As Malaysia’s number one dissident these days, the country’s 91-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has grown accustomed to daily insults flung his way by the political establishment.
But the stalwart politician who held the premiership for 22 years finds one particular barb unfathomable: the notion that he is “anti-China”.
Trade with Beijing jumped from US$289 million when he took office in 1981 to US$20 billion by the time he stepped down in 2003. China is currently Malaysia’s top trading partner, with total trade between them standing at US$54.5 billion a year.
“It does not make sense, it’s a political label used by my opponents. In fact, I have defended China all over,” Mahathir said in a wide-ranging interview with This Week in Asia. “I welcome Chinese foreign direct investment [FDI]. In fact, I was the one who originally encouraged Chinese investment in Malaysia. I have shown I am not afraid of China.”
His sharp criticism of some aspects of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s China policy, however, has emerged as a key talking point in the country as it readies itself for an electoral battle this year that will pit the two political titans against each other.
Mahathir shocked the country last year when he quit the ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which he had stewarded for decades, to join hands with the opposition in a bid to oust Najib.
Mahathir and his new allies accuse Najib, 63, of graft, economic mismanagement and a foolhardy embrace of China at the expense of the national interest.
Najib, the son of the country’s second premier Abdul Razak Hussein, was a protégé of Mahathir and rose to the country’s top political position due in part to the patriarch’s guidance. In turn, the senior Razak was Mahathir’s mentor.
Critics have dubbed Najib the “Teflon prime minister” for the way in which he has appeared able to shrug off his links to a long-running multibillion ringgit corruption scandal at the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund he helped set up.
Najib has denied wrongdoing, even though civil proceedings initiated by US prosecutors last year said more than US$700 million from the fund had flowed into the personal accounts of an individual referred to as “ Malaysian Official 1 ”, identified as Najib by one of his own lieutenants.
He faced further pressure after returning from a state visit to China in November with US$34 billion in investments and soft loans – prompting Mahathir and his proxies to accuse the premier of “selling off” Malaysia to Beijing.
The government has defended its foreign policy, including its greater openness to FDI from countries such as China and Saudi Arabia – as being in Malaysia’s long-term interests, while Najib has countered Mahathir’s campaign to topple him by painting the former leader as power-hungry and bitter that the current leadership does not do his bidding.
Mahathir said such accusations – and the notion that he was using China as a political bogeyman – were perplexing. “I went to Japan and I told the Japanese that Malaysia has had relations with China for nearly 2,000 years with no conquests,” Mahathir said in the hour-long interview in his cavernous office complex in the administrative capital Putrajaya, which he built from scratch during his time as prime minister.
“You compare that with the Portuguese who came to Melaka in 1509. Two years later they conquered Melaka. So who are we supposed to be afraid of? China or the Europeans?
“Does all this sound like I am anti-Chinese?… This [accusation] is all made up so the Chinese party in the opposition won’t support me and I will lose,” he said, referring to the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the country’s largest opposition party which is backed mainly by the ethnic Chinese minority.
Ethnic Malays, UMNO’s main power base, make up about 51 per cent of the country’s total population of 30.5 million people. Ethnic Chinese make up about 22 per cent, followed by Indians at about 6.5 per cent.
‘PART OF THE CHINESE BLOC’
Despite emphasising his belief that China was benign, Mahathir said he viewed Najib’s efforts to deepen ties with Beijing as worrying.
Chinese state-linked firms played the role of white knight to rescue 1MDB in 2015 as the scale of the fund’s financial woes became public following a series of leaks to the media by whistle-blowers.
China General Nuclear Power Corp swooped in with a US$2.3 billion deal to buy 1MDB’s power assets, while China Railway Engineering Corp bought a stake in the Bandar Malaysia development project near Kuala Lumpur for 12.4 billion ringgit (HK$22 billion). Prior to the deals, the fund sat on nearly 42 billion ringgit in debt.
Najib returned from a six-day trip to Beijing in November with 14 agreements, including a deal with China Communications Construction for the development of a 55 billion ringgit rail network in peninsula Malaysia’s east coast.
PowerChina, meanwhile, has partnered a local developer in building a new deep-sea port in Melaka as part of a 30 billion ringgit “Melaka Gateway” mixed development project. Melaka is a key choke point through which the bulk of Chinese crude oil passes.
Guangxi Beibu International Port Group in 2013 signed a 3 billion ringgit deal to deepen another port in the Southeast Asian country’s east coast.
“We question whether these projects are necessary for Malaysia or not…what is happening is that Najib wants to borrow money but he needs an excuse to borrow money,” Mahathir said.
