KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Najib Razak said his patience should not be interpreted as a weakness, and added that he believes Malaysians want more space to debate issues without fear of being arrested.
He was asked in an interview about his inaction over controversial issues that are often aired openly and whether the "extensive freedom" to speak is good for the country. His answer: People will be allowed to debate issues of the day but there are laws to stop troublemakers.
He was speaking to three senior journalists during a Bernama TV interview in conjunction with Umno's 68th anniversary yesterday. The interview was aired on Saturday and published in local newspapers yesterday.
Asked about perceptions that his reticence on controversial issues shows a weak leadership, Mr Najib said: "I do not regard that as a weakness. I would like to ask, do they want a situation where anyone who expresses an opinion is arrested under the (Internal Security Act)? Do we want that? Surely the majority of Malaysians do not want such a situation".
Government supporters often want Mr Najib to act against the opposition and civil society members who raise issues relating to religion or Malay royalty, which Malays see as sensitive topics.
On the other hand, the opposition and civil society groups often hope for intervention by Mr Najib on issues that anger minorities, such as when a leader of a right-wing Islamic group last week called Chinese Malaysians "intruders" brought in by the British to bully the Malays.
"I believe the majority of Malaysians want more latitude for political discourse. If you make an evaluation, not all want to return to the era of the ISA," he said, as quoted by The Star newspaper.
The ISA, which allowed for detention without trial, was abolished and replaced in 2012 with the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act or Sosma, which has additional legal safeguards.
Said Mr Najib: "While there are differences of opinion, the views of the majority will eventually determine who is in charge. Those people intent on causing trouble and instability in the country will have to face the law."
Mr Najib, asked about how he dealt with "negative" comments on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, said: "We are courageous enough to accept criticism, so long as it is made in a civilised manner. And, with all sense of humility, we consider ourselves not as know-alls. I have said that the era of 'the government knows best' is over."
In the wide-ranging interview, the Premier was also asked about Umno's slow rejuvenation process, whether the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) would eventually return to the Malaysian Cabinet after deciding to stay away before last year's election, and about the goods and services tax (GST) that will take effect from April next year.
There has been widespread criticism that Umno, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition's linchpin party, has failed to reform and look for younger leaders. Asked whether Umno has seen rejuvenation, Mr Najib said: "Not yet. I regard it as a process. It is not possible to bring about rejuvenation in one term or in less than one term." He added that the MCA will have to return to the Cabinet to give input on the needs of the Chinese community.
On the GST, he said the government will continue to explain that it is not a new tax and that prices of goods such as nasi lemak will not be affected much.
Asked whether Malaysia was being "controlled" by the United States or China as it is close to both countries, Mr Najib said: "No. As a nation, we have our principles; our foreign policy is to have cordial relations with all countries based on what we think fit. "We are not a lackey (of any country), we have never been. We have our own independent stand."