Saturday, June 5, 2004

"I wanted to study economics but I failed my statistics paper."



CNN: Welcome to this very special edition of TalkAsia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Malaysia is celebrating their King's Birthday this weekend. And we'd like to play our part in marking this special occasion. We bring to you a rare, in-depth interview of the man entrusted as Malaysia's fifth prime Minister -Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

When Mister Badawi took over the helm last October, he had a lot to live up to. But that didn't stop him from immediately implementing some of his own policies when he came on board. A high profile businessman and a minister were charged as part of his anti-corruption campaign. While some Mahathir-era mega infrastructure projects were canceled. In March, voters responded by giving the government coalition a stunning victory. Experts say it was Mr. Badawi's "Mr. Clean" image and Islamic scholar credentials that struck a chord with the people. At 64, Prime Minister Abdullah is vowing to continue with his reforms. And to live up as best as he can, to voters' expectations.

CNN: The Prime Minister kindly gave us more than an hour of his time recently at the Finance Ministry in Putrajaya. I began by asking him how far he is willing to go in his anti-corruption drive, without fear, and without favor?

PM: That’s what I promised everybody, without fear, without favor and that is the case. If that has to be brought to the court, well, we will bring it to the court. But I have always said that it’s important we must make sure that justice is at all time be maintained.

CNN: How will you follow up with this anti-corruption campaign?

PM: We continue to remind civil servants people. This is a subject that I always talk about, it is also a subject my other colleagues in the cabinet talk about. We have now recently launched the national integrity plan. We have also set up the national institute for ethics. This institute and also the implementation of the national integrity plan, that will certainly do the follow up that is necessary for this.

CNN: What would make you satisfied? What would be something that makes you happy?

PM: I will be happy with certainly when the corruption index improve.

CNN: By how much?

PM: As much as we can

CNN: Some would say they are disappointed with your cabinet that in the sense you have maintained a number of Mahathir’s ministers in the cabinet, and that way you may not be able to really push through new and true reforms?

PM: Well, that’s the impression they have, but as far as I am concern, I must appoint cabinet people that I know and I believe who can perform the job. I always said that you can use the same vehicle although the driver will change, or the same vehicle to go for the race. It’s a different driver, this is exactly what’s happening to the cabinet. There are new faces too, they will see that the new faces are in the lower echelon, among the deputy ministers. That’s important, we have to bring them early, we have to introduce them to the process of change because when we come to the year 2020, the new ones will be in the frontline already. They will be the driver seat, they will be then the decision makers. Their decisions will decide the future of Malaysia, 2020 and beyond.

CNN: What are some of other your key priorities as prime minister, whether they are education, unity?

PM: We are now giving attention to the improvement of the public service delivery system. That is an on going program now. We have seen some improvements. I believe it is an important project, it makes the cost of doing business lower and they will make us more competitive at the same time, it will also provide some satisfaction to the people who demand services for them of the quality they want and also quickly. Of course education becomes very very important and that’s for our human resource development.

CNN: We hear recently of course of tensions in Southern Thailand, between the border of Thailand and Malaysia, how big a concern is this for you?

PM: Very very big concern. In fact, just across the border. This one, it involves the Muslims and they are also Malays, many of them have relatives on our side of the border. They travel frequently crossing the border, to and fro everyday, it’s an every day affair. So anything that happen on that side, I fear there might be repercussions on our side. So we have to act quickly, but we make sure we are not going to interfere with what is happening in Thailand, that’s not right too. I told Mr. Thaskin, Datuk Najid my deputy to go to Bangkok to see someone there. Of course Mr. Thaskin gave him the opportunity to have this discussion And I am very very happy with the outcome of the discussions. We have been given a role to play. We have been asked to provide, to give lectures on the role of Islamic development and the way we do it here, so the people who are Muslims there would understand what the role of Islam is. The idea is that they wouldn’t want to deal with militant Islam but an Islam and Muslims who are committed to progress, committed to development, who like peace and are moderate in their ways. So that’s what we are doing here.

CNN: When you see pictures recently, for example of the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Iraq by coalition forces. I am sure that must be hard for some people like you to see. How do you ensure that this anti-American or anti-western sentiment for that matter doesn’t spill over to Muslim countries like Malaysia for example and people remain calm?