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In the diplomatic sphere, the former leader said Najib’s closer relationship with China would hurt the country’s status as a “non-aligned nation”.
Mahathir was a fierce proponent of the cold war era Non-Aligned Movement, which sought to forge solidarity among nations that resisted joining superpower-led blocs.
He criticised enhanced military cooperation between the two countries – also announced during Najib’s Beijing visit. “If you have an alliance with China militarily, you are no longer free to criticise or say anything. You must follow the Chinese foreign policy. Now we are no longer independent, we are now part of the Chinese bloc,” Mahathir said. He added: “Simply because I want to be sure that Malaysia remains a neutral country whose policy is directed by Malaysians, does not mean I am anti-Chinese.
“I am anti joining any bloc. We are not with the Western bloc, or the Eastern bloc, or the Russians, or China or anything. That is the policy I carried out during my time and I think it is a good policy.”
A HISTORY OF SELLING LAND
Mahathir, known for his acerbic tongue, reserved his harshest words for the growth of Chinese-led property projects in Malaysia.
Among them is the US$40 billion Forest City jointly developed by China’s Country Garden in the Iskandar special economic zone in southern Malaysia.
Some 700,000 people are expected to live in the leafy development – built on four reclaimed islands – when it is completed in two decades. A bulk of the buyers have been Chinese nationals.
Despite concern that Beijing’s capital controls have hurt sales, there was little evidence of such a trend during a recent visit to the project’s showroom by This Week in Asia.
Tour guides, bus drivers and showroom staff said there had been no visible decrease in the number of prospective buyers from China.
Mahathir said it was “only natural” that he was opposed to the project, which is freehold and overlooks Singapore. “This is not Chinese investment, but a settlement. They are building a city, not an industrial plant,” he said.
He compared the project to the US acquisition of Florida, Louisiana and Alaska in the 1800s, saying: “Once you buy land, then you gain control over that piece of land. That is different from FDI. It’s going to be their own city where they are going to have their own shops, their own banks, their own everything. It’s not a part of Malaysia at all. Malaysians cannot afford to live there.”
Mahathir said he was unperturbed by the criticism he has faced from Sultan Ibrahim of Johor, the constitutional monarch of the Johor state where Forest City is located. Ibrahim, an investor in Forest City, has said Mahathir’s criticism of Chinese involvement in the project showed the former leader was “playing the politics of fear and race”.
But Mahathir said Singapore’s secession as an independent country in 1965, after nearly 150 years of British colonial rule, limited self-rule and a short-lived union with Malaysia, “should be a lesson to everybody that you don’t sell land to foreigners”.
The Johor monarchs sold Singapore to the British East India Company in 1824 under duress, kick starting its legacy as a colonial port city administered separately from Malaysia.
“I am against selling land to foreigners, no matter who. If it is the sultan…sultans in the past have done wrong by selling land. It is not against the law for me to say that. Something wrong is being done.
“If the Sultan doesn’t like me, it’s alright. I am not asking people to like me, I am just going to stand up for what is right.”
Mahathir said the new opposition alliance was gaining traction among rural Malay voters – a key political constituent. The Malaysian United Indigenous Party he co-founded last year with other UMNO rebels in March formalised its pact with the left-centre opposition alliance. It comprises the DAP, the People’s Justice Party and the Islamist National Integrity Party. But victory at the polls would be an uphill battle, he said.
He added: “They [rural Malay voters] are being bought…and some of them are afraid they will be punished for supporting us if Najib wins.”
His alliance with parties such as the DAP has surprised many observers because these groups bore the brunt of his strongman tactics when he was in power.
DAP leaders including Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng, the current chief minister of Penang state, were among more than 100 opposition figures detained without trial by Mahathir in 1987.
And in 1998, in the most infamous display of his autocratic style, Mahathir suddenly sacked his deputy and protégé Anwar Ibrahim, accusing him of sodomy – homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia.
Anwar served a six-year jail term after being convicted of graft and sodomy. Upon his release, Anwar galvanised the opposition but he is now behind bars again after fresh sodomy charges were levelled against him in 2008.
Anwar’s supporters maintain that the charges on both occasions were politically motivated to keep the charismatic leader out of power. Anwar – still the de facto opposition leader – has from prison voiced support for Mahathir’s defection from UMNO.
In the interview, Mahathir brushed off questions about his relationship with Anwar and said his focus was solely on “securing the country’s future”.
“Now we [the opposition] find common cause. I don’t like the Najib administration and they share the same views. We may not agree on other issues but our main objective is to remove Najib. What happened in the past, happened in the past. I called them demons, they called me a demon. But it’s alright. In politics you are always calling your opponents the devil.”