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TAN SRI DATUK SERI RAFIDAH ABDUL AZIZ was Malaysia’s longest serving-Minister of International Trade and Industry, holding the position from 1987 to 2008. As Minister, Tan Sri charted a firm path for Malaysia’s growth as a trading nation within the ASEAN region and internationally. Under her leadership, Malaysia successfully negotiated numerous trade deals and carved concessions from multilateral agreements such as the AFTA. Although retired from politics, Tan Sri is an active corporate leader, chairing the board of AirAsia X.
Tan Sri Rafidah was one of the country’s earliest professional economists, having earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Universiti Malaya. This conversation traces her childhood to her years in academia and subsequently, her entry into politics, highlighting the turning points and events that shaped her leadership style. She also shares her views on trade negotiations, women in leadership, education, and politics. This publication shines a spotlight on one of Malaysia’s most dynamic leaders, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz.
Q | There were a lot of rumours saying Malaysia sometimes lost trade negotiations because of our officials’ incompetence.
TSR | I had experiences where officials from other ministries failed us, because they were not proficient in English, didn’t attend the negotiations, or didn’t understand what was going on. There was nobody manning the fort. Sometimes we imposed tariffs in areas that didn’t make sense. For example, we had tariffs against American products such as kumquats and herrings. When I questioned the Ministry of Agriculture officials about this, they said it was because herrings competed with our local fish and kumquats competed with our local fruits.
I don’t even know what herrings look like, and I don’t think Malaysians eat kumquats! So why did we put tariffs on kumquats and herrings? Kumquats are fruits that we don’t even know about, let alone eat, so why were kumquats placed in the same class as our durians? When the United States Trade Representative (USTR) asked me about these tariffs, I was shocked as I could not comprehend the rationale.
I called the official at the Ministry of Agriculture and lectured him on why it’s stupid to have tariffs on products like kumquats and herrings. I told him to bring the matter up to his Minister, or else I would raise it in the next Cabinet meeting. If Tun Mahathir knew about it, he would get upset as well, especially as it was a small matter that should be resolved outside of the Cabinet. Subsequently, the Minister abolished the tariffs.
(Tan Sri elaborates further in the book)