In March 2015, as part of our Oral History initiative, the Perdana Leadership Foundation had a conversation with Tan Sri Dato’ Utama Nor Mohamed Yakcop, the former Minister of Finance II for Malaysia and Special Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister who is now the Deputy Chairman of Khazanah Nasional and Chairman of Khazanah Research Institute. During the conversation, Tan Sri touched on his career in banking and in government, and highlighted in particular the 1997–98 crisis during which he worked very closely to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, to construct and apply a very unique solution to the crisis. The interviewer for the conversation was Professor Dr. Mohd Shahwahid Hj Othman, Dean of the Faculty of Economics, Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Here are excerpts of Tan Sri’s responses to our questions.

On his hometown

“I was born in Bagan Dalam, a small kampung in Butterworth which is on the Penang mainland. The town was very small and there was a dockyard where half the people of Bagan Dalam worked. My father was a shopkeeper on the island of Penang and my mother was a housewife. When I was about three or four years old, we moved from the island of Penang back to Butterworth. My father had a shop in a place called Ujung Batu, the spelling should actually be “Hujung Batu” but anyway, Ujung Batu was a place where you had to take a sampan to go to Prai. Prai was where the railway station was. So anyone from Butterworth or Penang who wanted to go to Kuala Lumpur or Ipoh would have to go take the train from Prai. Of course, you could travel to Prai by road but that would take a very long time. The easiest way was to cross the river.”

On how he was called in by the Prime Minister of Malaysia to resolve the currency crisis

“(Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad) called me and requested that I meet him in Argentina as he was travelling from Cuba to Chile and then on to Argentina. He wanted me to meet him in Argentina and return with him to Malaysia. So I went to Argentina. I arrived a day before him and then I waited for him. He arrived at the Alvear Palace Hotel in Buenos Aires on 2nd October at about 5pm. I went to his room and he dismissed everyone else. It was just the two of us.

He asked me to explain the crisis that had beset Malaysia. During the next two hours, I explained to him how the market works. A financial market doesn’t work like a mini-market; there are specialities and peculiarities. I thought that if he really wanted to solve the problem, he needed to understand the details. Of course, Tun Mahathir has the capacity to understand details.

During the two hours, he said very little. He just listened. Then at 7pm, he told me to stop. He requested that I write down everything that I had told him and meet him again after Subuh prayers the next day. So I went back to my room, skipped dinner, and wrote everything that I had told him. At about 7am in the morning, I gave him my notes. We met again after lunch. He told me then that he had read my notes and that he understood the situation.

So I asked him, “Now that you understand, Sir, is there anything else that I can do?”

He said, “Yes, let’s see how we can solve the problem.”

And the rest is history. This is all documented in his book, by the way.

Following that meeting, I used to meet him regularly at his house and his office. We worked together on the solution. The very important point I want to make is that there were only the two of us working. The unorthodox measures that we implemented on 1st September 1998 was the work of two persons, Tun Mahathir and me. There was nobody else involved. The Cabinet was against it, the Central Bank was against it, the treasury was against it, and the EPU was against it. Everybody was against it.

The measures were definitely unconventional and very unorthodox. Interestingly, whenever I went to Tun’s house for our discussion, he would ask his family to leave the room. He told his wife and children that he was discussing matters of the state and that they could not be present. He was very particular about affairs of state, and would not allow his children or other family members to be privy to such discussions. That’s the character of the man.

After we had implemented the measures, he asked me to go back to Bank Negara to make sure that everything would be all right. My role as advisor was also to make sure the reforms in GLCs took place. But I have this feeling, from my four years’ experience, that Tun Mahathir basically used me as a reality checker. He would pass to me most of the proposals he received from Ministers, business people, GLCs, corporates, and KSUs (Secretaries-General) and asked, “What do you think?” Then I’ll quickly prepare a brief on the upside and downside, a quick reality check.”

On working with three different Prime Ministers

“It’s true that I was privileged to have worked under three great Prime Ministers but I’m not the only one. There are many others also who have worked under different Prime Ministers.

The Prime Ministers may have their differences but one trait that they have in common is sincerity. All three of them are sincere. (Tun) Mahathir, (Tun Abdullah) Pak Lah and (Dato’ Seri) Najib are very sincere and indeed very generous.

Another aspect that struck me is that all three of them are real Malaysians. There is no racism in them, they are also not religious ideologues.

We are very lucky to have three Prime Ministers in a row who are intent on reducing social injustice. They know that there is still so much social injustice in Malaysia. For instance, in some parts of Malaysia, a child has to walk ten kilometres to go to school and ten kilometres to return home. Our Prime Ministers have built roads to make it easier for children to attend school. They have a lot of passion and compassion. That’s their common trait.

Of course, no two people are the same. Each one has their own idiosyncrasies, their own style. Tun Mahathir is very punctual in terms of time. During the crisis, I saw him six days a week (in those days, we worked on Saturdays) but each meeting took no longer than fifteen minutes. That’s it. You say what you have to say then out you go. If we tried to stay a bit longer, he (Tun) would look at his watch to indicate your time was up. Pak Lah was more generous. If you went to see him, he was willing to spend more time with you. Dato’ Seri Najib is similar to Tun Mahathir, but not as strict.

In terms of delegation, all three of them delegate work. If there’s a problem, you went and met them. They didn’t say “Do It” and then asked you daily, “Have you done it?” while looking over your shoulder. So I believe that there are many common characteristics among the three Prime Ministers with some differences as to leadership style and emphasis.”