Prime Minister Imran Khan, referring to the current economic struggles of Pakistan and government initiatives to better the overall situation said reforms are a process while addressing a breakfast meet with the Pakistani community on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Elaborating on the country’s economy, the prime minister said high-interest rates on debt and non-functional state institutions means Pakistan has to go through difficult times. “Reform is a painful process. Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”
“We are up against a corrupt status quo that ruled Pakistan for 30 years. They are estranged and have links to people who benefitted from a corrupt system. Our biggest challenge is facing these people spreading gloom and doom every day. Every day a scandal is blown up – all of it is orchestrated. Basically, they do not want the government to succeed because that would lead them to jails – and some of them already are.”
He said the first thing corrupt people do is destroy state institutions because that’s the only way to make money. “State institutions can be destroyed very quickly but restoring them takes time,” said the prime minister.
“We discovered that out of the 370 people working in the health ministry, only 15 had the relevant educational background,” he said replying to a question. “All government corporations are loaded with these people. If you have three persons for one job, none of them will work. Unfortunately, when we bring changes, we are slapped with stay orders.”
Imran said the second problem Pakistan faced was accumulated debts by the previous governments. “Out of the Rs4 trillion tax we collected in our first year of power, Rs3 trillion went to debt services. How do you fund health, education etc with that?”
The biggest challenge, he continued, is the circular debt in the energy sector. “Every year we have huge interests payments on this debt. We cannot put more burden on the consumers.”
Painful reforms: developing a thick skin
Elaborating on tough economic policies, Imran said his government was focusing on export-led growth. “People are hurting in Pakistan.”
“I have never received so much abuse or been hammered by the media as I have in the past one and a half years,” he said. “Being in the public eye for 40 years, I am used to criticism but this one and a half year has been exceptional. I have had to develop a thick skin.”
“Because I know the dynamics of bad times, I know the first thing to do is to not read the newspapers,” he quipped. “Do not, whatever happens, do not watch the evening chat shows.”
Imran said he tries to get his cabinet members to do the same but “they watch the chat shows and come shell-shocked in the meetings,” he joked.
Imran said the positive trend was being reflected as deficit was down by 75 per cent, the rupee was stabilising and the stock market was regaining losses. “The direction is right but there is struggle ahead.”
“I am an optimist and I see good times ahead.”
Moving forward: Inclusive development
The prime minister said Pakistan’s best resource was its human force. “We have dynamic people,” he said and recalled how the Pakistan cricket team would regularly thrash India.
“Our under-financed hockey always wins. We do not just have talent, we have resources as well.”
PM Imran said he was amazed to see the untapped potential of the country’s resources. “Chairman of a foreign company we are in litigation against,” he said referring to the Tethyan Copper Company in the Reko Diq mines case. “told me that the profit of just two blocks is over $100 billion. I did not know that.”
“We have cold reserves of coal – we should never have shortage of electricity.”
PM Imran said the basics fo progress – research – was neglected in Pakistan. “We did not spend money on human resource or education.” He further lamented that education became a concern only for a small elite portion of the populace.
“Around 800,000 children go to English-medium schools while 3.3 million go to Urdu-medium and 2.5 million go to madrassahs.”
Imran said his vision for Pakistan was of inclusive development. He said the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government aimed to promote industrialisation to make money that would be spent on the bottom tier of the society.
Imran said despite limited resources, the government had allotted Rs190 billion to its ambitious poverty alleviation programme, the Ehsaas Programme led by Dr Sania Nishtar.
Despite tough economic decisions, PM Imran said he hoped the Ehsaas Programme could provide a safety net to the bottom tier.
Replying to another question, PM Imran said overseas Pakistanis were the country’s best resource. He said Reza Baqir, Abdul Razzak Dawood, Tania Aidrus were among those who had returned to Pakistan to serve the country.
The premier also drew parallels between Pakistan and Malaysia and said both countries are trying to emerge from years of corrupt governance.
Imran is close to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and has on various occasions praised him.
“Mahathir says be patient. I say ghabrana nahin hai.”
