Earlier in July this year, Sumiko Tan from Straits Times interviewed Malaysia’s Finance Minister, Lim Guan Eng at dinner. Below is the transcript of the interview that Ms Tan had with Mr Lim that was published.
Q: What have been your biggest challenges as Finance Minister?
A: A lot of challenges. Everything that has been happening over the last six years, you can’t change it overnight. But grappling with the deceit, with the … what do you call that? Falsification of accounts. It really steals away your appetite. Sometimes I think like, how to eat. I mean I cannot tell you the full extent of the horror that we face, the numbers.
But yet, everyday, at the end of the day, I always tell myself that, you know, we count ourselves blessed that we managed to get them removed this round. If you wait one more round, there’s nothing left to save anymore, you can’t turn things around.
Look at the glass half full, not half empty.
At least we can turn things around. Maybe a bit painful, but we can turn things around. So if we had waited one more term, too late. Sumiko, too late. Really too late.
Q: Did you, like, predict that you would be Finance Minister and be in the position to …
A: No, I never predict I would be the Chief Minister of Penang, and that one day I will be the Finance Minister of Malaysia. Never in my wildest dream, I never even dreamed of that. I just hope that I wouldn’t get detained here and there.
Q: So, how did the offer for the Finance Minister come about? Were you shocked?
A: As PM said, I got a good track record in Penang. And the only one experienced in the Cabinet was actually he and Muhyiddin. Apart from the Chief Ministers who have experience in Government. But yet even though it’s a different scale, but at least it’s a proven track record of turning around a state into the best performing state in the country.
You’ve been to Penang? The result speaks for itself.
Q: Why Pakatan Harapan won the election?
A: I’ve said this to some of your leaders before. I mean, when I was one of the Chief Minister in Penang, that was many years when I first came.
Kuan Yew first came and talked to me. Kuan Yew never believed that we could make a breakthrough. When you see Lee Kuan Yew, only he talk, we never have a chance to talk. But of course, he make very pointed observations, and some of them were very good observations. But, I always feel that probably he doesn’t understand Malaysia as well as he thought he did because he left Malaysia so many years ago and Malaysia has indeed change.
But he never believed that we would throw out Barisan. But I think he doesn’t realise the importance of the economy. When the economy is bad, people have no choice but to vote for change.
Q: But, you think the economy was the main reason the result turned out the way it did, not so much the corruption and all?
A: No, corruption has always been an issue in Malaysia. And it has never made much of a difference. Now it became an issue because of 1MDB. It engendered GST and GST hurt the people. So they saw the link. It’s because he was corrupt, we had to suffer and that we had to pay for GST which was never imposed before. And when that connection was made, everything clicks in the mind.
The only way is when he kept on insisting that he will not abolish GST, whereas we insist that if you want to take out GST, we got to take out Barisan. There’s no two ways about it. And they wanted to take out GST.
The people were suffering. And when they see the opulence, the wealth… If, let’s say, if people were not suffering and they see this fellow benefiting from it, they may not like it but it’s not so painful.
This one really brought home the pain and that’s why the voted in mass numbers and for the first time we won in areas we never won before. Especially in the Malay Kampung, we won. Shocking. We were getting majorities of what, 70,000, 80,000 hundred over thousand. Tony Puan got hundred and … I think it’s … I told him, “It’s obscene,” you know. “Your majority is more than many of the constituencies, it’s obscene.”
Q: But, you know, all this talk about Najib, do you think there might be backlash?
A: I don’t think so lah, Sumiko, it’s just that people saying I should be more tactful and less truthful. And then at the same time when all this is revealed, his only worry is about what? Worried about his chocolates.
Q: Did you all get to the bottom of the chocolates in the end?
A: I’m sorry I never really liked chocolates, so I never really inquired about that. Like Forrest Gump, life is like a box chocolates. Probably he took it literally.
Q: How about the Singapore-Malaysia water contract?
A: Lopsided contract. A lot of lopsided contract. This is what I will say.
Q: You think the water is also lopsided.
A: Yah, of course, lopsided. Three cents for a thousand gallons. Yes, you got an agreement, but …
Q: So what will happen to a contract like this?
A: No, I think for us it’s that we will, of course, keep our end to the bargain even though it’s very unfair but we want to ask Singapore to be a good neighbor in the sense that we are facing this debt predicament.
If there’s any problem with Malaysia, it wouldn’t benefit Singapore also. Adopt a prosper-thy-neighbor policy because at the end of the day, it helps Singapore.
Singapore is on different level. Your GDP per capita is five times ours. You don’t have anything to worry about. But just be, perhaps, understanding. I don’t want to use compassionate. Understanding. Maybe compassionate is not the Singaporeans’ vocabulary. But maybe we should introduce it.
You don’t need compassion. Because it’s just so small of the amount. I mean I’m talking about the water. Something, some sort of goodwill gesture. I mean it wouldn’t cause you to go bankrupt what. It wouldn’t even put a dent in your GDP. I mean, it will generate a lot of goodwill.