Dr M dithering on mega projects to ‘save China’s face’, report claims

Azril Annuar
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad shakes hands with China’s Premier Li Keqiang at the end of a news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 20, 2018. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 29 — Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s apparent “flip-flopping” on several multi-billion-ringgit China-backed projects here is only a facade to allow the Asian superpower to “save face”, a report has claimed today.

Quoting several anonymous sources close to the prime minister, South China Morning Post (SCMP) said even though the 93-year-old prime minister seems vague about the fate of the projects in public, he was “crystal clear” about them in private.

“As we all know, face is very important for the Chinese... but there is agreement on both sides that the projects have to be cancelled because of Malaysia’s financial position.

“As far as the Chinese are concerned... if there is outright cancellation, the whole world will know. Nobody will want to do business with them. Already there are problems in Sri Lanka, Pakistan in Africa and so on,” a source, who is part of the negotiations, reportedly said.

Blaming embattled former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for allowing such lopsided deals favouring the Chinese to occur is also another tactic to the same effect, the source reportedly said.

“This is why we keep saying it’s on Najib, it’s on Najib, it’s on Najib, and not China... we don’t want to embarrass you but you must protect our interests as well,” the source added.

The sources claimed that Dr Mahathir plans on completely axing the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) and the multi-billion-ringgit gas pipeline projects, despite claiming they are being deferred.

Despite that, the High-Speed Rail project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore will reportedly just be postponed for two years instead of cancelled altogether, with Economic Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali heading negotiations in the southern neighbour today and tomorrow.

However, private projects such as Forest City in Johor and the Melaka Gateway project will reportedly continue as they do not involve government funds.

Sources quoted by SCMP reportedly said that Dr Mahathir was being vague to ensure that China does not “lose face” from the project cancellations, at a time when Beijing is being criticised for using its Belt and Road Initiative as a form of debt-trap diplomacy.

Touching on Dr Mahathir’s recent statement regarding plans to bar foreign ownership in the Chinese-backed Forest City project, SCMP reported that some of the prime minister’s off-the-cuff remarks should not be taken as policy.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s Office clarified that foreigners are free to buy homes here but are subject to certain conditions, but such purchases would not automatically grant the buyers residency.

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