Malaysia’s ties with China, Japan and South Korea are its top diplomatic priorities, the country’s democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim told investors in Hong Kong on Tuesday, as he hailed the direction the country was headed in under his “new comradeship” with nemesis-turned-ally Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Speaking at the CLSA Investors’ Forum, the 71-year-old politician confirmed Malaysian media reports that he was about to stand in a by-election – a move that will see him return to active politics and prepare to succeed Mahathir, 93, as prime minister.

Anwar used his nearly 80-minute appearance to underline assurances from the country’s new government that it is open to business from the Chinese mainland even as big-ticket Beijing-linked infrastructure projects are cancelled.

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Among them are projects worth over US$2 billion that were to have been built by the state-linked China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau. The Malaysian government this week axed the projects, having frozen work on them in July.

Meanwhile, the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link to be built by China Communication Construction Company has been left in limbo. The project had previously been touted as a key part of President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” linking Eurasia to China.

“For Malaysia, we take a very positive view on the need to enhance bilateral relations, regional [relations], trade and investments, and China happens to be one great economy, a great neighbour that we need to not only continue [our relationship with] but enhance this relationship,” Anwar told the forum, organised by the offshore arm of China’s biggest brokerage.

He said: “Of course there was some controversy affecting some of these deals in the past … and Dr Mahathir has taken a strong line with the cancellation of some of these projects.

But “these are confined to contracts with companies, these will not in any way affect relations with China as a nation [or affect] attracting investments from China,” Anwar said.

“I think in the region, whilst we continue relations with the West, United States, and the EU, our relationships with China, Japan and Korea are certainly priorities.”

Asked by the moderator why Singapore was not in this group, the veteran politician said while there was bound to be some “misunderstanding among neighbours”, the Lion City remained a “great partner” in the medium term and that he would work to bring about “closer bonds” between the two countries.

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Anwar hailed his partnership with former arch foe Mahathir as “historic”, and said the pair of them were committed to forging ahead with reforms despite rumours the two were heading for a falling out.

Anwar was deputy to Mahathir during his first stint as prime minister. But Mahathir sacked Anwar in 1998 and Anwar was later imprisoned for five years on charges of sodomy and corruption.

He was jailed again for sodomy in 2015 – this time during the tenure of the now defeated and scandal-tainted former prime minister Najib Razak.

Anwar maintains the convictions came from trumped-up charges aimed at removing him from frontline politics.

He was freed from jail on May 16 – a week after the May 9 election – after the Malaysian king pardoned him.

Under an agreement forged by the ruling coalition before the polls, Anwar will take over from Mahathir two years from now.

To do that, he must first become a member of Parliament.

In the forum on Tuesday, Anwar told the audience he would contest by-elections “in the coming weeks” but did not specify where he would stand.

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He is widely expected to announce his candidacy for the seat of Port Dickson in the state of Negeri Sembilan on Wednesday – requiring the incumbent, a member of his Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), to stand down.

Asked about the move on the sidelines of the forum, Anwar said: “Wait for the announcement.”

His speech and subsequent question-and-answer session saw him comment on the work of leaders including US President Donald Trump and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

Anwar said: “Don’t ask me about Trump. I know very little about Trump because I was in prison.”

He also criticised Myanmar’s democracy icon and de facto leader for her inaction on the Rohingya crisis.

Anwar said he was disappointed Suu Kyi was “completely oblivious to the gross injustices in front of her own eyes”.