.

At the end of it, performance now, because even with the best intentions, if we don’t perform, nothing gets delivered, nothing gets done and it will be (an) empty slogan. To me, it is a journey and perhaps a never-ending journey for all leaders.

TEFD: People have problems relating to it because you talk about one and we are not really one in the sense that there is the debate about bumiputera and non-bumiputera. How do we reconcile that? KTK: But then you see, when you talk about unity in diversity, we are accepting diversity. Right? In fact we should be appreciating diversity. So the very definition of diversity, the very fact that we are multi-racial, multi-religious, we can never be a uniform (society). Let us say that unity is not uniformity.

When we talk about unity in diversity, we are not talking about imposing uniformity because that in itself is already against the concept of unity in diversity.

It will take a period of time to adjust. We are evolving. Perceptions are changing. There are bound to be reactions too. But it is only normal.

TEFD: You have been in politics for a long time, since 1982, and the country has been around for 52 years now. Why are we coming back to the same problem about unity? KTK: In any relationship, human relationship, it takes constant nurturing and reminding that we are different. Have you read the book Men (are) from Mars and Women (are) from Venus, about men and women?

What more, two or more communities with different religions, different cultures, different languages?

Let me take a quick example of the United States that started as a country with proclamation of independence that “all men are born equal”, yet slavery lasted for a hundred years.

After a civil war, the emancipation, the blacks still did not get their voting rights automatically until another 100 years.

There was segregation in the south and it took the enlightened whites plus prominent black leaders like Martin Luther King to bring about the great change. How many years later that you see Obama? But even Obama is part of mainstream America.

No doubt we could have done better. But if we compare ourselves to many other countries, we have not done that badly, to be fair. There is a reservoir of goodwill. The various communities are not savage communities. They are all peace-loving.

TEFD: You are saying here that we are slowly progressing, I can accept that. But even in the 1980s, given the state of politics that BN had then, no Gerakan leaders would have had their photographs torn? Or an effigy (of Guan Eng) burned? My question is, have we regressed that we have to come back to 1Malaysia? KTK: I would look at it differently. Because demonstration and even with… I don’t want to use the word “violence”, but at least some misbehaviour or overzealous behaviour, has also been a common feature of evolving democracies like Taiwan and Thailand, not to talk about the Western countries, where they also burn effigies. Perhaps we have learnt from them in a wrong way! I am against the burning of (the) effigy of Guan Eng.

It all started with the “reformasi” demonstrations of ’98, how sometimes it turned quite violent. So I think we should still insist on cultivating a culture of responsibility while having as much freedom as we should. I think if you start comparing to other countries, we are along the same line.

But demonstrations, by all means, but it must be peaceful. I would rather see gatherings in assembly halls or even in a stadium, not on the streets. I would rather see a debate, even an open debate on TV.

TEFD: The past few months we have issues such as church burning, are we more disunited now? Many of us were shocked when it happened. We are talking about unity but it seems to be more of disunity. KTK: I look at societal progress in a spiral, it goes in loops. Although you may have advanced, sometimes it goes backward a bit before you go further. If you had asked me the same question a few years ago, I would have quoted you the example in France where there was also rioting. And the most recent decision, referendum by Switzerland to ban the minaret, would you then say Switzerland has regressed?

I would say that there are definitely latent feelings of discontent that sometimes find expressions in an improper manner.

But I would like to take a larger view, a longer view. If you look at society and politics in 1982 when I first joined politics, at that time emphasis was very much on mono-culture. But we have now become more multi-cultural.

TEFD: To each its own sort of thing. KTK: Lion dance was not acceptable (then). In fact to get (a) permit for a lion dance, you had to go through four or five departments. You could not even have lion dance anywhere you like. In education, (there) were only public universities. Yet, today, you have true multi-culturalism expressed in official performances, encapsulated by the slogan of “Malaysia Truly Asia”.

Higher education, look at the number of private universities and colleges. They now number in the hundreds. So, in that sense, we have advanced in terms of integrating and accepting, culturally, educationally.  

Like every human relationship as we move closer and closer together, there are some inner cores when the boundaries start to move into each other. For example, because of increasing inter-marriages, then the issue of conversion and custody of children came into sharper focus. All it took were just a few irresponsible parents abusing their parental rights to create the havoc and to create some inter-religious friction in terms of differences of opinion.

