When Datuk Zaid Ibrahim was appointed law minister during the administration of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2008, The Economist dubbed him “the most promising” in Cabinet.
With his protest of a spate of arrests under the defunct Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960, he seemed to put that label to good work.
But that very year, he was suspended from Umno and resigned as minister due to his criticism of the government’s handling of legal matters, especially the ISA.
Since then, he has been a political journeyman, never settling down. He joined opposition party PKR and then fell out with its leadership, tried setting up his own party but failed to get it off the ground, and now he is with the DAP, an unusual choice given the party’s less than friendly image among the Malays.
Just weeks before his announcement, iMoney’s writer Emmanuel Surendra caught up with the veteran politician to gauge his views on personal finance and the state of the country. The conversation, edited for length, follows:
You were a successful lawyer and then got into politics. Why bother with politics, anyway?
Well, it was not an easy decision, but the country was not moving in the right direction and I have always been very critical of the way we were moving for many years now.
I think there is not enough cohesion, even in the opposition, to articulate the way we should go, so I thought I should step in.
As you know in this country, you can’t do both; you can’t run a commercial enterprise or law firm and be critical of the government. You’ll kill the firm, so I had to leave.
Now, I can say whatever I want, I write… I am fully occupied in that sense. Of course, I have less money compared to before, but that’s the price you pay.
Right. How would you describe forming your own party, Kita, then?
Not a smart one. It’s the only mistake I made really. Kita was just too expensive, too difficult to move. I was quite naive as I was hoping that some friends – some wealthy friends – would chip in, but it didn’t work out.
While we are on the topic of spending, when the ringgit bottomed to 4.0 against the dollar and you went to Singapore to feel the pintch. What motivated you to do that?
Foreign exchange, currency problems… I think these are a reflection of what’s wrong in our country, right? And, sometimes, you have to feel the pinch. If you don’t feel it, what do you believe in?
Why do people want to do something for their family? Because their family means a lot to them. For me, it’s like that. Sometimes you just have to experience it.
So, are Malaysians exaggerating when we they say the weak ringgit is forcing them to crimp expenditure?
No, it’s a real problem. People don’t know, and some of them don’t really care because they have so much money.
But you have to live with people who have saved, who have to cut, even buy cigarettes of different brands.
I have seen people having to buy smaller portions of things. People are no longer spending, and I think to say there’s no hardship, you must be blind.
But our consumer spending has gained confidence last year…
I am not a statistician or economist and there might be some increase in consumption – I am not denying that.
But what I see is not like that. What I see is people having difficulties making ends meet. I don’t know if they are increasing their spending. Maybe the rich are bringing back the money and spending it, which might improve the average?
We surveyed millennials last year and 90% of the respondents blamed the government for their personal finance doldrums. Is this fair?
You can’t blame the government for everything; it also boils down to your habits and how well you plan your finances.
But, at the end of the day, you can only do so much as an individual, and there are a lot of things that are beyond your control. Those, you will just blame it on the government. It could be Donald Trump or climate change, but people don’t care, it must be the government.
I cannot say I got more flies now because of climate change. As far as I am concerned, I don’t care, it’s the government’s job to help me out. So, I think that’s how it is.
All these forces – trade, pricing, imports, tariffs, war – impacts the country and they are all interrelated, but you have to blame someone…
Now, what’s your beef with the PTPTN?
It’s the management of PTPTN. I mean, the whole idea of a loan scheme, the basis of that is to enable students who are qualified to enter into universities. You have to be very meticulous about managing that vision of the country.
The way I look at it, a lot of students who get loans are probably students who are not even qualified to enter university and do well. Whose fault is that? I don’t know.
But if you give loans to students who are not interested, who are not qualified, then it becomes debt from day one. Then you pay interest on the debt, so how can that be a smart system?
But it has allowed many to get a college education.
I mean, you have situations where there are a lot of private colleges being approved here and there, sprouting all over the place.
You don’t even know the quality of these places, but because we have PTPTN loans, people start to fill up these spaces, but you don’t get good education, you don’t get good training, you don’t get good skills, and then they don’t get a job and still have debt from their student loan.
I think we should be more responsible. It’s just like giving a credit card – you don’t give it to anyone because they apply for it.
So, if the other guy is particular about credit cards, shouldn’t the government be particular about the PTPTN?
Anyway, I think the PTPTN is probably not viable, not solvent in that sense. I don’t know how much it has collected but you can’t expect the government to put in money all the time. It defeats the purpose.
Perhaps it’s just our attitude towards repaying the loan…
Well, it is and it is tied up to education in the sense that the kind of education you provide affects the mentality of the people. What is the purpose of education? Is it to develop skills or to get a paper qualification?
If you want paper qualifications, you wouldn’t care about other things, you get minimum results, you get your paper… so our aim to produce X number of graduates is not the right way.
Our education has to be relooked because the problem with education is that it is so politicised. Until education is in the hands of educationists, you are not going to solve the problem.
What advice then would you give Malaysian parents seeking the best for their kids?
Besides seeking change on a political level, which I think is very essential to change, if you have the money, you can send your child to international school, to Australia…
See, the rich don’t really suffer much, they live on their own. The problem is with the ordinary Malaysians, the middle class, the lower-middle class.
The options for a family who does not have much are limited but you can try a very radical approach of home-schooling. But, again, it is for families with money.
I supposed we can mitigate, that’s all we can do. Save a lot more for education instead of, for example, buying a new car? If you think education is very important, you have to sacrifice, we all have to make these sacrifices.
Hmmm. How does someone like you plan for retirement?
I was never a good planner. I had a successful law firm and I decided to retire and I thought I had enough saved but very modest at the end of the day.
I didn’t account for my political activities, the cost of it, and I didn’t account for the fact that my habits didn’t change very much.
For many years, I was spending my credit card like I used to while working. It took me a while to adjust but you can plan, and as long as you don’t have a very extravagant lifestyle, I think it should be okay.
Since it’s going to be rough year ahead, what do you think Malaysians should do to rein in expenditure?
It’s very personal and it’s not for me to say you should cut this or that. But I think we have to be extra careful, that’s all I can say.
Don’t be too persuaded by the glitz and glam and the life of the rich and famous like that on TV. I think people, even those with regular income, don’t realise that they may earn a high income one day, but how long will that last?
With retrenchments, unemployment and companies going bust, what do you do when you have no more income? So, people have to be very careful.
And your advice to the young?
Acquire skills. You must have skills to make money, if you don’t have a skill, you can run anything and still lose money.
Young people cannot live a life of, “Oh, don’t worry. Things will sort itself out.” It won’t. In those days, it might.
So, don’t depend on the government too much, don’t depend on institutions, don’t depend on your professors. Malaysians must be more confident to do their own thing and acquire skills, even petty trade, if they are of good quality, and if they work hard, they can make a living.
It’s better than hoping, “Oh, the government is going to have this scheme!” Trust yourself more, that’s my advice to the young, and take some risk, you are young after all. Take risks.
Nice. Before we wrap up, what’s next?
I’d probably contest this election. I have got offers to contest but I’ll decide on that, and if I can win and contribute, why not?