Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said this week it is not Malaysia’s role to promote China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) initiative, and that he does not want China’s ideas and ideologies to influence the country’s younger generation.
Speaking during a forum session of the Malaysia Beyond 2020 conference in Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 21, Mahathir said that although Malaysia regards China as a “friend,” he does not want people to believe the country has fallen under its influence.
Keynote address at the ISIS Malaysia Praxis Conference entitled “Malaysia Beyond 2020”. pic.twitter.com/kvLoXVmU3D
— Dr Mahathir Mohamad (@chedetofficial) October 21, 2019
“Malaysia has always regarded China as a friend, except for some periods in the early days of our independence when China was practicing communism that could be exported to Malaysia,” he said. “We don’t want that.”
The 93-year-old leader spoke in reference to a controversial propaganda comic book titled “Belt and Road Initiative for Win-Winism” which is believed to have been distributed to schools across the country.
The comic book, which promotes China’s OBOR initiative, reportedly contains propaganda repeating political views of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and describes those who believe Uyghurs are being mistreated in Xinjiang, as “extremists,” reported the Malay Mail. Mahathir has said he was not involved in its publication and was unaware of its content.
“At the moment, it is not for us to promote China’s ideas and ideologies but to find out how we can benefit from them,” Mahathir said.
“As much as we didn’t like Western influence in our strategies and schools, we don’t want other countries to have undue influence on our young people.”
The comic allegedly contains a photograph of Mahathir with notes stating the book was given as a gift from him to Chinese leader Xi Jinping when they met during the Belt and Road Summit and Forum in Beijing in April.
The Prime Minister’s Office rebutted the claims in a statement on Oct. 18 saying: “The PMO would like to state that the book was not an official gift during the meeting and it [the comic] was brought in without going through proper procedures and channels.”
The distribution of the book in schools is currently under investigation, Malaysia’s Home Ministry said.
Mahathir added at the Malaysian Beyond 2020 conference that Malaysia will not support the OBOR initiative “without a proper study.”
“We support the idea of ‘One Belt One Road’ but we have to find out exactly what it is,” he said.
“So, we are not going to influence the minds of the young people. The young people must understand the problems, strategies, and policies of our own country first.”
Mahathir’s comments came after he successfully renegotiated a major China-backed rail link project in a deal which will save the country 21.5 billion ringgit ($5.2 billion) in debt to the communist superpower.
The 93-year-old slashed the cost of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL)—a key part of China’s OBOR infrastructure initiative—by almost a third, from 65.5 billion ringgit ($16 billion) to 44 billion ringgit ($11 billion), his office announced on April 12.
“This reduction will surely benefit Malaysia and lighten the burden on the country’s financial position,” it said in a statement.
Mahathir said his government negotiated the new terms of the agreement to prioritize the needs of Malaysians, adding that the initial cost of the rail link was unjustified and unclear.
The move came after months of negotiations following Mahathir’s decision to cancel the project last year. The agreement was first signed in 2017 under the administration of Datuk Seri Najib tun Razak, Mahathir’s scandal-ridden predecessor.
The 93-year-old leader simultaneously announced the cancellation of the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline (TSGP) project on the final day of his official five-day visit to China, saying that his country’s top priority was to minimize its debt and loans.
Mahathir canceled the ambitious ECRL last year amid concerns that the project made no financial sense for the country. Alarm bells were triggered after other countries started running into financial difficulty when the construction of their infrastructure projects as part of the OBOR initiative began.
Meanwhile, Mahathir also said Wednesday that it was a near miracle that Malaysia was not bankrupted by the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) money-laundering scandal, which caused both financial and institutional damage.
“One of the biggest challenges after successfully toppling the kleptocratic regime was mopping up the mess left behind and rebuilding the nation,” he said.
“While 1MDB is without doubt a monstrosity, we will never be able to fully fathom the damage it caused the nation.”
He added, “It is a near miracle that this country was not bankrupted.”