Wily Mahathir must ensure stability and good China relations
Following his extraordinary election victory, the returning 92-year-old Malaysian leader should continue to be as pragmatic as he was before and encourage trade and foreign investment
No election could be as extraordinary: Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, at 92, has beaten the political odds to defeat Najib Razak, rout the 61-year rule of the governing coalition and return to the prime ministership for a second stint, becoming the world’s oldest leader.
Corruption, the soaring cost of living and a sales tax were the decisive issues for voters, but Chinese influence and investments were also raised and pledges made for reviews and changes.
China would never interfere in the domestic affairs of another country, so targeting diplomatic relations and economic and business interests would be wrong.
As during his previous 22 years in the country’s top job, Mahathir should be pragmatic and ensure a stable environment to encourage trade and foreign investment.
China is Malaysia’s biggest trading partner, although last year ranked only sixth in foreign direct investment, behind Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan, the United States and Hong Kong.
But it was Najib’s warming Chinese ties that prompted Mahathir’s attention during campaigning, with accusations he was “selling off” the country to Beijing.
Among the criticisms was the purchase by Chinese companies of assets in the scandal-hit 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund, a rail network on the east coast and a huge property project in the south near Singapore.
Also in for flak was enhanced military cooperation seen as harming a position of diplomatic neutrality and weakening sovereignty, and a perceived softening of the line towards Beijing on disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Mahathir has denied he is anti-China, pointing to his record when last in power of encouraging Chinese trade. Malaysia, which long depended on oil and gas for revenue, has now vastly diversified its economy and needs outside help to further develop and grow.
China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” fits that model, but although the incoming prime minister said yesterday he was not against the idea, he alluded negatively to it during campaigning, contending only projects that were cost-effective and of benefit to Malaysians should be given the go-ahead. These are legitimate concerns, but every project has to be fairly considered.
The backstory to the election is intriguing, with Mahathir’s defection from the ruling coalition to team up with opponents and a pledge to eventually step aside so that rival Anwar Ibrahim can take over after being pardoned and released from prison.
Furthering the uncertainty, he has promised to properly investigate the 1MDB scandal, which turns squarely to Najib and some of the country’s leading institutions.
A wily politician has returned to power and he has to do his best to ensure political and social stability and good relations with China and neighbours.