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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

INTERVIEW

'I Am Still UMNO'
Tengku Razaleigh discusses his political plans


TENGKU RAZALEIGH HAMZAH, 59, joined Malaysia's dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in 1962. Popularly known as "Ku Li" (from the last syllables of his first two names), the Malay nationalist rose to be a party vice-president in 1974. In 1987, he challenged Mahathir Mohamad for UMNO's leadership and narrowly lost. The pair then went separate ways. Ku Li and his allies formed the opposition Spirit of '46 party, named after UMNO's founding in 1946. But it fared poorly in the general elections of 1990 and 1995. It became the junior partner in a coalition government in Kelantan state with the opposition Islamic Party (Pas). Recently there has been friction between the two -- and talk that Ku Li may be ready to rejoin UMNO in the ruling National Front (NF) coalition. Last week, a day before revealing he had married Noor Abdullah, a Chinese convert to Islam, the former longtime bachelor spoke with Senior Correspondent Roger Mitton. Excerpts:

Some say you lead a political party that may be in terminal decline.

I don't agree, though I admit we are weak. Naturally, because we don't get support financially from any source. Our access to media is minimal, especially television. Even gaining access to the public is hard because getting a permit from the police is not easy.

What issues are your constituents most concerned about?

The economy and the status of the Malays, who have not made substantial improvements since this administration took office. We are sliding just when the leadership is best placed to help Malays because of high economic growth. Even now, Malays are living in kampongs, some still without electricity. We do not have good schools, teachers, library facilities, adequate transport. We are fighting for proper facilities.

Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim also speaks out for the rural poor and low-cost housing.

Yes, talk, talk, talk -- but nothing has happened. Few houses are being built. Surely, Anwar must admit that he has not succeeded in getting low-cost housing to what it should be.

Your strongest support is in the north, the so-called Malay heartland. Why is that region lagging behind the rest of the country?

Kelantan and Trengganu only came into the economic mainstream after the mid-1970s. Since 1990, when the NF again lost control of Kelantan, it has declined to assist the state as long as it remains in opposition hands. So it is the deliberate lack of support from the center that has caused slow development. Many investors have tried to go to Kelantan, but they are discouraged by the federal government.

What about outsiders' fears of religious zealotry?

I don't think they have such fears. Kelantan receives the biggest number of inter-state tourists in Malaysia. Huddud [Islamic penal law] has not been implemented. Even if it is, it will not frighten people.

Do you back recent plans for Islamic measures in Kelantan such as separate supermarket checkout counters for men and women, banning carnival rides and covering up movie billboards ?

I have no objections to them. We told Pas: Why don't we bring such things to the Religious Council? If it rules that something should be forbidden, we will go along. And it has been ruled that way.

Some also complain of excessive liberality, even decadence, especially in urban centers like Kuala Lumpur.

We are not a religious party -- unlike Pas. But as Muslims, we take exception to certain extravagant measures. Too much liberalism, for instance. You have to keep them in check so people don't go overboard and over-indulge. But at present, I don't notice too much of it.

Wouldn't you be able to help Malays better by being back in the NF?

It depends on the attitude of the leadership. If that attitude is fixed, things are not going to change whether you are in or out. There must be an understanding that things have to change. People talk of corruption in high places. What are you going to do about that?

It's true we've been approached by government leaders about rejoining the NF. But nothing concrete has come out. We are prepared to listen. We also would like them to recognize the principles for which we are fighting. If there could be agreement on some of these issues, it would be easier to figure out how we could best work together. All of us used to be UMNO leaders. I am still UMNO -- because I never left it. UMNO was deregistered by Mahathir and his friends in order to form the new UMNO, which shut the door on all of us.

Yours is first and foremost a Malay nationalist party?

Yes. That's how politics is played here: appealing to the ethnic groupings -- or else you won't get any support. But it does not mean we will discriminate against the other races. They are equally important. But the Malays are left behind.

You strongly support the royals.

I support the system of government that we have today: a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system. But I criticize the rulers when they do wrong. I don't do it openly, but through the proper channels. I don't support what Mahathir did by removing the rulers' immunity and setting up a special court.

Are you not in danger of being perceived as an old-style feudalist?

I just want to see the system work and politicians behave properly. You could say the present government leaders are more feudalistic than the rulers. In their behavior, surrounded by sycophants, they are more self-important.

What do you think of the recent call by ex-finance minister Daim Zainuddin for a more investigative, critical press?

We support that. Tunku Abdul Rahman told me before he died: 'If ever you get to power, you must amend the constitution to guarantee freedom of information.' He said it was the one thing he regretted not doing. Without a free press, active public opinion, you cannot avoid having a dictator in this country. And that is the system now. Only that it does not look like a police state.

Anwar also advocates a free press.

But what has he done? He is in power, he should initiate it today, move it in cabinet. I'll support him. If he doesn't want to, then resign.

Do you still enjoy political life?

Yes, I'm quite happy. I can still do my bit. I help people wherever I can. I still have influence here and there. No regrets.


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