You mentioned that one of the measures to ease congestion at the two checkpoints is possibly a new bridge; can you elaborate on that? Can you also give us some updates on the High Speed Rail?
The congestion is particularly acute at the two checkpoints, especially during the weekends and holidays. The designs of the two checkpoints do not allow ease of congestion. So we need a new bridge. In fact, my Prime Minister proposed this idea during the previous retreat. He termed it as the Friendship Bridge, so we can have a modern design, beautiful structure, to represent the status of our bilateral relations, something that we could be proud of. So this is what Malaysia has in mind and I think more details will be raised by my Prime Minister.
On the High-Speed Rail, we expect Singapore to announce the terminus or the station in Singapore. We have announced our station in KL, Bandar Malaysia, last year during the retreat. So Singapore is expected to announce the location of this station at this retreat. And we could see the steady progress of the project. I think the project is on the right track; this project, though, is very complicated because it involves two countries, so a lot of issues have to be discussed and agreed upon.
There was a report this week that the High-Speed Rail is probably not going to meet its 2020 deadline and will be pushed back by two years. Can you give us the reasons behind this reported delay?
Well, that is only speculative. This project is very ambitious, you know, but as far as Malaysia is concerned, we still maintain the deadline and we hope to achieve, to implement fully, this project by 2020. So as it is, we don’t expect any delay. But as I said, this is a very ambitious project, so they may encounter some challenges, but I think it is still early for us to say that it will be delayed.
Do you think that race and religion are getting more politicised in Malaysia, in light of the recent church protest and the debate on marital rape. What do you think these portend for social order in Malaysia?
As you know, Malaysia is a multi-cultural, multi-religious country. Muslims are the majority, but other races are free to practise their religious compulsion in religion. But, of course, there is a small minority, and isolated incidents such as the church incident, which the majority of Malaysians condemned. So this does not show that we have religious intolerance in Malaysia. I think in any country, there are some people who have extreme views, and some groups may take advantage of these groups.
As ASEAN Chairman for this year, what are KL’s priorities?
I think this one is very timely because, as you know, we just concluded the 26th ASEAN Summit. We have eight priorities during our chairmanship, namely 1) to formally establish the ASEAN Community; 2) to develop the ASEAN Community’s post-2015 vision because we need to move forward; 3) to steer ASEAN closer to its people, we call it people-centred ASEAN; 4) to strengthen the development of small and medium enterprises in the region; 5) to expand intra-ASEAN trade and investments; 6) to strengthen ASEAN institutions, including the ASEAN Secretariat; 7) to promote regional peace and security through moderation. Moderation is one of our themes during our chairmanship, and finally 8) to enhance ASEAN’s role as a global player.
Can you comment on the threat posed by the Islamic State? What is the essence of Malaysia’s strategy to combat terrorism?
We view this threat very seriously. We strongly condemn the Islamic State. It does not represent the true teaching of Islam because Islam is a religion of peace and not violence. We are very concerned because they advocate violence … and they use social media to influence young people, people without enough knowledge about Islam.
Malaysians who were involved in the Islamic State, most of them do not have enough knowledge about Islam, so they are being manipulated, being brainwashed. That’s why we advocate the global movement of moderates because we are a proponent of peace, moderation and modernity. And it was agreed to by ASEAN.
With regard to the strategies, recently our Parliament passed four Bills to conquer terrorism. Our police are working very hard. Our authorities are also working closely with the authorities from Singapore, in terms of sharing of information and intelligence. The threat is not only in Malaysia; the whole region will be affected by the Islamic State.
How does Malaysia view China’s rise? Is Malaysia concerned about the developments in the South China Sea, especially with regard to the recent flurry of reclamation by China?
Well, the rise of China has brought prosperity, not only to Malaysia, but also Singapore. The whole region has benefited from its rise. China is our biggest trading partner and I think the same goes for Singapore, and we have also a big Chinese community in Malaysia. In fact, Malaysia was the first country in ASEAN to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1974. So our relations with China have been long-standing, strong and substantive.
We always maintain that any issues must be discussed amicably and peacefully, based on international laws, based on friendly relations. So, we are working together in ASEAN, and as reflected in the Chairman’s statement on the South China Sea. (The statement expresses serious concerns on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea.) The statement also touched on the Code of Conduct (COC), which is very important. The leaders “urged that consultations be intensified, to ensure the expeditious establishment of an effective COC”. So we would like to see the COC expedited, so it can give the guidelines for countries on how to deal with issues in the South China Sea.
How do Malaysians view the open calls for Prime Minister Najib’s resignation by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad? Is there a general sense that Malaysian politics is becoming increasingly fractious?
In any democratic system like Malaysia’s, the government of the day must be allowed to run the country, to govern the country as it sees fit. But (as) in any democracy, Malaysians are free to criticise the government. And the government has to defend its actions. So PM Najib has come out publicly to answer the criticisms by Dr Mahathir, showing his regard to Dr Mahathir, who was our PM for more than 20 years. I think social media has amplified the situation. But I think the government is addressing the issues raised by Dr Mahathir, and we will wait for the outcome. For instance on (strategic development firm) 1MDB, our Auditor-General is addressing the issue, and we will wait for the report by the Auditor-General.
What do you think are the issues that Malaysians are most concerned about right now?
I think the issues are quite similar to other countries’, you know, Singapore’s also. There are issues such as the cost of living. We just introduced the Goods and Services Tax last month. GST in Malaysia is rather unique. Unlike in Singapore, our GST is applied only on certain items. Some items such as foodstuff, medicine, education, are exempted from GST.
So there is some confusion, and some traders are exploiting it, so there are some complaints with regards to the implementation. But in any new system, there are bound to be complaints. We hope that this could be rectified in due course, and people, I think, will realise that we need the GST. Because 160 countries have GST and we are one of the last that have implemented this GST. That is, I think, one issue.
The other issue is, of course, terrorism, threats such as the Islamic State. And the government, as I mentioned, has taken actions to kill this issue. So I think these are the two main issues that Malaysians are concerned with.