An interview with Zaid Ibrahim – Minister of Nothing Now
Posted by barbie on September 23, 2008
A reform is only complicated if you don’t want it, says senator Datuk Zaid Ibrahim. If you want reforms, make the Government more transparent, adopt meritocracy and a more equitable system; that’s not difficult.
PUTTING Senator Datuk Zaid Ibrahim in a Barisan Nasional Cabinet after the March 8 general election might have seemed to some like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
“Will he fit in?” wondered his friends with concern while others reacted with consternation.
Tried as hard as he did for six months to fit in that hole, Zaid decided to call it quits after six months, when hit by the last straw – three civilians were arrested under the Internal Security Act on Sept 12. Sunday Star caught up with him shortly after his resignation and quizzed him on his time in the Cabinet, his political will and his next venture.
> In the short six months that you have been minister, can you tell us how Cabinet decisions are made?
It depends on the issue. For major issues, the structure is not so clear. It’s a difficult question to answer.
> Is a paper tabled in Cabinet first for major issues?
Yes. It can be approved as is or with some changes. It’s very fluid. With the more difficult ones and this is where I was not very good at – you probably need the Prime Minister and a few people to agree first before you submit a paper.
> Do Ministers ask for time to study the paper if they do not have expertise in the area, say for example in your paper on the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC)?
It’s very difficult to answer without revealing what happened in Cabinet. I can only talk about broad practices because I’m bound by an oath to secrecy.
> You can’t talk about the process?
It’s difficult because the process depends on the subject matter, it depends on who is the mover and who supports it and who doesn’t. It’s not something you can encapsulate simply.
> But people are curious about the process. They want to understand how after an announcement is made, for example, on JAC, Cabinet can decide to delay its setting up. Was it lobbied against? By whom? At what stage and in what form?
A responsible Government would take all views into consideration before coming to a decision. But there is no set rule for that before a paper is presented. Political will cannot be rendered by me alone.
> The public respects your decision to resign but who do the people speak to now?
They are supposed to tell their Member of Parliament, the party in power and the president of the party. Or they should change the government (if that doesn’t work). There’s only so much an individual can do. We all have to find alternative routes to get what we want.
They can try the new Minister (Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz) who’ll probably be more effective. Some say I’m not a team player, so maybe you need a team player. Some say I don’t know what collective responsibility means. All these are difficult concepts for me … I just wanted to do something I thought would be good and people would see that.
> What has been the most severe criticism levelled at you?
Not severe-lah, just irritating. That the reforms (for greater equality) don’t serve the Malays. It just shows their level of ignorance. Some said I’m not a team player, I don’t know how to convince people.
> The public were happy when the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a JAC. They understand it’s very complicated and the Government needs time but…
It is actually not a complicated thing. It’s only complicated if you don’t want it. The reform was meant to make the Government more transparent, employ a fairer and more equitable system, get the best people for the job, and to have meritocracy in place. That’s not difficult.
> So what was the difficulty, especially after March 8?
The difficulty is some people don’t want to change and as long as they are in power you have to live with it.
> Are you going to write a book about your six months in office?
No, I’m going to write a book about Malaysia.
> A re-hash of your past speeches?
No. That (In Good Faith) was my first book. This will be more of a story.
> You talked of setting up a foundation called MyFuture. What’s its mission?
I see race relations as a major problem in Malaysia. There are Malays who subscribe to ketuanan Melayu, special rights, special law and are fearful of the Chinese. They are fearful of accepting non-Malays in administration, high positions and in universities. There is too much ethno-centric and communitarian politics.
I want young people to be able to understand the other’s problems and fears so we can solve problems rather than “don’t talk about this, don’t talk about that”, “this is sensitive”, “you are threatening us” and “get out of the country if you don’t like it here.” It’s all symptomatic of a state of mind that is not confident. You can’t have reform then.
In a JAC, for example, with a more open process, you will end up having an Indian Chief Justice; you’d ask “how could that be? I can’t accept that.” That argument is racist in character. Or if you want a more equitable housing policy and if you perceive the act of redistribution of wealth or opportunity as benefiting one particular group you don’t like, then you say that is not on because it would endanger or violate your rights.
The whole spectrum of our national life cannot undergo reform if the Malays, Chinese and Indians are ridden with fear and chauvinistic views.
We should move beyond talk. It’s no point charging people with sedition here and there every other week. You have to address the fundamental problem.
It is compounded by the fact that we have two court (civil/syariah) systems. You must understand the issues and be willing to sit down and be trusting enough with one another to say how can we solve this problem.
We need a different approach for this. I hope this foundation can do that in a small way, based on the experiences and modules from other countries on how they deal with racial prejudices through cultural outreach programmes €” beyond eating and makan. We need to understand, for example, why Hindus build temples all over the place? What is the historical perspective? Can a church be next to a mosque? We have had that in Penang for over 100 years but can we do that now?
> You reckon they could build a multi-storey carpark next to the two places of worship to serve both communities, resolving the traffic/parking problem on Fridays at the mosque and Sundays at the church?
Yes (laughing). But you can effect reform only if people are trusting and don’t think that one violates another’s tenets.
We devote too much time on things like toll, double tracking when we should devote more time on Bangsa Malaysia, what kind of people we want to be.
I was told a person asked why a 9A’s student didn’t get a scholarship and the reply was that it was okay for one race but not another. I find that repugnant. What kind of values are we teaching? We should teach our children not to fear another race or religion. We should recognise our differences and live as equal citizens in this country.
> Many Malaysians speak nostalgically about how race relations were better decades before. How will you erase years of racism and bigotry sown at home or in school?
We have the trappings of success but need to improve. I think the Malays are less fearful of the Chinese now but some people in my party think otherwise. I also know the Chinese in my constituency voted PAS.
> How will you woo parents who worry your programmes might “brainwash” their children into “liberals?”
There is a lot “brainwashing” here to start with, the brainwashing of civil servants and politicians. So if I do my brainwashing (laughing) what’s wrong with that? I am just sending a different message and countering theirs. I am willing to engage with these people that this is a flawed policy, this is not what makes us Malays proud.
> Do you think a JKKK (Village Development and Security Committee) would allow you to hold a programme in their village?
Why not? You need to engage with them. You can’t legislate, well you can but you have to do more. I’m not pretending I’m a great reformist in the area of values and beliefs but I would like another language, one more positive to be used.
If we can influence the young people, they will become decision makers every five years. That’s the one thing politicians are afraid of.
I used to go to Hindu temples in Kelantan. Nobody says anything there. When I saw the famous reclining Buddha I wondered about him. That started my interest in philosophy. Everything that you see stimulates your interest in something else.
We really need to get out of mediocrity and stereotype…I’m not so much interested in seminars and papers but in field activities involving young people. Then hopefully they will not grow up stopping forums and so forth; hopefully they will grow up willing to understand what the problem is.