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Malaysian Muddle

Mahathir pays cost for Anti India stance to Appease China?

One week after the shock resignation of Mahathir Mohamad as Malaysia’s prime minister, the country now has a new premier. Muhyiddin Yassin, former minister of home affairs under Mahathir, was sworn in as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister on Sunday after emerging as a frontrunner for the top job at the end of last week and having tied up with several parties, including the United Malaysia National Organisation or UMNO, which lost power in the 2018 general elections. But Mahathir has claimed that he, instead of Muhyiddin, has the support of the majority in the country’s 222-seat parliament.

The Malaysian government has for decades been made up of a coalition of political parties. Muhyiddin’s party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM or Bersatu), was part of the same ruling coalition called Pakatan Harapan.

It all went south, when Muhyiddin had to pull his party out of the coalition last week after Mahathir’s resignation, which resulted in the collapse of the previous government. His 2018 election call- that he shall provide a clean and credible government, was it referring to the BRI paybacks taken by previous governments from China or dwindling economy was waylaid by facts on ground, of sucking up to Chinese and shunning of Malaysia in world market, including purposeless and goofed up stance of Mahathir Mohamad against India.

Clean Government Free Of Corruption

Mahathir Mohamad, who earlier had helmed the country from 1981 to 2003, admitted that his twenty two years in office may have been marred by corruption, but he contended that the country still flourished under his policies (whatever that meant!). Mahathir’s administration saw a wave of privatization in the 1990s, which detractors said have caused cronyism and corruption to flourish among those connected to the status quo.

Previous PM Najib Razak’s stint saw widespread allotments of important contracts to its own party workers, on projects which were in collusion with Chinese natives of Malaysia. While that is seen in the light of China’s Belt and Road(BRI) projects, it all was clear to the public, how they have been taken for cleaners.

Instead of making good on his promise of carrying out enquiry and punishing the guilty, his words “new government has discarded the practice of handing out goodies to party members like Barisan Nasional(BN) did in the past,  such as awarding contracts to cronies or appointing party members to official positions, but many in PPBM ( his party)  are not used to these new practices. That reflects not having the will to preserve legitimacy to country’s economic apparatus.

BRI sellout to China and Financial Lumber

It proved very disappointing to many Malaysians who voted for Mahathir. After all, his successful bid to oust Najib rode, in large part, on a wave of popular ire over the growth of Chinese influence in Malaysia and fury at Najib’s shady dealings with China through 1MDB.

In the months following his return to power, it looked as though Mahathir might take a harder stance against China. He cancelled both the Chinese pipeline projects. He also warned against falling into a Chinese “debt trap” and in “a new version of colonialism” when discussing China’s BRI. He also looked to be donning the boxing gloves on China’s aggressiveness in South China Seas as well as treatment of Uyghur population of Xinxiang province of China.

Six months in power and then Mahathir began to backtrack. After his economic affairs minister publicly stated that Malaysia might also cancel the key railway link project, a key BRI project for China, Mahathir issued a “gag order” on government officials from any further denouncing the economics of it. Hence, when he announced that Malaysia had renegotiated the price of the ECRL and would allow it to proceed at China’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April 2019, the news came as a shock to the public.

Was his tirade against Chinese colonialism and BRI sellout of Najib just merely a gambit to strike a better deal? It looked every bit like it.

Maleka Blunder

Melaka Gateway was born on February 7, 2014 via a direct decree from then Malaysian PM Najib Razak on the heels of a visit to China.

Melaka Gateway was to be one of the Belt and Road’s premier prizes, a 546-hectare, seaport-driven new urban area spanning four artificial islands strategically positioned in the Strait of Malacca. It was to be a place of glistening shopping malls, tourist resorts, luxury condos and theme parks. It was to have a glittering business district, a robust marina, a giant “Malaysia Eye” ferris wheel, the largest cruise ship terminal in Southeast Asia and a seven-star hotel. All of this would be built around a massive industrial port.

Chinese interest, just like in case of Hambanotta port of Sri Lanka, was simply strategic-military and straightforward: the bulk of China’s trade including 80% of its oil and gas, passes through the Strait of Malacca. Transportation there is traditionally dominated by Singapore which generally aligns with U.S. foreign policy.

