No Chi­nese belt, road or bed­rooms for Malaysia

The Star Malaysia - StarBiz - - News -

PERPLEXED, wounded, in­dig­nant or still op­ti­mistic. The Chi­nese devel­oper Coun­try Gar­den Hold­ings Co can put any spin it wants on its For­est City project, a US$100bil Malaysian town­ship whose fate sud­denly has been thrown into doubt af­ter Tun Dr Ma­hathir Mo­hamad’s pointed re­fusal to let for­eign­ers buy apart­ments or live in them long term.

One thing is clear, though: The prime min­is­ter is not act­ing im­pul­sively. The project claims to be a “new global clus­ter of com­merce and cul­ture,” and a “dream par­adise for all mankind.” How­ever, in Malaysian po­lit­i­cal dis­course, For­est City is just a gi­gan­tic Chi­na­town of 700,000 res­i­dents.

Tak­ing on the devel­oper is part of Ma­hathir’s broader plan to re­de­fine Malaysia’s re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing, pulling Kuala Lumpur away from the client-state mind­set in­tro­duced by his pre­de­ces­sor.

Al­ready, the 93-year-old leader has can­celled the Chi­nese-funded East Coast Rail Link, deal­ing a blow to China Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Con­struc­tion Co, which was build­ing the US$20bil belt-and-road route. Datuk Seri Na­jib Tun Razak, ousted in May, claimed the link would bring pros­per­ity to east­ern Malaysia.

But Dr Ma­hathir, who spoke bluntly in Bei­jing this month against “a new ver­sion of colo­nial­ism,” took a very dif­fer­ent view of the rail­way, which would have con­nected ar­eas near the Thai bor­der along the South China Sea to busy port cities on Malaysia’s west­ern coast, near the Strait of Malacca.

He also shelved a nat­u­ral-gas pipe­line in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the is­land of Bor­neo. Dr Ma­hathir jus­ti­fied the can­cel­la­tions on the grounds that they were too ex­pen­sive.

How­ever, the abrupt mes­sage to Coun­try Gar­den, which is nei­ther linked to the Chi­nese state nor would add a dol­lar to Malaysia’s na­tional debt, shows that sovereignty – and Malaysia’s racial pol­i­tics – are Ma­hathir’s real con­cerns.

Two-thirds of the home­buy­ers in For­est City are from China. Last year, as a tren­chant critic of Na­jib’s poli­cies, Dr Ma­hathir flagged the risk that any­body liv­ing in Malaysia for 12 years would be able to vote.

Coun­try Gar­den should have seen the po­lit­i­cal risk in mar­ket­ing the flats to main­land Chi­nese, who were sep­a­rately lap­ping up longstay visas un­der Na­jib’s Malaysia My Sec­ond Home pro­gramme. Na­jib’s gen­eros­ity to­ward the main­land wasn’t the nat­u­ral state of af­fairs. In 1965, the coun­try ex­pelled Sin­ga­pore from the Malaysian fed­er­a­tion out of fear that the penin­sula’s ma­jor­ity Mus­lim Malays could lose their po­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance to the is­land’s eth­nic Chi­nese.

If Coun­try Gar­den mis­read the po­lit­i­cal tea leaves, it’s also wrong to bark up the le­gal tree af­ter Dr Ma­hathir’s out­burst. So what if Malaysia’s na­tional land code per­mits for­eign own­er­ship? Ap­proval of global in­vestors may not mat­ter all that much to a politi­cian who has, in his pre­vi­ous in­nings, trapped their money at the height of a fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

The new prime min­is­ter isn’t as re­liant on Bei­jing as his pre­de­ces- sor. If any­thing, he has to re­ward lo­cal busi­ness­men and con­trac­tors for switch­ing their al­le­giance from Barisan Na­sional, the erst­while rul­ing coali­tion that suf­fered its first loss of power in six decades.

It’s a given then that Malaysia un­der Dr Ma­hathir will have lit­tle ap­petite ei­ther for One Belt, One Road – or, for that mat­ter, three­and four-bed­room apart­ments that could cre­ate a new po­lit­i­cal con­stituency.

For­est City could still be sal­vaged, but as a pre­dom­i­nantly lo­cal project. If Don­ald Trump can uni­lat­er­ally change the rules of game for China and Chi­nese busi­nesses, so can, in his lim­ited sphere, Dr Ma­hathir. As far as Coun­try Gar­den is con­cerned, he just has. — Bloomberg

By ANDY MUKHERJEE Mam­moth project: Con­struc­tion works go­ing on at the For­est City project in Ge­lang Patah, Jo­hor.

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