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Jomo on no longer being an 'elder'

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The Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), sometimes described as the Council of Elders, was set up to advice the Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's new Pakatan Harapan government.

However, the CEP has also attracted a fair amount of controversy, including criticism from within Harapan about the council's role and powers.

One of the council's members, economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, addresses those criticisms in a question-and-answer format.

Question: You have been quite quiet since you were appointed to the CEP.

Jomo: Yes. Given all the speculation and tendentious publicity, I did not feel it was helpful to provide more fuel to the fire. As you know, myths about the CEP thrived, and all manner of things were attributed to the CEP, often wrongly.

There were also things we did in our individual capacities, which were being attributed to the CEP. As a result, the initial goodwill, credibility and legitimacy the CEP enjoyed were undermined, and instead of being an asset to the government, especially the PM, we became the butt of many criticisms, including from within the Harapan coalition, largely due to misunderstandings and misperceptions.

I think I speak for all CEP members that if the PM needs our services, we will gladly serve in our individual capacities, and hopefully, become less of a liability to him.

Why are you reported to be against publication of the CEP report?

The issue is complex and nuanced. First, producing a single report for publication was not in the PM’s appointment letter or announcement.

Undoubtedly, some other bodies in the past, viewed by many as precedents, did produce reports after working for much longer periods, but some did not. For example, Tun Razak’s National Consultative Council after May 1969 did not do so.

Our brief was to help the PM, and the new government, with some immediate tasks at hand, especially the PH manifesto pledges for the first 100 days. To do that well, we tried to offer advice as soon as possible for him to consider and act upon, which is different from producing a report after 100 days.

But a report has been submitted to the PM?

While CEP members were agreed on most matters, there were also some disagreements, eg, on government-linked companies. As is known, some of us disagreed on privatisation policy decades ago, which has a bearing on contemporary debates.

It may be impossible to resolve some such differences, even after further discussion. In such situations, what does one do? Remain silent, or publish the chair’s view, as long as that is made clear.

The CEP chairperson has come under particular criticism from certain quarters.

I am not sure what you are referring to, but his longstanding relationship to the PM was undoubtedly crucial to the CEP’s establishment and functioning, and the object of criticism by his or the PM’s detractors.

There were also many criticisms of his trip to China, but again, such criticisms were undeserved, in my view. Governments dispatch special envoys all the time to deal with sensitive matters discreetly.

But you were a critic of the earlier Mahathir administration.

Indeed, I was critical of some aspects, but if you read what I wrote, my criticisms were always intended to improve government policy, and I also shared his aspirations for the country, especially development, industrialisation, Wawasan 2020, economic nationalism, nation-building, the so-called Asian financial crisis.

The CEP has not been meeting after the 100 days, but yet a report has just been submitted to the PM.

While we have not met or reviewed draft reports since, our chair has been helping the MACC on certain urban land abuses, as he should. Remember he has vast experience in such matters for half a century, even before he was involved with UDA, the Urban Development Authority.

Some CEP meetings were like master classes where I personally learnt more than I could ever hope to learn from reading.

So, are you for or against publication of the report?

It is really up to the PM. There are many options, including partial publication. Remember there are some highly sensitive matters, in terms of official secrecy as well as other matters which may be sensitive in terms of market behaviour, international diplomacy or even legal procedure.

As someone who has been critical of the abuse of secrecy in the past, I must also acknowledge that there are legitimately sensitive matters, and full transparency may not always be in the public interest.

If the CEP had a different proposal on some issue from the one eventually adopted by the Harapan government, what is the point of publicizing such differences with the government of the day after the fact? It is likely to be used by detractors for their own purposes rather than for better purposes.

Also, as you know, two committees were set up. The Institutional Reform Committee prepared a long report with a view to publication, and the PM may wish to publish it. The other one on 1MDB has contributed to expediting investigation and action, but I doubt their recommendations were intended for
publication.

So, you will have nothing to show for your 100 CEP days?

Serving the national and public interest was our priority, not publicity or publications.

What are you doing a month after the CEP’s 100 days ended?

No longer an elder, I already feel younger.

Many people expect me to write about the CEP, its work and its recommendations. I have no such plans, but am very busy with earlier unfinished and postponed work as well as new work to help the new administration, preferably under the radar.

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