By Liew Chin Tong

JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia--While PMs are important leaders, they are just politicians who come and go, and some at a very short notice such as Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and his short-lived 17-month tenure.

I had previously advised Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob not to distribute his portrait to government departments, schools and public buildings, as this would save cost since no one knows how long he would last. More importantly, it is to signal a farewell to the idea of presidential premiership.

To take it one step further, there should be no more palatial residences for our PMs.

Who’s staying where and when

During the recent Parliament session, Pokok Sena Member of Parliament, Dato’ Mahfuz Omar alleged that Seri Perdana Putrajaya is to undergo a renovation costing RM30 million, setting a furore between former PMs Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Muhyiddin. The actual cost, according to the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Dr Abdul Latiff Ahmad, is RM38.5 million.

In 2005, I documented the controversy over how much exactly Seri Perdana Putrajaya cost. I would not repeat the details here, suffice to say that the complex cost RM200 million to build back then.

Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi spent RM15.81 million to renovate the residence when he was made PM, and Najib budgeted RM65 million in Budget 2011 for its renovation.

Earlier in 1999 when Abdullah became Deputy PM, Seri Satria in Putrajaya was built for him and future occupants of this office. Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail however did not reside in the complex when she was DPM for the Pakatan Harapan government.

After Perikatan Nasional “stole” the government, Muhyiddin had mostly avoided appointing a DPM until July 2021. Ismail, the DPM for 40 days or so, also did not move to Seri Satria, and as PM he has yet to appoint a DPM.      

During Muhyiddin’s premiership, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali was rumoured to have attempted to dominate the use of Seri Satria, believing that he was the most senior of senior ministers, to the chagrin of other senior ministers, especially Ismail.

Both their ministerial offices were in Kuala Lumpur instead of Putrajaya - Azmin’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry, and Ismail’s Ministry of Defence. Both were said to be competing for the use of DPM’s office in the Perdana Putra Building (the Prime Minister’s Office complex).

I empathised more with Ismail then as he had to chair Covid-19 related meetings in Putrajaya on a daily basis while Azmin was mostly busy asserting his “most senior minister” status.  

The purpose of PM’s official residence

Malaysia has just installed the ninth Prime Minister since independence and the third in three years.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad served two stints between 1981 and 2003, and between 2018 and 2020. He did not stay at Seri Perdana during his second tour of office.

So Muhyiddin was probably hoping to move there upon the completion of the RM38.5 million renovation. Alas, it was never meant to be.

While a relatively young nation, Malaysia has had three prime ministerial residences before Seri Perdana Putrajaya, namely The Residency, Seri Taman, and Seri Perdana Kuala Lumpur.

In comparison, the White House and No. 10 Downing Street remained functioning for hundreds of years. An important point to note is that White House and No. 10 Downing Street as well as the Japanese PM’s kantei are both the residence and the workplace for each of the chief executives.

Whereas in Malaysia, the residences are not meant for official functions.

Residences are usually used as places to entertain guests and less formal meetings.

In Malaysia’s context, a more proper Prime Minister or Menteri Besar would not hold party meetings at offices but hold it at the residences, a subtle but important demarcation.

The Prime Minister officially works at Perdana Putra Building, which sits on an elevated land of 50-metre above sea-level with an imposing height overlooking the Putrajaya Lake. The grand building, with a huge Moorish-style green dome on top and huge pillars all around it, houses the Prime Minister’s office and his department.

The office of the Prime Minister is on the fifth floor of the central block, just below the dome. From the windows of his office, he could clearly see the entire 4.2 km-long and 100-meter width boulevard.

The PM’s second-tier team have offices on the “infamous” fourth floor. Some may remember certain stories during the Abdullah administration while many others may not. However, that’s another story for another day.

I am all for the separation of offices and residences as it is based on a progressive ethos of demarcating the public and private lives of PMs, though understandably difficult given the nature of the job.

Anyhow, with a mammoth PM office complex already, we actually do not need huge and palatial residences for the nation’s chief executive.

The first three Malaysian prime ministerial residences are now defunct and turned into some sort of a museum in memory of their former residents – The Residency as the Tunku’s memorial, Seri Taman for Tun Razak, and Seri Perdana Kuala Lumpur for Dr Mahathir.

The Tun Abdul Razak Memorial is constituted by the original Seri Taman and the previous official residence for the Inspector-General of Police, which is adjacent to Seri Taman.

For a country that doesn’t care too much about history, surprisingly each of the first four PMs has a memorial dedicated to them. But these buildings are unfortunately not sufficiently maintained and rarely visited.