The Malaysian Reserve

The ‘Tiger of Asia’ still roars…

We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries in terms of just free, open trade, says Dr Mahathir (Pic by Muhd Amin Naharul/TMR)

‘Dr M is a no-nonsense and straight-forward man — something that the Chinese govt is well aware of’

By P PREM KUMAR / Pic By MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

It was like watching a repeat of Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s famously quoted speech that he delivered when he was hosting the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 2003.

“We (Muslims) are actually very strong…1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed six million Jews out of 12 million. But today, the Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”

During Dr Mahathir’s recent working trip to China, it would not be prudent if one expected anything less. Like when he rubbished colonisation in the name of free trade.

“I agree that free trade should be the way to go. But, of course free trade should also be fair trade. We should always remember that the level of developments of countries are not all the same.

“We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries in terms of just free, open trade,” Dr Mahathir told a packed media conference after his bilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday.

It was unclear as to who Dr Mahathir was addressing the comment to, but one could deduce that it was directed to economic powerhouses that are advocating free trade.

The privilege that I had to be part of the press conference and a member of the Malaysian entourage (together with 26 other colleagues representing various media organisations in the country), was a real experience.

It could also be the largest ever media entourage covering a foreign visit by a Malaysian prime minister and the first time ever for some media organisations which were “black- listed” by the previous administration — to be part to the entourage.

Seated on the fourth row of the press conference (the first three rows were reserved for delegates) were international journalists — along with myself — who seemed to be on fire, jotting down each word uttered by both prime ministers.

A senior Western journalist working for a London-based financial paper who was seated next to me during the presser, shared her experience covering Malaysia from her then base in Singapore — before both the prime ministers took the podium to answer questions.

She told me how delightful it was for her covering the vibrancy of the local oil and gas industry, besides the financial sector during her stint in Singapore, which was the same time Dr Mahathir was administering the country for the first round.

According to her, she had covered various state visits of foreign leaders to China, including Malaysian prime ministers — but nothing was as frenzied as Dr Mahathir’s current visit.

Before I could ask her why, the seasoned journalist, who is now based in Beijing for the last five years, said Dr Mahathir is a no-nonsense and straight-forward man — something that the Chinese government is well aware of.

“He (Dr Mahathir) doesn’t care who you are and where are you from, but he sets his message clear and straight, which is something that you don’t see nowadays among world leaders.

“Everyone is afraid of one another, besides trying to be friendly and popular with everyone,” she added.

The entire region, if not the world, was looking at China earlier this week — thanks to Malaysia and Dr Mahathir.

Although China could be used to this attention due to its position as the second-largest economy in the world, with a 1.4 billion population and the Midas touch to enrich any business- man with successful ventures into the massive market, Malaysia could be the rarest of reasons.

Investors and the business community were awaiting the outcome of Dr Mahathir’s five-day state visit to the republic.

Apparently, since assuming power in May, the nonagenarian was perceived as having “a hostile approach” towards Chinese investments in the country.

During the campaigns before the 14th General Election and post his historic victory, the prime minister had criticised deals made with Chinese investors, especially those he claimed were “crooked deals” such as the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and two gas pipeline projects in Sabah.

Arriving on the night of Aug 17, Dr Mahathir had already set his stand.

After all, Malaysia became friends with China when other South-East Asian economies were sceptical and cautious — now it’s time for China to repay the gratitude.

It might not have been verbally expressed, but that could be the essence of the opening remarks uttered by the prime minister during his meetings with three Chinese national leaders in Beijing.

Dr Mahathir repeatedly asked China to sympathise with Malaysia’s current financial position — a statement which could also be viewed as a real plea, or perhaps, sarcasm.

The prime minister also stressed much on the current federal government’s principles on foreign direct investments and asserted that investments not meeting the criteria will have to be deferred, or dropped.

According to Dr Mahathir, Chinese leaders accepted Malaysia’s latest stand rather well.

That was followed by a press conference on Tuesday to conclude his visit when Dr Mahathir declared that the ECRL and gas pipeline projects were cancelled, and will only be rebooted once Malaysia is back on track economically.

How revered was the “Tiger of Asia” on the world stage?

During a dinner with the Malaysian diaspora as part of his recent trip, the 500-strong crowd stood up and could not help but give the good doctor a rousing welcome with loud cheers and applause as he entered the hall.

Now, that certainly speaks volume…