An interview with Shamsul Iskandar

In August, the Australian National University’s Malaysia Institute hosted a talk by Deputy Minister of Primary Industries, Datuk Seri Shamsul Iskandar. He spoke about ‘Reform in Malaysia’s primary industries under the new government: towards achieving sustainable development’. New Mandala editor Rebecca Gidley sat down with him to discuss his political career, the 2018 election, and the palm oil industry.

You’ve been a leader in the PKR for many years: head of the youth movement, head of information, vice-president. What were your early political experiences? How did you first get involved in the party?

When I was on campus, I was the president of the Student Representative Council of the International Islamic University Malaysia. I had the opportunity to be elected for the ASEAN Law Students’ Association. I think that was my introduction to leadership and politics. The elections for the ASEAN Law Students’ Association were intensely contested, and highly politicised in that sense – I learnt how to campaign, and how to set political narratives. At university, I was also involved with the youth wing of UMNO; Anwar Ibrahim was then the deputy president of UMNO. I helped them with a couple of federal and state elections and I became a campaigner and operator on the ground. But then when Anwar was sacked in 1998, and the Reformasi movement rose, I had to leave UMNO. In 1999 I joined the National Justice Party, which was formed on 4 April 1999. From then I continued with the youth wing, and later I was its president – I was arrested and detained a couple of times and they used force because of the demonstrations. And then I won during the 13th general election of the UMNO parliament and at that time I was in opposition, and then continued for another term.

How influential has Reformasi been in the way you think about politics?

Reformasi has gone through a few phases. I think the earlier phase was very ‘sexy’, and people really wanted to go marching through the streets. But things changed when Mahathir stepped down. The second phase of Reformasi was 2004, with the election where we witnessed the downfall of the National Justice Party, and that’s where we lost some traction. In that election we only won 1 seat, with a margin of 500 votes. The third phase came after the release of Anwar in 2007 where we made some gains back; of course in 2008 he led the movement and the coalition in the election, and because of that we won several states. These for me were the three important phases in the Reformasi movement. But after that, when we won and took over as the government, the reforms on which we campaigned needed to be in put into practice, not just in slogans and rhetoric. That’s the challenge we face now.

You mentioned the 2008 elections, and of course your party was in an alliance in the 2008 and 2013 elections but then this alliance was dissolved in 2015. How was a new alliance formed to contest the 2018 elections, and in particular, were there challenges of personal animosities?

I have a bit of personal account on this, because it all started when Mahathir came forward and openly said to Najib that what he did was wrong. Mahathir started at that time a popular movement focussing on Najib’s kleptocratic practices and the 1MDB scandals. He used that movement to build support for the Citizens’ Declaration, to gather as many people as he could to ensure that we will get enough support – at that time we were targeting 1 million signatures. We managed to get it, and I felt very personally involved because I was in one of the early groups of Citizens’ Declaration—there were only 40 members at the time, so I was a pioneer. But, of course, Anwar Ibrahim was very mad with me for my involvement. I actually received a few letters from him, from behind bars in prison, that questioned my move to support Dr Mahathir’s Citizens’ Declaration. But I must say that during that time, my analysis was in the absence of a clear leader of the opposition, Mahathir’s readiness to meet and go against Najib was most important – it was this kind of God-given thing for us, and I saw its potential. I saw how it could mobilise the new forces within the opposition at that time – it wasn’t a coalition yet, just disunited opposition forces. I explained that to Anwar, and we made certain moves to ensure that Anwar and Mahathir met and settled things that happened in the past.

After that Mahathir formed a new party – Bersatu – and of course we then formed the coalition of the four parties. I remember vividly at that time—at the peak of our discussions was the decision taken by the presidential council at that time, through which we managed to negotiate the number of seats before the election. As the four parties of the coalition, we had to name our prime minister and our deputy prime minister. I was there in that historical moment—there were only 3 of us from Keadilan, from our party: myself, Rafizi Ramil, and also Nurul Izzah. So the three of us, together with the rest of the other party members and ministers, negotiated a clear arrangement that there would be a certain seat regimen: 54 for Bersatu, 53 for People’s Justice Party and the rest. And because of that, we named Mahathir as our prime minister and Wan Azizah as deputy prime minister. Anwar was going to be released as soon as we took over as the government and pardoned him and being named the 8th Prime Minister. So that is the background, and that, for me, was the opening of the new Malaysia.

The Pakatan Harapan victory in the elections of 2018 took a lot of observers by surprise. Why do you think you were able to be so successful?