In the event of a geopolitical upheaval, it wouldn’t be very difficult for China’s primary maritime lifeline to be severed. This has been a known issue for China since at least 2003, when then-President Hu Jintao dubbed it the “Malacca Dilemma” and made it one of China’s primary foreign policy concerns. By controlling access to multiple ports on Malaysia’s east and west coasts in tandem with the East Coast Rail Link, which was slated to connect them, would allow China to bypass Singapore and the Strait of Malacca completely, if need be.

Najib was accused of working for China, Malaysia’s Chinese ethnic population’s interests and emblazoning millions from this project, which was just 200Km from Singapore, hence economically unviable.

Mahathir promised as an electoral issue, to end it and probe it. Like other issues, upon coming to power in 2018, Mahathir immediately called to a halt of Malaysia’s Belt and Road projects, so that they could be reevaluated and more favorable deals could be reached. In January 2019, Melaka Gateway was again green lighted.

Grandeur of being Pasha of Islamic World

While explaining “giving in” to the Chinese, and the rationale for his approach to China, Mahathir frequently points to Malaysia’s close economic relationship wherein about 17 percent of Malaysia’s exports went to China and 20 percent of its imports came from it. In the same year 2018, China was Malaysia’s largest source of foreign direct investment; and that investment was halved a year later in the wake of the uncertainty caused by the ECRL row.

However, in a direct bid to woo the majority Malay (Muslim) population, Mahathir launched scathing array of arrows against India. While the accusations lacked coherence and validity, they just added up to the verbal vile which Pakistan resorts to, against India.

Press in Malaysia, observed that Palm oil is by far Malaysia’s most important agricultural export and India, not China, is the largest importer of it. Yet, Mahathir has been coyly accommodative towards China than India. In October last year, Mahathir defiantly declared that he would stand by his criticism of India’s treatment of Muslims in Kashmir even if that meant an Indian boycott of Malaysian palm oil.

He has been criticized internally on hosting the Pakistan-Iran-Turkey led Islamic conclave which serves neigh to interests of Malaysia. He was accused of playing someone else’s vested interests, and has come to fore as the most horrendous example of international diplomacy, if not novice statesmanship.

But at the same time, he nonchalantly demurred from clear cut criticism of China’s inhuman detention of over a million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the cultural cleansing being belted out therein. And notably, throughout the negotiations over the ECRL, Mahathir refrained from putting pressure on China, by challenging its encroachment in the South China Sea.


Days Ahead

Muhyiddin is tipped to lead a more overtly pro ethnic Malay government characterized by working against Chinese lobby and based on social division, economic nationalism, and possibly less corrupt. He being a pragmatic part of last government, and was in opposition to Mahathir’s proclaimed successor, Anwar Ibrahim who was in collusion with the Chinese-Turkey lobby.

Malays were under threat because the second largest party in previous coalition, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), was threatening the Malay representation. DAP has been rolling back the “special rights” given to the Malays. Examples of this include the appointment of non Malays to important positions widely regarded as those that should be reserved for Malay political leaders. These include the Finance Minister (Lim Guan Eng), Chief Justice of Malaysia (Richard Malanjum) and the Attorney General (Tommy Thomas).

“Malaysia and India will work on improving ties that soured under former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and badly affected palm oil trade between the countries”, officials from both nations said last week in a joint statement. India could shall invite the new Malaysian prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, for a visit this year, an official said, which marks a possible end to Malaysian madness which begin in 2018 with Mahathir Mohamad’s taking over the reins.

New PM is likely to work for national interests of Malays and not sing to tunes of China and Turkey, while this spells another nail in coffin of already derailed BRI of China. Chinese economy which was banking on Malaysia, being an easy target after being offset by Myanmar renegotiating the BRI deals to their advantage, shall be further set back. So seems the case with the idiosyncrasy of the anti OIC block that it was trying to be part of, at behest of Turkey and Pakistan.

04 Mar 20/Wednesday                                                                     Written By: Fayaz

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