PM: These are lessons for us. We do not have to go to the same experience to know what it means. Let the experience rather be a lesson to us, and make sure it doesn’t happen to us. We have followed a path of moderation, development is our priority, national unity, good community relations, Muslims and non Muslims, this is what has given us the advantage. We have been successful because of this. So this we have to maintain at all cost.

CNN: Up next on TalkAsia: Why was Mr. Badawi dropped from the cabinet-at one stage in his political career. And how did he make his comeback. More on our personal conversation with the prime minister, just ahead.

CNN: Welcome back to TalkAsia and our very special interview with Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. As the son of a respected Islamic scholar and founding member of Malaysia's ruling party UMNO, it seemed natural that Mr. Badawi would follow in his father's footsteps. But that calling only gained momentum after his father passed away, and a decade as a civil servant. Mr. Badawi was first elected to parliament in 1978 under his home town constituency in Penang. He quickly rose up the ranks and held various Ministerial posts before becoming Prime Minister last year. But it wasn't always smooth sailing. We'll soon find out about that but first, let's hear a little, about his childhood.

PM: I don’t know whether I was studious or not, I did study but did play around too. As a child, the paddy field was my playground. We go fish, we also catch fighting fish, looking for birds and it was for kampong people, the paddy field was our the play field for the children.

CNN: Prime Minister, you won a scholarship to read economics, yet you decided
to study Islamic studies?

PM: No, no, I tell you the truth. (CNN: okay, you tell me) I wanted to study economics but I failed my statistics paper. I fumbled my standard. The question was standard deviate, the paper was on statistics, I don’t know how I did it so bad, so I was not allowed to continue to do all my honors course in economics and I had to choose other subjects for which I was qualified. So I decided to choose Islamic Studies.

CNN: Why?

PM: Somehow at the time I was thinking of my grandfather. Because he has always wanted me to go for religious education, he wanted me to go to Mecca. Somehow at that time my father had another view, he said I must continue my English education, so that was what he wanted. My grandfather gave in, okay if that’s what you all want. So I went to English school, secondary English school, so forget going to Mecca for my religious education. So when I had to make a decision whether I would like to do honors degree course in Islamic studies and Malay studies too, so I thought Islamic studies would be good.

CNN: Amazing. And then after that you went into civil service. Why did you join politics and not stay in civil service?

PM: I have always been interested in politics. I was in the student union before, very active.

CNN: Now you rose quickly up the ranks, yet at one period of time, you backed a faction that was against Dr. Mahathir, is that correct and therefore you got kicked out of government?

PM: I was dropped from the cabinet

CNN: You were dropped from the cabinet, okay, what were those days like?

PM: Three years and nine months, I always describe it as like a Japanese occupation! Those were hard times. But during that period, I was still the vice president of the party, so I still had a lot of political work to do.

CNN: Is it true though when you were dropped from the cabinet, even people at the golf course wouldn’t speak to you?

PM: They don’t speak to me, some even run away. They see me in a distance and walking and walking, when they saw me, they go somewhere else. (CNN: nothing to do with your golf game right?) Nothing to do with it. I just picked up golf, it was good, give me a chance to play golf.

CNN: And how did you make such a come back and win the trust of former Prime Minister Mahathir?

PM: Well, there are other aspects, I still command very good support in the party. I always go down, maintain contact with them. I have an office right in the city, I still receive many people who come to see me. If not for anything, just chit-chatting. And then we have lunch somewhere, that’s all. That’s was what office was for.

CNN: Prime Minister, is Tun Dr. Mahathir a hard act to follow?

PM: It’s not easy to follow him. I would rather do things in my own way. Not his way. I can’t do it his way. He is a different man, it’s not the same.

CNN: Is he still pretty vocal?

PM: Less vocal than before.

CNN: Still under his shadow?

PM: No, he has decided, he told me he would not interfere with whatever I do, he would not comment whatever I do. He said this is my government. You do whatever you want, you are the Prime Minister.

CNN: Up next on TalkAsia: How religion helps Mr. Badawi cope with his troubles, including a very personal one-he's going through now. And what he hopes most, for the people of Malaysia.

CNN: You're back with TalkAsia and our in-depth interview with Malaysia's Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He's a proud father, grandfather, and devoted husband. For close to 40 years, his wife Datin Sri Endon has been by his side. He says what little spare time he has, he makes sure it's quality time with the family. Mr. Badawi is affectionately known throughout the country as "Pak Lah". I asked him how his nick name, came about.

