The war of words that erupted this week between Malaysia’s former strongman leader Mahathir Mohamad and an influential sultan over a surge in Chinese investment into the country is a precursor to the issue taking centre stage in what is likely to be a general election year, analysts say.

In a rare episode of public defiance against Malaysia’s revered constitutional monarchs, Mahathir on Tuesday said he was willing to stand trial for lese-majeste for criticising the influx of Chinese projects in the country’s Johor state backed by its ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ismail.

The former prime minister was responding to an interview published a day earlier in which Ibrahim said Mahathir’s constant griping about Chinese projects in Southeast Asia’s third largest economy was “creating fear, using race, just to fulfil his political motives”.

Mahathir, 91, ruled Malaysia with an iron fist for 21 years until 2003.

But he has emerged as the top critic of current premier Najib Razak, who faces allegations that he is linked to a corruption scandal at the state investment arm 1MDB.

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Mahathir last year quit the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) – the linchpin of the country’s ruling coalition since independence in 1957 – and formed the Parti Bribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), a Malay nationalist party made up of anti-Najib allies including his son Mukhriz.

“Dr Mahathir thinks it is easy to play up race because these investors happen to be from China…this is utterly disgusting,” Ibrahim said in the interview with the Star newspaper.

Ibrahim, 58, is an investor in Johor’s US$38 billion Forest City property project involving Guangdong-based developer Country Garden. The project is one of several foreigner-funded projects in a special economic zone in the state that the government hopes will become the next Shenzhen.

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Mahathir, who has been on the receiving end of criticism from Ibrahim in recent months, said he was merely raising questions about the Chinese projects out of concern that the economy was being overrun by foreigners.

“Malaysia is my home and the object of my loyalty. If I have to be accused of lese-majeste for what I say, so be it,” he wrote in his blog.

Analysts told This Week in Asia the public spat was an indication the issue would dominate the general election expected to be called this year.

“Mahathir and other Malay politicians from the anti-Najib camp will use the sheer [scale of] Chinese investments into Malaysia to criticise Najib as selling Malaysia’s internal sovereignty to China, or in other words, Malaysia [jumping on the China bandwagon] to the extent of drifting into the China orbit and becoming its satellite state,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a Southeast Asia politics researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

And James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said: “Mahathir is trying to show off his Malay nationalist credentials by portraying Najib as having gone to bed with the Chinese with these deals”.

Najib returned from a visit to Beijing in November with US$34 billion in deals, including an agreement to purchase four Chinese naval vessels – the first major defence deal between the two Asian countries.

Observers say Najib is tilting Malaysia towards China’s orbit as a result of Beijing’s “chequebook diplomacy” strategy in Southeast Asia as well as the increasing hostility he is facing from the West over the 1MDB scandal.

Bridget Welsh, a veteran Malaysian politics expert, said “the attack on Chinese business could be seen to be a criticism of those involved in engaging and profiting from Chinese business as selling out the Malays”.

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“The criticism about the role of Chinese business in Malaysia goes to the heart of Malay identity and its position in Malaysia,” she said.

UMNO has traditionally championed Malay supremacy and portrayed the country’s ethnic Chinese minority – as well as Chinese-majority Singapore – as a bogeyman in order to galvanise support from its rural Malay base. This practice was intensified during Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister.

Political observers say Malaysia’s nine hereditary monarchs, who are obliged under the constitution to stay above the political fray, are uneasy with the prospect of Bersatu and Mahathir gaining ground against UMNO. The nine sultans take turns at five-year stints as king of Malaysia, a figurehead role after Mahathir drastically curtailed the position’s powers during his time as prime minister.

“The fact that this quarrel is between Mahathir and the Sultan of Johor is also significant as Johor is the home base of the Bersatu party, [which] is hoping to make electoral inroads into a state that is the birthplace of UMNO and bastion of UMNO-driven Malay nationalism,” said Mustafa.

Welsh said Bersatu “has traction in Johor and there are concerns that this movement could affect the political balance in the state”.

Other experts say Ibrahim’s rebuke of the statesman stemmed from fears his position could disrupt the flow of foreign investments into his state, rather than worries about party politics. In the newspaper interview, the monarch said he hoped Chinese-backed developments would create jobs in Johor and propel its capital Johor Baru into a major city.

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The public feud follows a terse statement by the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur last week criticising “people who, when they were in power, pushed for friendly ties with China and welcomed Chinese investments to Malaysia”.

“But when they are no longer in power, they strenuously fan anti-China sentiments and deliberately dismiss Chinese investments as China ‘robbing locals of their rice bowls’,” the statement said.

Oh Ei Sun, a Malaysian politics expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said “the sultan’s main concern is the continued inflow of investment of all sorts to Johor”.

“As such he is obviously not pleased with any criticism of such inflows.”