JUDGING BY THE number of headlines it generated, the spat that erupted this week between Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and an influential sultan over a surge in Chinese investment into the country has seized Malaysians’ imagination.

And no wonder. The story seems to have it all: a strongman leader, back from the political afterlife and ready to defy a revered monarch; a looming racially charged election; sums of money on a scale few normal people can comprehend; and even a Chinese villain (the antagonist of choice in some parts of the country).

The war of words began on Tuesday when, in rare public defiance of Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs, Mahathir said he was willing to stand trial for lèse-majesté for criticising the increase in Chinese building projects in the southern Johor state. The projects are backed by Johor’s ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail.

In particular, Mahathir criticised the planned US$42 billion Forest City project – a joint venture between a company controlled by the sultan and the Chinese corporation, Country Garden.

While the development is eye-catching – it’s slated to house 700,000 people on four artificial islands occupying an area four times the size of New York’s Central Park – why make such a fuss?

The first point to note is that this flashy development (the plans include international schools, shopping malls and hotels draped in greenery) is the latest example of large-scale Chinese investment into the country.

Mahathir’s tirade, while targeted at this particular development, needs to be viewed against the backdrop of his distaste for Malaysia’s current prime minister, Najib Razak, and his earlier accusations that Najib is selling Malaysia to China.

Mahathir, 91, ruled Malaysia with an iron fist for 22 years until 2003. Recently, he has emerged from the political wilderness to become the top critic of Najib, who faces allegations of links to a corruption scandal at the state investment arm 1MDB.

How Chinese investment could sway Malaysian election

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

Since then, he has targeted Najib for cosying up to China, particularly panning the premier’s trip to China last year, in which he returned to Malaysia having sealed trade and investment pacts worth 144 billion ringgit (HK$250 billion).

The second point to note is that the location of the development – in Johor – is of particular significance. The state has been chosen as the home base of Bersatu. Bersatu is hoping to win elections in the state, long synonymous with – and birthplace of – UMNO, and a bastion of Malay nationalism.

Making those inroads hinges on wooing the Malay vote, especially in rural areas, away from UMNO. Capturing these votes will be crucial for Bersatu to do well in the next election, due by August 2018 but widely expected some time this year.

Is Malaysia’s former PM Mahathir Mohamad next to be arrested over anti-government protests?

Bersatu’s endgame is two-tiered. The first tier is to dislodge UMNO from controlling the Johor state assembly by entering into some loose pact with the opposition, and in so doing, breaking the back of UMNO. The second tier is to dislodge Najib from government by either winning the national election, or narrowing Najib’s winning margin in such a way his position becomes politically untenable both within his party and in government.

From Mahathir’s perspective – and that of other Malay politicians from the anti-Najib camp – the Forest City project was a political godsend. Mahathir hopes that by playing on fears that Najib is selling Malaysia’s sovereignty (or simply Malay land to China), and suggesting the country is becoming a satellite state of Beijing, he can gain traction with the largely conservative rural Malay support base in Johor and beyond.

Mahathir has also peddled the alarmist view that Malaysia will be overrun by an influx of Chinese workers and residents who will unbalance Malaysia’s constitutionally enshrined ethnic quotas.

What a handshake between Mahathir and Anwar really means for Malaysia

A sizeable portion of conservative Malays remain apprehensive of Chinese Malaysians and a Sino-centric regional order, underpinned by a rising China, so this issue of Malaysia selling its economic soul to China is likely to be a hot-button issue during the election.

Non-Malay opposition politicians are also likely to make it an electoral issue, by arguing that the real concern over the funding from Beijing is whether it is finding its way to all Malaysians, regardless of race, or whether it only benefits the elites.

WATCH: Thousands gather to demand Malaysian Prime Minister’s resignation

The third point to keep in mind is the historical animosity between Mahathir and Malaysia’s royalty.

It was Mahathir who launched a public campaign to curb the excesses of royalty and remove the sultans’ immunity from criminal prosecution after two assault cases involving the Johor royal family in the 1990s.

More recently, Sultan Ibrahim rebuked Mahathir for his criticism of the state’s Bangsa Johor concept, which bases its development on fostering unity through respect for race, religion and culture.

As regards their latest feud, Mahathir’s grandstanding appears based on a mix of his anti-Najib sentiment and his long-standing contempt for royalty.

Odd couple: Malaysia’s Anwar endorses long-time foe Mahathir in battle against PM Najib, setting aside decades of bad blood

For the Johor ruler, it is more about safeguarding his state from the parochial and racial politics of Mahathir, so as to protect and promote the Bangsa Johor way of life.

The real takeaway from the spat is quite how deeply entrenched racialised politics has become in Malaysia. With elections looming, all parties are likely to ramp up the racial and religious undertones of their campaigns to garner votes. That in turn suggests a likely rise in monarchical activism as a vanguard against the ethno-religious polarisation of state-society relations. Indeed, the headlines that have been capturing Malaysians’ imaginations over the past week may be just a taste of what is to come as the polls near. That might be good for those writing the headlines; rather less so for those reading them.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin is fellow and associate editor of Contemporary Southeast Asia at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, and a lecturer at the University Scholars Programme of the National University of Singapore