Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) inspect Chinese honour guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

When Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second prime minister, normalized diplomatic relations with China in 1974, it was used by his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a pro-Malay political party, to boost its legitimacy and popularity with Malaysians of Chinese descent. Fast forward four decades, and Tun Abdul’s son, current Prime Minister Najib Razak, is playing the same political card.

Last month, communications minister Salleh Said Keruak said that “Malaysia’s good relations with China” was one reason why UMNO and its ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition can expect support from Sino-Malaysians at the next general election, which must be held before August 2018. Chinese Malaysians comprise around 25% of the national population, while ethnic Malays account for around 60%.

The Malaysian Chinese Association, a uni-racial political party and member of the BN coalition, has also politically leveraged Najib’s warming relations with China in recent months by setting up pro-Beijing committees and organizations aimed at facilitating talks between Chinese and Malaysian businesspeople and politicians.

Najib’s government is fully aware that rising Chinese trade and investment has cushioned the blow of recent economic hardships. China is currently the country’s biggest trade partner and foreign investor. Last year, bilateral trade was worth more than US$50 billion, up 4.4% from 2015, according to official trade statistics. Chinese investments have poured into various sectors, including areas Kuala Lumpur has prioritized for more value-added growth.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang (R), and Malaysian premier Najib Razak in Beijing, China on Nov 1 2016. Photo: The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP

Those growing ties, though, are also being politicized by the political opposition, which claims Najib has given up too much in terms of sovereignty. Former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who quit UMNO last year and established a new party, has criticized a multi-billion dollar housing development project which is part-funded by a China-based developer.

The US$38 billion Country Garden’s Forest City project is one of several developments in the southern Johor state funded by Chinese capital and built by Chinese developers. The Forest City project’s future, however, has been called into doubt following recent capital controls on outward investments imposed by Beijing. That has raised politicized questions of whether Malaysia has become too dependent on China during Najib’s nearly eight years in power.     

“Much of the most valuable land will now be owned and occupied by foreigners,” Mahathir wrote on his blog in January. “In effect [it] will become foreign land.” During a speech to members of his newly-founded Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) a few weeks later, the former premier claimed that “our heritage is being sold, our grandchildren won’t have anything in the future.”

Xenophobic: Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su 

Political analysts believe that China will be an important campaign issue at the upcoming general election. Malay-centric opposition parties, including Mahathir’s PPBM and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), are expected to point towards rising Chinese investments to claim that Najib has sold out national interests to Beijing, in a bid to undermine UMNO’s legitimacy among the majority Malay-Muslim electorate.

Opposition parties, however, have carefully claimed that raising questions about the extent of China’s investments and influence in Malaysia is not the same as being anti-Chinese. “We are not anti-China, but we are against economic monopoly by any country and the high reliance of Malaysia to the country in question,” said Raja Kamarul Bahrin, an opposition National Trust Party member, during a speech in January. He said that questioning China’s influence in Malaysia was akin to Americans questioning Russia’s role in their country’s politics.

Kuala Lumpur-based commentators agree that serious questions need to be asked about how Chinese capital will impact the country, including whether Chinese investments and initiatives will benefit ordinary people or only the political and business elite. At the same time, they acknowledge it is a slippery slope between questioning Beijing’s role and targeting Sino-Malaysians in light of past anti-Chinese race riots in the country.

Mahathir has also claimed that he is “not anti-Chinese” but just “against mass immigration from any country”, though his critics say “mass immigration” or “foreigners” are mere euphemisms for Chinese, part of an anti-Chinese sentiment that has pervaded Malaysian politics for decades.    

Kuala Lumpur-based commentators agree that serious questions need to be asked about how Chinese capital will impact the country, including whether Chinese investments and initiatives will benefit ordinary people or only the political and business elite.

“The fear of becoming ‘slaves in our own land’ has been a core trope in Malay nationalism from as far back as Malaysia’s independence movement,”  noted Shannon Teoh, Malaysia bureau chief for the Straits Times. “A widely held belief of many in the ethnic [Malay] majority is that the Chinese minority control the economy, and UMNO has leveraged on this fear to cement its political hegemony,” he added.

Following Mahathir’s criticism of the Forest City development, the sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Ismail, who is also an investor in the project, accused the opposition figure of “creating fear . . . just to fulfill his political motives.”

In a rare public response to Malaysia’s domestic politics, the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur rebuked Mahathir – who served as prime minister from 1981 until 2003 – saying in a statement that he was “somebody [who] applauded Sino-Malaysian co-operation when in office but fanned the flame of anti-Chinese sentiment after.”

Malaysian premier Najib Razak raises UMNO’s flag. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

This does not mean, however, that UMNO will be averse to stirring up ethnic divisions for its own political purposes. The ruling party is well-practiced at delivering polar opposite messages to different constituencies, a tactic that has allowed it to maintain its decades-old hold on power. While UMNO stalwarts may extol improved relations with Beijing to Sino-Malaysian voters, they can be expected to play down those ties in speeches to ethnic Malay voters.

“If Malays understand what I’m saying and the consequences, they will hold on to UMNO for it is the only party that can preserve the future of their children,” Naijb said in a speech in December. The intended message being that if UMNO falls at the polls Malaysia would be dominated by multi-racial parties that could dismantle various pro-Malay and Islamic institutions.

That seems doubtful, however. The multi-racial Democratic Action Party (DAP), the largest opposition party, and the People’s Justice Party (PKR) have already formed coalition ties with the pro-Malay PPBM and National Trust Party. But in Malaysia’s politics of fear and division, rhetoric often trumps truth. And for the first time in decades, it seems, China’s role will be a campaign issue.