There are two things that I think are important here that I need to share. The first of course is the factor that we have always challenged in the past two elections: the Malay factor. With the Malay factor, Mahathir has certain strengths. I think many Malays have supported Anwar and his movement since Reformasi. If you study the result of the 1999 elections, a year after Anwar was sacked, 63% of Malays at the time supported Anwar and his movement. But because of the nature of Malaysia as a multi-cultural, multi-racial state, we can’t win at the federal level if we only hope for Malay-majority support. At that time we had the highest ever Malay support in history, with 63%, but we still couldn’t win. After two elections – 2008 and 2013 – of course there were issues with their support. So I think that Malay support for the opposition at that time was still there, but the only thing that conclusively brought them on board was the leadership of Mahathir and the powerful picture of Mahathir shaking hands with Anwar.

In Malaysia this became a historical political lesson for the majority of the Malays. Look: two giants of the past – they’ve quarrelled heavily but have come together and united to fight only one person, and that is Najib. That gave a very strong signal, and I think that because of that, the Malay support rose. In every election 15% of voters are undecided—they only make up their minds on election day. If you follow the Malaysian elections closely, you would remember an address to the nation on the last night being done by Najib and one being done by Mahathir. That address to the nation was actually very important in terms of strategy, and it’s what attracted that 15% of the undecided voters. This swing vote to Pakatan Harapan accounted for the Malays and the youth voters. I think those are the main reasons we managed to succeed at the last election.

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How important do you think the role of corruption scandals was in the election victory?

I think the corruption scandal was a start. But towards the end, if you see the result, if you recall reading surveys from the time, Najib’s scandal was brought up by maybe 10% of people. It wasn’t really that significant. People were very angry about 1MDB, and that’s where it began, but then it resonated later on with the economy. People were saying: “you are doing all this corruption, and yet we are very poor and our lives are very difficult.” For me, the economy became the strongest basis for change when it comes to the swing. The entire campaign was catalysed by the corruption and Najib’s wife and all that. But ultimately it came down to the issue of the economy.

After the election results, the transfer of power, even after 61 years, was remarkably peaceful and appeared quite smooth. Was that your impression, and why do you think that was?

I must convey my thanks to the Malaysians. As a nation, we have witnessed the tragedy in 1969, and the desire to avoid a racial clash like that was very present in our minds. This was the first time that Malay, Chinese and Indians felt that this country is theirs, and that they were working together. I also have to admit that even the army and police forces understood how democracy works and its importance. They could have listened to certain leaders in UMNO and taken actions to repress democracy, but they refused to. This is due to the mature terms of thinking of the Malaysian people, and their awareness of the pillars of power. There were a few phone calls from Najib to Anwar in prison that particular night, because Anwar had given very good, wise advice to Najib, and in return there is no uprising in terms of unnecessary clashes between the power that has lost and the incumbent power with Mahathir and the team. So I think that is the essence of our smooth transition. The mature understanding of the people of their democracy was paramount to this.

Initially there was a lot of public support for this new government, and there were a lot of important reforms. But there have also been a few challenges and defeats since the end of last year related to issues like the International Criminal Court, some by-election results, even renewed support for the former Prime Minister Najib. What do you think of the factors going on behind this shift?

I must say it is again the economy. People expect that when you change the government, the economy is going to be better. So we can’t go there and say “look: the economy takes time”, because we are telling them you must give us some time to revive the economy. And those who are playing the racial cards now, in opposition, in the press, it is because they know very well that you can’t evolve the economy in a year. Therefore, the only fear that is good enough to fire up the movement is to play the racial card.

Which, for me – it’s not effective in the long run. You’ve got to play the economy where people will say: “look, you’ve sat there for the past 60 years, what have you done to the economy?” The economy is not a good issue for them to play. The best issue to bring forward is race, religion and maybe royalty in that sense. It involves us, it involves accession to the Rome Statute, and all this in a way can be easily portrayed to involve royalty and a few of the sultans who made unnecessary comments and interfered with executive powers. That sparked the whole thing, including the main problem that the economy is not being addressed at this point in time – yet. So, I think these are the issues which I’m very optimistic with the plan that we have now, with the budget, with the trimming of our budget properly to develop the people and develop the economy. I think we’re on the right track – give us two or three years and the economy will be good I think. That’s when the people will relax – “look, they’re actually making a good decision from the last election”. If we cannot revive the economy, then we really have a situation.

Shamsul Iskandar speaking at the ANU. Photo Credit – ANU

Looking forward to the possibility for a second term in 2023, what do you make of the formalisation of cooperation between UMNO and the Islamic Party?

As part of my political experience I’ve witnessed a lot. For instance, when UMNO won in 2008, we had challenged the state civil servants. That was a real issue in 2008 when we won in Selangor. We had to manage the reception of the government’s civil servants in that time. A lot of people said we would only win one term in government in the state of Selangor but we are continuing today. Based on that experience, I think we can win, in the sense that we can gain the confidence of the important stakeholders as far as the election is concerned. Who are those stakeholders? The youth, the civil servants, and of course the private sector. So we have problems now a bit with the government civil servants but we are also now having a new challenge with the youth. 18 years old is the new age for voter registration which is the real battle to Pakatan Harapan, the youth group. The possibility of future voters being currently 15 years old creates questions on how to talk to them, how to deal with them – this is the challenge that we’re having. Our ministry has embarked on a program called Love Our Commodities to engage students from 15 to 17 years old in the primary industries.