But this is because we are becoming more and more integrated. We are moving closer together and we more or less feel comfortable with respect to culture, education and even language.

Nowadays, you find a lot of non-Chinese parents sending their children to Chinese schools and it is not seen as something negative but something positive.

They are able to do it, number one. Number two, they would be able to become more multilingual and will have the advantage in the new world of the future. I would see that this is a period of adjustment.

In the firebombing of the church, I was actually quite moved when I went on the ground and when I heard stories... in fact one of the first to arrive were the Malays from the neighbouring areas. They came to help.

There are bound to be the small fringe groups that would take society to ransom. So we should refuse to be held ransom by them.

In other words, I don’t see greater disunity but although definitely it has created higher anxiety. There are definitely arguments about religion, about this and that; people feel uncomfortable. They tend to take polar positions. And (it’s) not easy to get the zone of inclusiveness to be further enlarged. We have to go through a process of exchange of views, getting to know one another’s positions and feelings. We have to eventually sort it out, remembering and referring to our basic tenets of the constitution and the Rukunegara.

In a way, it is just like asking a question, how come husband and wife still quarrel after 30 years? Well then, I would say it is a very common human condition. People are also self- restrained, because the vast majority of the people know that they cannot overstep the boundaries.

It is the small fringe groups that very often cause the troubles. Besides condemning them, in my opinion, we should not give them space and face. That is why sometimes I don’t want to engage them. The more you engage them, the more they have the face and the space.

TEFD: That is all very interesting from the fringe groups’ perspective but in contrast to that there are a couple of embarrassing situations with the government, whereupon the PM’s aide made some unacceptable remarks. KTK: Sure. But then you see the action was immediate. The same afternoon, he resigned. That shows the awareness and the determination. But it also shows that our society has not become monolithic.

TEFD: What are the challenges in implementing the GTP? KTK: Wow! That is another story! (laughs)

TEFD: What is the toughest thing that you are facing? KTK: Well, implementation. Or you call it execution, except that “execution” carries another meaning, a harsher meaning. But implementation (is) how you get it done?

We were appointed in April. In May, I set up the first workshop for the cabinet ministers, then June, July, August.  We had four cabinet workshops in four months and in every workshop there is a minimum of one day, some two days that the PM himself sat from the beginning to the end, actively leading and pushing.

Then we decided we have to do more because the implementation is the great challenge. It took us two months to convince (Datuk Seri) Idris Jala to come on board.

He was so reluctant to move into a more complex organisation called the government after having succeeded in MAS. When he came on board, that is when there was a lot of implementation work, using the concept of labs on how to get people together, really go down to the details of implementation. That started in October.

We are beginning to see some results because people have become more focused. We are guided by figures, facts. We are also guided by syndication of the feelings on the ground. That is why the walkabout, the direct engagement with the people.

For example, one of the interesting things is (we have) more feet on the street (to assist) the police where we get the Rela (volunteer corps) to come in.

Now the next stage, we are going to get the Rukun Tetangga to come in. But we also require (that) the IGP must be on the street, the OCPD, the CPO. So it is very direct engagement, done in a very professional and systematic way.

But that is only the beginning. We are only talking about six NKRAs. Then we have to do it for the 29 ministries and the 700-over agencies. For those corporate people who have gone through this exercise of KPI, I think they were impressed by how much we have done, because they found it’s not an easy exercise.

But what is encouraging from the labs that we have held, the eight labs we held in October and November, involving 240-over government officers, they are (from) the middle (level) and (of) younger age. They emerged very confident, very committed and see real transformations in the way they deal with things. And this was very intensive. Six weeks, five days a week, 10 hours a day of engagement. It was actually transformation by doing. So the labs are just not brainstorming or talk shop but real work.

Now we are extending this concept of lab to many other issues. For example, we have a lab on the GST (Goods and Services Tax), subsidy. We are using this methodology to actually get the best from the civil servants, as well as from the business community who are invited to join us, or even the NGOs.

So we are seeing some real transformation happening, except that we have to duplicate it and to really promote it. Resistance is definitely there, there is inertia in anything. One of it is that you need to do more work, number one. Number two, things are becoming much more transparent than before. More accountable.

But we have a system to say that you’d better work. Everybody is being judged. The real results will only come in after another year or two.

Read the second part of this interview tomorrow. Koh will talk about his plans for Gerakan.

This article appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, March 30, 2010.