‘1 Malaysia is really taking root’ — Najib Razak

By The Malaysian Insider

In an interview with CNN’s Talk Asia which first aired on Wednesday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak spoke on race and religion matters, among other issues. Here are excerpts of the interview with CNN anchor Anna Coren.

You are the leader of a very diverse, complex society, made up of Malays, Chinese, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Hindus. This in itself creates a whole range of problems, but you are trying to unite the country under 1 Malaysia. Tell us about this policy.

The ultimate aim is to strengthen national unity. This policy means that we’ll try to be as inclusive as possible, in a sense that we should have a government that is able to reach out to all communities. While we fight for Bumiputera interest … at the same time we have to be fair to the other races as well.

Of course, there are challenges but the very fact that we have got so far and we’ve progressed so much, means that we have got it right and I intend to build on this — what my predecessors have done — build on it and take it even further.

This sounds good in theory, but is it just words?

No, I think it’s beginning to seep down. People have a sense that there is a greater identification, this concept of 1 Malaysia is really taking root in our society. It’s a journey of course. I keep on telling people that you can find things that are not right today, but it’s a journey for as long as we are getting better, stronger, more cohesive society …

Basic minimum is tolerance. But that’s the basic minimum. Then from tolerance you move to acceptance. That’s the next level. Then the apex of it all is if you can celebrate diversity. Celebrating diversity means you are very, very comfortable with the notion of a plural society and you see diversity as a source of strength for the nation and not otherwise.

On the issue of diversity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that multiculturalism was an utter failure in her country. Some would say that multiculturalism isn’t working here either. What would be your response?

On the contrary, I’m a great believer that is working … We’ve really gone very far in developing this country and I’m confident that this journey towards transforming Malaysia to become a fully-developed, high-income nation by 2020 is doable.

Racial tension has long been an issue in Malaysia. There were the race riots of 1969 and that was when your father Tun Abdul Razak, the second prime minister of Malaysia, introduced affirmative action… The idea was to close the gap between the poorer Malays and the wealthier and more entrepreneurial Chinese and Indians. Has that worked?

It has worked but it has not come to the stage where we can say that we have a very equitable society, but it’s getting better. For example, there was no significant Bumiputera middle-class before the NEP (New Economic Policy) was implemented and today, we have a burgeoning middle-class comprised of many professionals both in the government as well as the private sector.

But as we move forward, the bone of contention with respect to the NEP is not the fact that the objectives are not accepted, or people quibble about objectives — it is how it has been implemented. So I’m looking at the implementation of affirmative action so that it’s seen to be fairer, seen to be more market friendly and seen to be inclusive.

Because many would say the affirmative action policy has helped ethnic Malays, but it has left behind the minorities, is it time to create a level-playing field?

Well, actually, it depends how you look at performance. Certainly if you look at the more entrepreneurial Chinese, they’ve done pretty well under the New Economic Policy. We can show statistics and the most glaring, of course, is if you take the top 20 billionaires or multi-millionaires in the country and you see the list of who they are in terms of their ethnic disparity, if you like.

But I’m more concerned with the bottom 40 per cent of society and that includes the non-Bumiputeras, some of the Indians in the estates, for example, some of the poorer Chinese and also people in Sabah and Sarawak — those are the people who might have a sense that the policies have not really benefited them as much as they should. So we are reviewing that.

And if you look at the New Economic Model and the Economic Transformation Plan, we talk about this group … and the Budget that I presented about ten days ago has got specific provisions to help the lower income group. We’re talking about people earning RM3,000 a month and below. That’s a group that is getting bigger and bigger and that needs to be addressed.

We’ve spoken about the racial tension in your country. There’s also been religious tension as early as just this year. There were those church burnings. Why is it such a sore point?

You have freedom of faith in this country. Every single faith should be allowed to pray in their own way. But what you do should not impact the feelings of others … That, I think, is a very reasonable position.