If we talk about primary industries then, you’ve attracted a lot of attention, particularly over the palm oil issue, and there have been contradictory claims made by government leaders and by academics and environmental activists. So how do you work in your ministry to ensure that you’re getting the best possible scientific advice for what you’re doing?

Through our ministerial initiatives such as sustainability and commerce we are working on them now. We know the report must be accurate, it must present comprehensive data, and we must be able to resolve these contradictory remarks. Talking about issues of deforestation is extremely important. Through the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification, we have auditors to examine our reports. Therefore, when we have all these by year end, we can have clear data for the consumption of the public, in particular our consumers. In fact, one of the ideas we are discussing now is to have this blockchain technology so that the issue of transparency and openness is scrutinised to even the basic level of the palm oil industry. I believe we are going in the right direction. We know along the way we have challenges, and negative reports, but we have to move something and we are dedicated to being more sustainable. We see our place in government as our platform and window to address all these concerns, especially from our customers and competitors as well.

And you’ve got both the domestic and an international audience to think about for these issues. How much of your role plays into shifting perceptions, and how much into shifting the policies and the realities as well? How do those two things come together?

Yeah, we have to run that together, we can’t resolve the perception if we are not improving the policies. We are living now in a very transparent world where government actions are accounted for through social media. It is very impractical to give false promises as we are now more accountable for our actions. Currently, we have a national commodity policy, which is going to expire in 2020 next year. We are now in the task of reviewing that process. It is not only about palm oil, but also other commodity sectors. This new commodity process we are developing aims to analyse all these major issues that you raise. It’s not only from a governmental perspective but also from a labour, industry, and technology perspective. I believe, with all this in place, we are addressing these perceptions with the real world as well. As we have a real plan and support. For instance, when we talk about restricting the area of the land, to plant palm oil, we announced our commitment to 6.5 million hectares. Which means we now have a plan to ensure we do not extend in size and cut whatever we’ve got for the replanting program. Through funding from the federal coffers and federal budget, we accessed support from the research centre to inform us which palm trees you need to give us a high yield. We now only plant the palm trees which have a very high yield.

Through implementing policy promises, you walk the talk, which then improves the public perception of the government. These are the things that we are working on now and it is improving for our own country. When it comes to Indonesia, we have a situation. That’s why we need this Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries, where both countries work together hand in hand. We have also communicated to them that this issue affects both countries which is why Indonesia has much more at stake. They currently have 14 million tonnes of production every year. We hope that we can see a result in the coming months of the next year. The biggest challenge now, which I mentioned earlier, is the price of palm lowering. This is a global trend we need to address, because it involves our important stakeholders. There are 1 million small holders who are important for our politics and important to our survival in the next election, and they are really affected by the price.

How do you see the reality and perception of the palm oil industry shifting in the future?

We use high quality technology when it comes to palm oil. Specifically, we are focussing on biofuel. We have made it mandatory for the transport sector for B-10, where you have 10% of the biofuel plus 90% of fossil fuel blended together, and the Prime Minister has urged us to step it up, and to use B-20 by the year 2020. Indonesia is also going to B-30. This biofuel is very important in the future, because now we are embarking on this biojet. We want to use biofuel into the jet fuel. This is a new industry too, for Malaysia and of course to other producing countries, where we are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions With all this technology, we are hoping that the world will open their eyes to us. Many of them, in the EU particularly, talk about the environment.

We are putting all our effort to reforestation, however it is also important to acknowledge the 3 Ps: People, Profit, and also Planet. If the planet is good, but it’s not profitable, then people will suffer. These 3 Ps must be managed very well. Palm oil, has over the years been a success story of poverty eradication. We want to maintain that. Along the way we improvise how it was done and how it is managed, so that we get a clean environment. We are hoping that those who are anti-palm oil and come to their senses. These productions – what we call, the commodity areas contribute immensely to poverty eradication programs – to reduce it, and of course you also contribute significantly to the national economy. We are open to having a discussion with other players on how to pull this palm-oil related industry to the next level. As the new government – of course, we need a new approach. And we have given our commitment, we have shown our dedication towards a clean environment. I think we are hoping that other countries will have an understanding of that. We practice democracy, lawful elections, and a smooth transition. We need to show that democracy delivers. If democracy doesn’t deliver, then they will see it as a failure. I think these are the things that we need people to understand, and support us in this way.

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