PM: I don’t know how it happened, somebody must have started to call me “Pak Lah” because in Malay society, someone who is older than you, or someone you choose to respect, you would call him Pak so and so, so there are others who are Pal Ali or Pakdin, so my name is Abdullah so “Pak Lah”. So there is certain feeling of affection.

CNN: I know, for a Prime Minister and someone in your job, to be called “Pak Lah” quite openly is something, and it doesn’t offend you?

PM: I feel very happy they call me “Pak Lah” but there is only one “Pak Lah”, if they call me Datuk Sri, there is hundreds of Datuk Sri.

CNN: Just this year alone, you have experienced a lot of ups and downs, the ups we all know of course, the downs losing your mother. (Prime Minister said: Tough) I am sorry again to hear of that. Was she very close to you?

PM: Very Close

CNN: How would you describe her influence on you?

PM: Very great, very great.

CNN: How so?

PM : A lot to do with my attitude towards life, towards religion, and towards members of my family. And it has to do with a lot of human relations.

CNN: Your wife as well, Datin Sri Endon, is being treated for cancer, I know she is doing remarkably well. But what’s sort of toll does that take on you? You have so much work to do, you have to travel?

PM Well, I have to cope with it somehow. When she was in United States, we maintained contact, we talked to each other on the phone, almost every night. And there was one occasion I tried to fix this video conferencing but somehow it did not come out very well enough so better to talk on the phone. If I have time, I just fly there to see her but I can’t do it except for one occasion it was possible. But there had never been another occasion for that, so she came back and then she went again. She is still going though a very difficult time but she is so disciplined, sticking to this treatment regime. Sometimes I feel so sad but there was nothing I could do, but we pray a lot together. I think that was a source of comfort.

CNN: I read that the two women in your life, your mother had said, correct me if I am wrong, you are very tight with money, you wife says if you lose your temper, it will snow in Malaysia, are these two ladies correct?

PM: Well, in a way. In a way they are right, but not too tight with money. I am quite a spendthrift but just being careful because my family was not rich, was not a rich family. We have very little to live on, I remember that, I cried because I wanted a new toy and my father couldn’t afford it. He didn’t say he didn’t have the money, but he persuaded me not to have it. But today perhaps my recollection is that maybe he didn’t have the money to buy the toys.

CNN: How old were you then?

PM: Big enough to remember. There are certain things that happen to you when you were small you still remember. And then there was another occasion that he took away my shoelace because his friend came to the house, somehow snap his shoelace. Naturally he need to buy shoelace, so my father conveniently took mine, give it to him.

CNN: And what did you say?!

PM: I didn’t say anything, I just cried!

CNN: Oh my dear! Prime Minister, what would you say would be your life philosophy?

PM: My life philosophy. I never thought what my philosophy is but it has to be balance in everything you do. You can’t have too much of everything, you must have a balance, that’s very important. And…(PM wipes his tears off with his handkerchief) maybe because you’re talking about my mother…. It must be a balance in everything we do, not too much of everything, keep it simple, not complicated.

CNN: Simple and straight to the point?

PM: Yes, that’s it, simple and straight to the point

CNN: As the world changes so fast, Prime Minister, what do you hope most for your children, your grandchildren and the next generations of Malaysians?

PM: I, talking about my children, of course I wanted them to succeed in life, they have to choose whatever job or occupation that they want, I will not try to influence. Religion has always been very important in our family, so I want them to be god fearing, I think it’s important.

CNN: And what about the next generation of Malaysians?

PM : Well, the Malaysian, we are making every effort today to make sure that they are united Malaysians, that there will be no racial prejudices among them, that they will be able to cooperate, they will be able to identify themselves very strongly as Malaysians and work hard for the future of this country. They must be well educated and also in terms of I don’t want to prescribe this but I hope that they will be well behaved Malaysians. Very old fashioned to say that they will be well behaved but I think it’s very important. Sometimes children do forget their filial responsibilities. I think that’s important. I believe that if I treat my mother well, then my children will treat me well and will treat their mother well. So we have to do what we think is good and at the same time the children will see you are doing something good.

CNN: Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. A man who leads both his country and his family-with principle, love, and devotion. And that wraps our very special edition of TalkAsia, marking the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or the King's Birthday in Malaysia this weekend. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again, next week