The 2018 Malaysian general election has finally come to an end, bringing about a historic change in the country’s political landscape. The Malaysian people have effected a historic power shift with a “voter tsunami”. The Barisan Nasional coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation party, which ruled Malaysia for 61 years, has been dethroned. The Pakatan Harapan led by Mahathir Mohamad, a former Malaysian prime minister, formed the new ruling coalition. The power shift in the general election is unprecedented for the Southeast Asian nation. The upheaval, particularly Mr Mahathir’s re-election, is especially important for China-Malaysia relations.
The power shift will definitely increase the uncertainty of China developing cooperative relations with Malaysia and developing bilateral ties. China’s cooperation with Asean countries is now in a critical phase that is fraught with all kinds of problems. The problems hidden in the previous phase are likely to become more sensitive in the changed times.
Before the general election, China and Malaysia achieved remarkable progress in relations within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative. However, some uncertain factors, such as the corruption scandal surrounding 1Malaysia Development Berhad of former prime minister Najib Razak’s government, also existed.
The political reshuffle in Malaysia and Mr Mahathir’s remarks on Chinese investment are very likely to hit China-Malaysia cooperation in the short run. Mr Mahathir’s disenchantment with former prime minister Najib reached a peak in recent years, and dethroning the latter had become a vital goal of Mr Mahathir’s comeback. While trying to realise his goal and showing disappointment with Mr Najib, Mr Mahathir often directed criticism at Chinese investment or related projects in Malaysia.
In his view, Mr Najib had been too close to China and Chinese investment has raised concerns over sovereignty. Mr Mahathir stated clearly before the general election that if elected he would strictly scrutinise China-funded programmes. China is now Malaysia’s largest foreign investor. Chinese-funded programmes, including the East Coast Rail Link project, are very likely to become the key targets of reassessment. It is possible that the power shift in Malaysia would give rise to short-term fluctuations in China-funded programmes in the country.
In the long run, the power shift will not cause major damage to China-Malaysia ties. Mr Mahathir has actually left some leeway and set certain conditions in his remarks over Chinese-funded programmes.
Although he reiterated that he would reexamine related programmes, he also stressed that the step was not directed at China. All projects will be assessed, and only those with unfair terms will be revised, he emphasised.
Mr Mahathir is also positive about the Belt and Road initiative and hopes to expand the railways. In his eyes, the problems of Chinese investment in Malaysia are not of scale but relate to specific terms and modes of investment. Moreover, Mr Mahathir has rich experience in pragmatic cooperation with China and also has a welcoming attitude toward China’s investment in Malaysia and the country’s economic and trade relations with China.
The power transition in the Malaysian general election has indeed posed a challenge to China-Malaysia cooperation, and is very likely to cause short-term fluctuations and setbacks. However, in the long run, the Malaysian ruling party rotation will not have an adverse impact on bilateral ties. Instead, it is likely to provide a good opportunity for fixing the problems in China-Malaysia cooperation, and inject new momentum to improve bilateral ties.
Ge Hongliang is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and director of the Institute of Malaysian Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities. This comment first appeared in Global Times.