Malaysia PM risks back­lash at home af­ter deals with China

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak is fac­ing grum­blings back home that he is “sell­ing off” his coun­try af­ter re­turn­ing from China with about $34 bil­lion worth of deals, which could help lift the econ­omy ahead of elec­tions. The con­cerns emerge from a deep-seated distrust of the Chi­nese among Malaysia’s Malay-Mus­lim ma­jor­ity, who form the sup­port base for the rul­ing United Malay Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion (UMNO).

Na­jib was quick to dis­miss the con­cerns af­ter con­clud­ing his six-day visit to China. “Some have scare­mon­gered that Malaysia is be­ing sold off. This is ab­surd and ab­so­lutely false,” Na­jib said in a state­ment on Fri­day, in­sist­ing the projects will be owned and run by Malaysians. The deals in­clude Malaysia’s first sig­nif­i­cant de­fence deal with China, an agree­ment to buy four Chi­nese naval ves­sels.

Na­jib’s visit fol­lowed that of Philip­pines Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, who an­nounced his coun­try’s “sep­a­ra­tion” from the United States and signed agree­ments and loan pledges worth an es­ti­mated $24 bil­lion with Bei­jing. UMNO lead­ers ex­pect Na­jib to brief them soon so the party can start al­lay­ing any fears about China’s ris­ing in­flu­ence in Malaysia, said Shahi­dan Kas­sim, a se­nior mem­ber of the party’s supreme coun­cil and a fed­eral min­is­ter. “All of this has its pros and cons, but in UMNO we must have a pol­icy state­ment on this,” he told Reuters.

Eth­nic­ity and re­li­gion

Eth­nic­ity and re­li­gion are sen­si­tive is­sues in Malaysia, where Mus­lim Malays form a lit­tle over 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of 31 mil­lion. Eth­nic Chi­nese make up about 25 per­cent and eth­nic In­di­ans about 7 per­cent. Malaysia’s eth­nic Chi­nese have long been a scape­goat for the Malay com­mu­nity, with UMNO lead­ers point­ing to eth­nic Chi­nese eco­nomic dom­i­nance to unite Malays and keep a firm grip on po­lit­i­cal power.

Last year, eth­nic ties be­came strained un­der the weight of two op­pos­ing demon­stra­tions largely split along racial lines. A ‘Malay pride’ rally blocked off Chi­na­town in Kuala Lumpur in a show of strength fol­low­ing an anti-gov­ern­ment rally dom­i­nated by Malaysian-Chi­nese. Na­jib’s gov­ern­ment sum­moned China’s am­bas­sador over his re­marks ahead of the “Malay pride’ rally. Clashes are ex­pected again this year as thou­sands of anti-gov­ern­ment demon­stra­tors plan to protest in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 19, call­ing for Na­jib to re­sign over the money-laun­der­ing scan­dal linked to Malaysian state in­vest­ment fund, One Malaysia De­vel­op­ment Ber­had (1MDB).

A mem­ber of UMNO’s pol­icy-mak­ing Supreme Coun­cil, Ir­mo­hizam Ibrahim, said Na­jib’s deals with China have stoked con­cerns among party lead­ers. “We’re ex­pect­ing the prime min­is­ter to ad­dress these is­sues at our next Supreme Coun­cil meet­ing,” Ir­mo­hizam said. “We will then need to go down and ex­plain to the grass­roots that ... the deals are purely for the econ­omy and trade,” said Ir­mo­hizam, who also serves as Na­jib’s strate­gic di­rec­tor in the party. Malaysia’s op­po­si­tion is ques­tion­ing the China agree­ments but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, say­ing it is tilt­ing the coun­try to­ward Bei­jing. “Malaysia’s eco­nomic de­pen­dence on any sin­gle na­tion is un­rea­son­able and will af­fect the coun­try’s free­dom and geo-po­lit­i­cal strat­egy and for­eign pol­icy,” jailed op­po­si­tion leader An­war Ibrahim said in a state­ment is­sued from prison.

‘Golden jewelry’

Na­jib is plan­ning elec­tions in the sec­ond half of 2017, a gov­ern­ment source has said. The in­vest­ments from China could help the prime min­is­ter pump-prime Malaysia’s econ­omy be­fore then. A 2017 na­tional bud­get Na­jib an­nounced last month calls for only a modest spend­ing rise, amid a con­tin­u­ing slump in commodity prices. Se­nior UMNO lead­ers and ur­ban Malays, how­ever, are un­com­fort­able that Chi­nese money will drive the de­vel­op­ment of strate­gic as­sets, ac­cord­ing to James Chin, di­rec­tor at the Uni­ver­sity of Tas­ma­nia’s Asia In­sti­tute. Chin says the Malay elite wel­comes Chi­nese in­vest­ment in purely com­mer­cial deals such as prop­erty pur­chases, but are more wary about agree­ments such as a 55 bil­lion ring­git ($13.11 bil­lion) deal for the Chi­nese to de­velop a rail net­work.

“The prob­lem with these deals is that they are seen as sell­ing the coun­try’s golden jewelry,” Chin said. Ties be­tween Malaysia and China reached a high point last De­cem­ber when Bei­jing came to Na­jib’s res­cue with a $2.3 bil­lion deal to buy 1MDB as­sets, help­ing ease con­cerns over its mount­ing debt. Re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton be­came strained af­ter the US Depart­ment of Jus­tice filed law­suits in July im­pli­cat­ing the prime min­is­ter in the money-laun­der­ing probe at 1MDB, the ad­vi­sory board of which Na­jib chaired un­til re­cently.

Shift­ing po­si­tions

China and Malaysia agreed to en­hance naval co­op­er­a­tion, af­ter seal­ing the deal to buy four Lit­toral Mis­sion ships, fast pa­trol ves­sels that can be equipped with a he­li­copter flight deck and carry mis­siles. Malaysia, along with three other mem­bers of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN) the Philip­pines, Viet­nam and Brunei - are among the coun­tries con­test­ing ter­ri­to­rial claims with China over the South China Sea. China claims nearly the en­tire body of wa­ter as its ter­ri­tory.

Na­jib said last month the dis­putes should be re­solved through di­a­logue with Bei­jing. Duterte dur­ing his visit per­suaded the Chi­nese to let Philip­pine fish­er­men op­er­ate around a dis­puted shoal, be­fore declar­ing his un­hap­pi­ness with Wash­ing­ton over its crit­i­cism of his lethal an­tidrug cam­paign. ASEAN, mean­while, has strug­gled to come up with a uni­fied po­si­tion on the South China Sea dis­putes at its meet­ings. “ASEAN will not go away... but in­creas­ingly the idea of the mul­ti­lat­eral track will be down­graded as now we see a swing from two key claimants to a more bi­lat­eral ap­proach,” said Euan Gra­ham, di­rec­tor of the in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity pro­gram at the Lowy In­sti­tute, a Syd­ney-based think-tank.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.