Referring to a recent blog post by Mahathir, the premier said: “He might have been writing about Pakistan.”
The premier said his trip to Davos was the cheapest by any Pakistan premier in history. He also thanked Ikram Saigal for being a partial sponsor of his trip as he did not want to burden the national exchequer.
During the question and answer session, a PTI member from Punjab questioned the government’s austerity drive and sought better representation at an international level.
The premier deliberated on the importance of saving money and said while expos were productive, they were also expensive “for a country trying to follow a rigid austerity programme that started from the prime minister himself”.
“This visit is 10 times cheaper than any visit of the previous leadership, they gave their pearls of wisdom but cost us a ton of money,” he quipped.
Imran went on to add that there were about nine million overseas Pakistanis who earned more than the 200 million combined living in Pakistan. “So they can sponsor these things,” he added.
The premier said he had stopped his ministers from going to junkets. “Whenever they say they want to go somewhere, I immediately cancel the trip until they convince me of that it will be productive for the country.”
“I don’t allow them to go anywhere,” he said with a smile.
Reminiscing: A look back on his life
Imran drew parallels between his time as an athlete and as a politician.
“There were far more talented cricketers than me. When I started out as a cricketer, many were sceptical. I was the butt of many jokes. I was dropped from the team. It took me three years to be selected again.”
He added that the most valuable ability in life is to face difficult times and learn from one’s experiences. “Many talented people with great potential could not achieve success because they were unable to face bad times.”
“They did not have the drive. It’s the drive that enables people to succeed.”
“Once we got thrashed in India by India. Now the team is on the way back to Pakistan and the discussion in the dressing room is about returning in the middle of the night so there is no one at the airport.”
“When we arrived at the airport at 4:00am, the customs officials made us stand for two hours, confiscated everything and made sure we got out in the morning so the taxi drivers see us.”
“Seven years later, when we beat India. We did not even make it to the customs. There were over 50,000 people to receive us.”
“The most valuable lesson in life is to never lose your head when you go up and you know the dynamics of coping with bad times,” he stressed.”
Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital
Reminiscing on his journey towards establishing the country’s first cancer hospital, the premier elaborated that he was not a charitable person as “the philosophy in sports is that you do not have compassion for losers”.
“Watching my mother in pain changed my perspective,” he continued. “Four years of running around like a headless chicken, people told me that you cannot build a cancer hospital or even if you do, you cannot provide free treatment.”
“My dream was not to just build a hospital. It was to provide free treatment. We made a loss of Rs10 billion during the first year.”
First step into politics
Imran recalled how he was “the butt of all jokes” for 15 years as he began his political career. “They said there was no precedence of a third party in a two-party system and gave examples of England and the United States.”
The premier said he wanted “good people” to join politics. “But I didn’t realise that good people were the most cowardly people and were scared of joining politics.”
No plan B
“We have been given tremendous potential by the Almighty. We are his greatest creations,” he reflected. The premier said people let themselves down and added that the only way to achieve greatness was to know how to struggle.
Imran said it was important to have ‘big dreams’ in order to reach your maximum potential. “Whatever a human mind can picture, can happen.”
The premier added that people gave up when faced with difficulties and added that big dreams can be achieved if you do not have a plan B.
“There is no going back. You have to burn your boats. Whenever you go after a big ambition, you should never think of compromising on that dream.”
Recalling the 1960s when he grew up, Imran said Pakistan was one of the fastest-growing countries. “When Ayub Khan went to the US, the president came to receive him… he goes to England and is treated like royalty. “
“There was hope. People believed the country had potential. In Aitchison, I studied with Malaysian princes. Our degrees were recognised everywhere.”
Democracy in Pakistan
“But we let ourselves down because unfortunately our democracy could not be grounded,” he reflected. “When the democracy faltered, we had the army come in who wanted their puppets, who were not leaders.”
The premier added he believed the country would rise the moment it sees good governance.
Imran said the founding fathers, Allama Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted Pakistan to be a humane and just society – a welfare state. “We have deviated so far from the vision,” he lamented. “Nations without a vision die.”