KUALA LUMPUR (Nov 14): One of the many unforgettable moments from the 14th general election (GE14) was when the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate for Titiwangsa, Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani, sought a magnanimous-in-defeat stance.
In a press conference close to midnight on polling day in 2018, Johari, who is also the Umno federal territory chief, announced that he accepted the win of Pakatan Harapan (PH) “with an open heart”, when other incumbent candidates who had lost shied away from the media.
Fast forward to 2022, Johari is back in his stomping ground contesting again as the BN candidate in Titiwangsa, in one of the most intense battlegrounds in GE15, in a four-cornered fight against PH’s Khalid Samad, Gerakan Tanah Air’s Datuk Seri Khairuddin Abu Hassan who is representing Pejuang, and dentist Dr Rosni Adam from PAS.
In an interview with The Edge recently, Johari, in his usual jovial manner, spoke candidly on subjects ranging from the country’s economic growth, to the ringgit’s depreciation, employment and the importance of having
a visionary government.
“At the end of the day, it goes back to the voters. I think we are only 65 years independent. Let’s choose competent leaders. While we want to be a party that could consolidate and provide political stability, within the party itself we need competent leaders.
“We also need competent opposition parties and leaders. So, it has to be coming from both sides,” he says.
Johari believes that when it comes to making decisions, every leader should take a long-term view instead of just following sentiment and avoiding unpopular measures.
“Moving forward, what we need is political stability to attract investment back into Malaysia. They (investors) still like Malaysia because our infrastructure is good. However, for the past four years, we have lost the opportunities because a lot of companies are shifting out from China and want to find an alternative place, but we didn’t provide that. Every day we are talking about politics, that we saw three prime ministers in four years,” he says.
As a chartered accountant, Johari, 58, has a background in finance and diverse corporate experience. He shot to fame while helming fast food restaurant chain operator KFC Holdings (M) Bhd and QSR Brands Bhd in the late 1990s. He also took over soft drink bottling plant Permanis Sdn Bhd and was its group managing director from 2005 to 2011.
Johari is the largest shareholder in CI Holdings Bhd and KUB Malaysia Bhd, and holds shares in Media Prima Bhd.
Active in politics since 1998, Johari made his biggest political move when he contested in the Titiwangsa parliamentary seat in 2013 and won, beating PAS’ Ahmad Zamri Asa’ad Khuzaimi.
He was appointed as finance minister II in 2016.
Johari reckons that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced by the BN administration in 2015 was the right move to reduce the country’s shadow economy while widening the government’s revenue base.
“It is a fair system because the more you spend the more you pay, and we [gave] exemption to basic foods. Through this system, you are able to reduce the shadow economy,” he explains. “The main issue was that people complained not about the rate, but about the refund of input tax [being] too slow.”
Johari believes that, if given more time, issues related to the implementation of GST would have been fixed as many countries have already perfected the system.
He says the government revenue had been stagnant for the past years, and that the spike in revenue between 2019 and 2022 was due to special dividends from Petronas, which are not sustainable in the long run.
On the country’s rising debt level, he points out that the RM1 trillion debt level is not the main issue, but the government’s ability to service its debt and how it can grow its income moving forward.
The government’s debt service charges had escalated by 175.9% to RM43.1 billion in 2022 from 2010, outpacing the federal revenue collection, which rose 78.6% to RM285.2 billion in 2022 from RM159.7 billion in 2010.
The country’s shrinking current account surplus and high external interest rate environment have impacted the ringgit’s performance this year.
Thus, Johari sees structural adjustment to the country’s economic fundamentals as crucial not only to ensure sustainable growth but also to tackle the issues of unemployment and underemployment.
“There are a lot of other strategies that we can do. I can’t simply say it because we need to go inside and diagnose it. Look at what we can do away [with] and what we can’t,” he says.
Johari is also supportive of policies to grow the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector, which forms 98% of the economy.
“If you look into our economic structure, about 2% out of 1.2 million companies or enterprises are what we call big companies, 20% are SMEs and the remaining 78% are micro-SMEs. So, the job opportunity is within this 22% pool and that is why we are heavily relying on foreign direct investment.
“We need to study these 20% SMEs and look at how the government can provide assistance to grow them, and that is what Germany did. They built [up] their SMEs — that is where you see their SMEs grew into big companies and still owned by the founders,” he adds.
In terms of mega infrastructure projects, Johari suggests that the government should be selective to ensure that it would not lead to a large outflow of the ringgit to import equipment and foreign talents, and it must have a large multiplier effect on the local economy.
Having said that, Johari believes that any upcoming annual budget by the government should be streamlined with the 12th Malaysia Plan (RMK12), which is a five-year development plan from 2021-2025, to realign the country’s economic growth agenda.
“The annual budget has to be prepared to execute the RMK.
“When it comes to solving problems, it can’t be done from a one-year budget. It has to be from the most strategic paper (RMK) that can take things forward. You can’t present a budget and tell people this is how we are going to solve the problems. It takes time.
“It’s through RMK that we can brainstorm on what went wrong and analyse what we can do and offer to match with the talent that the country has,” he says.
“The government has to be very focused, for instance on our workforce such as foreign workers in the plantation sector, while for the service sector like the hotel industry, we don’t need foreign workers and we should pay our locals.
“For instance, workers in the hotel [industry], they get RM1,500 to RM1,800 a month, so who wants to do the job? In Singapore, they can get maybe S$2,800 (RM9,300) per month. It’s the economic value in what they do,” he stresses.
Although Johari has been out of the government in the last four years, he has been outspoken on policy matters and is often quoted in the press. He is also widely tipped to be the finance minister if BN wins GE15.
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