Chinese diplomats have said they believe relations with the new government in Malaysia “will enter the next level” under Mahathir Mohamad following a flurry of activity that revealed the clearest signal yet on the newly elected prime minister’s policy towards Beijing.
In an internal memo to foreign affairs staff, dated May 14 and obtained by This Week in Asia, Mahathir told foreign ministry secretary general Ramlan Ibrahim that “our strong ties with China … will continue to flourish”.
Back-to-back diplomatic moves this week appeared to add weight to the statement. Mahathir met with China’s ambassador to Malaysia, Bai Tian, on Thursday, a day after the prime minister dispatched his key adviser Robert Kuok to the Chinese embassy to discuss continued cooperation between the two countries.
Courtesy call by the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Malaysia, His Excellency Bai Tian this morning at my office in Putrajaya. pic.twitter.com/CUsC8crQoO— Dr Mahathir Mohamad (@chedetofficial) 24 May 2018
“As a long-time friend of Malaysia as well as its key strategic partner, the Chinese government is keen to work hand in hand with the new Malaysian government and continue our collaboration following the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit,” according to a statement released by the embassy after its meeting with Mahathir. “[We] believe Sino-Malaysia relations will enter the next level under Mahathir’s leadership.”
The embassy also praised Mahathir’s support for the “Belt and Road Initiative”, President Xi Jinping’s ambitious infrastructure project designed to revive the ancient trading routes stretching from Asia to Europe and Africa. Malaysia has long been viewed as an important stop along the routes.
In a separate statement, the Chinese embassy said that Bai and Kuok discussed continued cooperation between the two countries.
“Both agreed that China-Malaysia friendly cooperation is in the fundamental interests of the two countries and two peoples,” the embassy said on its website. “As an important country along the 21st century maritime Silk Road under the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, Malaysia could further benefit from mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation with China.”
Kuok, who is based in Hong Kong and is Malaysia’s richest man, was appointed by Mahathir to sit on a special council of advisers to the Malaysian government soon after the election.
Bai spoke highly of the contributions Kuok had made to Malaysian development as well as the progress of China-Malaysia relations. Bai also expected “Kuok would continue to contribute to the future development of China-Malaysia cooperation,” the embassy said.
The meeting came amid speculation that Malaysia, a close ally of China under Najib Razak’s administration, could be re-evaluating its relations with Beijing. While Mahathir had repeatedly maintained he is “not anti-China”, the 92-year-old has long been known as a critic of Chinese investment deals in Malaysia that he feared could worsen the Southeast Asian country’s debt burden.
During a tense election campaign, Mahathir pledged to re-examine all China-led projects approved by Najib if he were elected.
Since his landmark victory that ousted Najib and his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which had been in power for 60 years, Mahathir has said at once that the projects would be re-examined even as he promised to honour all agreements, leaving analysts wondering about his next moves vis-à-vis China.
Enter Kuok and the picture seems to have become clearer, analysts say.
“Robert Kuok would certainly be a very strong bridge between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur given his long-standing ties with both countries,” said Tang Siew Mun, a senior fellow at ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior adviser of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Malaysia, agreed, saying Kuok’s proven business acumen, in both China and Malaysia, has given him a high status in both countries.
“Malaysia and China have traditionally enjoyed very close and resilient relations, especially on the trade and economic fronts. It is only natural that such intimate relationship would continue under Mahathir, who was instrumental in laying the foundation for such close ties in his previous administration,” Oh added.
Kuok was among the first investors who went into China during its early days of opening up in the late 1970s and early 80s.
The 94-year-old, born in the southern Malaysian state of Johor, started off as a sugar merchant and over the years grew his business empire across the region in property, shipping, agribusinesses and logistics, including the Shangri La Hotels and Resorts and the Hong Kong-based logistics giant Kerry Group.
The billionaire is widely viewed as an icon of the country’s 7.4 million ethnic Chinese and the overseas Chinese diaspora. In his memoirs published last year, Kuok wrote about China’s rise under the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and its current transformation under president Xi Jinping, and his own dealings with the country as it was opening up.
He also recounted how he had in the past been called upon to act as a conduit between the two governments of Malaysia and China, including playing a pivotal role in the virtual shutdown of the Malayan Communist Party, once supported by China.
Kuok has been lauded by China as well. In 2013, he won a “China Economic Persons of the Year” awarded from state-owned China Central Television.
“Kuok’s close ties with China as well as his background as Malaysian Chinese has made him an ideal candidate in dealing with Sino-Malaysia relations,” said Huang Fei, a scholar at Xiamen University. Huang said the recent meeting could be considered as Kuala Lumpur’s friendly gesture to Beijing.
Kuok has received a hero’s welcome during his visit to Malaysia this week. In his memoirs, he had also criticised the Barisan Nasional for its race-based politics, prompting attacks from Najib and his coterie that they later retracted in the face of a public backlash.
On Tuesday, Kuok held a meeting with the council of elders, which is led by former finance minister Daim Zainuddin. Both men held hands as they walked out of the meeting.
On Wednesday, apart from his meeting with Bai, Kuok also called on Mahathir and in a short clip posted on the latter’s Twitter account, he is seen greeting the prime minister and heard saying: “ … I salute you. You’ve saved the country. Of course with Daim’s help”.
Mahathir replied: “Yes I know. But I need your help now”.
While Kuok has lived in Hong Kong since the late 1970s, in his memoir he said he still considered his country of birth his true home.
With additional reporting by Bhavan Jaipragas