Not only did Mahathir say “no” to three China projects in Malaysia, he said them in Beijing before flying back to Kuala Lumpur. To those who are not familiar with saying no to China or anyone powerful, Mahathir had just crossed the line. How did he do that? To the cynics, Mahathir had gone from gutsy and bold to being literally mad. One certainly does not say no to the great powers, let alone China. There are US$134 billion worth of Chinese commercial endeavours spread over 11 projects throughout Malaysia. With a polite explanation to three of China’s top leaders – President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Chairman of the National People’s Congress (equivalent to a parliament) Li Zhangsu – he said that Malaysia “cannot afford” three of the government-to-government projects. But the optic of affordability can only tell half the story about the 93-year-old. Unrelenting Dr M for decades now Back in 1970s, he had written an academic article in the prestigious Third World Quarterly, a journal that used to publish the works of Prof Jomo Kwame Sundaram, one of the best development economists in the world to date. No foreign leader dared to publish in this journal, for fear of being seen as a leftist at the height of the Cold War. With sheer intellectual passion, Mahathir contributed the article to that journal anyway. By 1988, he had also co-wrote a short book with Shintaro Ishihara, the former Tokyo mayor, who was often misunderstood in China and Japan as a right winger. In that book, both of them peddled the thesis that Japan can say no to the US, invariably, the West. On the part of Asia, Mahathir argued along the same line. The original partner of Ishihara was the co-founder of Sony, the late Akio Morita. Both had jointly argued in Japan, that the Land of the Rising Sun was sufficiently sophisticated enough to say no to the US in that if Japan refused to divulge all the knowledge on the semi-conductor or microchip that goes into the making of an F-15 or other such American made super jets, the defence industries of the US would immediately be crippled. Morita, however, backed out from further co-authorship of such works, in order to protect the expansion of Sony into US mainland by 1990s. But by then, Mahathir had summoned the courage to express similar views with Ishihara. Indeed, to take Look East Policy further and deeper. From 1990 to 1997, Mahathir was unrelenting in pushing the idea of East Asian Economic Group (EAEG), which morphed into East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC). The idea was sufficiently provocative to draw then US secretary of state James Baker to warn Japan and South Korea not to endorse it. They didn’t. Be that as it may, by 1990, Mahathir had peddled the idea to then Chinese prime minister Li Peng, that too at a time when China was being ostracised by the rest of the world over the Tiananmen Tragedy on June 4 just a year prior. This trip, and the idea of China leading East Asia, went down very well with Beijing. Mahathir was seen as a visionary statesman in China, and is still seen in that context. Beijing understands In Li’s press conference in Beijing on Aug 21, the Chinese prime minister spent the first five minutes praising Mahathir on his role as a national leader who understood the importance of regional peace, economic prosperity and joint strategic development. Invariably, as neighbours who were capable of reaching win-win outcomes regardless of the traditional economic or new (disruptive) economic order. Old or new, in other words, China and Malaysia would forge ahead together. That strategic DNA was laid by Mahathir as early as 1990. Therefore, when he said no to China, Beijing understood that he was not being fickle or indecisive. They knew he had done his homework. Hence, in the international press coverage of his trip to China, there was no unnecessary alarm on Aug 22. This further implies that Malaysia and China have reached a strong understanding that certain projects of questionable values can indeed be stopped, revised, even abolished. Strategic parity between China and Malaysia had been restored. More importantly, saying no to any powers – great or small and including Singapore – involves huge degrees of conviction and commitment too. Besides, this was a “no” that had the support of the majority of Malaysians, in turn, the entire Malaysian Cabinet and civil society. But, more importantly, Mahathir has been consistent with his views on colonialism, corruption, and sheer commercial charade camouflaged as infrastructure projects. Seeing eye to eye with Xi In the press conference with the Chinese prime minister, Mahathir did not rely on any talking points from the Foreign Affairs Ministry let alone the new Special Envoy to China Tan Kok Wai. Mahathir said: “Malaysia does not want colonialism. Indeed, Malaysia wants fair trade. Not just free trade.” These words were not jarring to China or Chinese diplomacy the least bit. Why was this the case? Starting from 1975, Chairman Mao had espoused the theory of three worlds, which included the developed, semi-developed and underdeveloped world. Deng Xiao Ping, who was then returning from the purge of the Cultural Revolution, was given the responsibility of articulating the “three worlds theory” at the United Nations General Assembly. More importantly, Deng affirmed that China would always support “the Third World,” or the underdeveloped world. Between 1975 and 2017, there is no evidence that China had walked away from this concept, even though the Cold War had ended in 1988 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mahathir knew then, as he knows now, that China would understand the plight of Malaysia if he has the privilege to explain it to Xi, whom at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1975, was sent to the farms in the outbacks of China, as Xi had once put it, to “eat bitterness”. In other words, Mahathir knows that when push comes to shove, Xi is a man of reason. More remarkably, it should be mentioned that Mahathir had once written a letter to Xi to revive the Silk Road (in Central Asia and Altaic regions), which the president, according to Mahathir in an interview with South China Morning Post last month, had added with a “maritime belt”. Mahathir, in more ways than one, does see eye to eye with Xi. Saying no to the West Saying no to China involves huge amounts of prior intellectual honesty and consistency, both of which Mahathir possesses in sheer abundance. This is because he has had the habit of saying no to the West before, indeed, long before he was compelled by current circumstances – what Mahathir had earlier called “Najib’s stupidity” in signing lop-sided contracts – to say no to Xi. Rather than worshipping Japan, as some misunderstood, Mahathir had also said no to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), back in 1985. To be sure, it was Jica that first proposed the East Coast Railway project. But during Najib’s tenure, some of his special officers and ministers took to dusting off the old Jica railway paper to transform it into a China Belt and Road project. This was known in the inner circle of Umno as “tukar kulit”, meaning “to change the title of any policy or commercial paper to make it one’s own”. For lack of a better word, Najib’s special officers and Cabinet had got themselves into the game of cheating since the railway project was not their original conceptualisation. In this sense, there was nothing remarkable about saying no to China, since Mahathir has had many opportunities to turn down many different countries and great powers before. When Australia and New Zealand first expressed their wishes to be part of the East Asian Economic Group or Caucus, Mahathir told them to be satisfied with their membership in Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec). It was only during Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s time as prime minister that the two countries were allowed to join the inaugural East Asian Summit in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In fact, Mahathir and his Cabinet are currently saying no to the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement or any variety that comes from it. Thus, saying no is difficult only if a country wants to ingratiate itself to others. During Najib’s time, he was surrounded by thousands of “yes” men and women. They led him into a ditch, as Khairy Jamaluddin admitted, by not telling the truth on a daily and consistent basis. Mahathir, on the other hand, is a master at saying no based on simple principles and consistency. The people have given the prime minister two thumbs up with an approval rating of 71%; while his deputy Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and prime minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim agree with his decisions. Such unity, and collective consistency, are the stuff that make a country strong. Mahathir just executed what had otherwise been the will of Malaysians too. – The Sun Phar Kim Beng was a multiple award-winning Head Teaching Fellow on China and Cultural Revolution in Harvard University. Comments: [email protected] University.
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