China and Malaysia have seen warming ties after Malaysia resumed two China-linked projects worth billions of dollars this year. The two sides are now expecting a fresh stream of economic projects after the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April.
What kinds of Chinese investments does Malaysia want most? Given the large number of Chinese Malaysians in the country, will their relations with the Malay majority have an impact on bilateral relations?
In an interview; Dato’ Abdul Majid Ahmad Khan (Khan), Chairman of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority and President of Malaysia-China Friendship Association, on the economic cooperation as well as people-to-people exchanges.
Question: What are the new cooperative projects between China and Malaysia after the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation?
Khan: One of the best MOUs under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) we signed is that Malaysia and Pakistan will build an auto factory in Pakistan. The project will be funded by China Construction Bank and will use Chinese technology.
The construction will start very soon. This is the first industrial cooperative project between Malaysia and Pakistan. Before, we only had trade. Malaysia’s national carmaker Proton will build the factory in Pakistan. Chinese company Geely owns 49 percent of Proton. This is a very interesting and practical program.
From this you can see that the BRI has changed this year. The Chinese government reoriented it. Before, the BRI was bilateral, but has since been made multilateral. This is a very good example. This was the first time that three countries cooperated under the BRI. We in Malaysia, I think, are happy. We are the first to implement this.
It’s about complementary strengths. I hope other countries will follow this model with the Chinese government.
Question: How do Malaysian people feel toward Chinese investments? How do you evaluate current people-to-people exchanges between the two countries?
Khan: Chinese projects affect ordinary citizens, and most of them are already in. They have no issues and we expect more Chinese investment to Malaysia.
For the last 15 years, we have done more exchanges in the cultural, youth, sports and economic areas so that people can better understand each other. We have a student exchange program.
So far, people-to-people exchanges between the two countries are good. Our young people like to go to China for two reasons: They like to learn and see for themselves Chinese development. And most of the feedback that we received from them is they have learned a lot about China’s technological advancement and e-commerce that they are very interested in.
Question: It’s reported that in Malaysia, many Chinese Malaysians, especially the elite, are moving out of the country. The number of Chinese Malaysians has decreased sharply. What’s your take on this? Have discriminative policies caused this phenomenon?
Khan: I think this will continue because of migration. First, it’s because they feel the wages in Malaysia are low, which is true. Second, it’s because of the children’s education. It’s not only happening in Malaysia. Singapore, a rich country, is also seeing people migrate to Australia, New Zealand and the US.
Besides, Malaysia is globalised. So people see opportunities. This is not only about Chinese Malaysians. Many people in Malaysia want their children to become doctors and engineers, so they have better opportunities in these countries.
Maybe some people think it is because of certain policies in Malaysia and their opportunities are limited. But that’s not true because those who go overseas are quite established.
I don’t think this will become a problem because I believe in globalisation. When they are in countries like Australia and Canada, they still remember Malaysia. They still support Malaysia. So it’s good that we also have friends in other countries. I look at this in positive terms.
Question: What’s the situation of Chinese Malaysians? Some complained that they are treated as second-class citizens, while some Malays are unhappy with the fact that Chinese Malaysians are getting too rich.
Khan: Ninety percent of billionaires in Malaysia are Chinese Malaysians, and only two percent are Malay.
Some people are unhappy. That’s true. But overall, the government and the common people are happy. Without the support of Chinese Malaysians, we cannot develop. These people have the capital and the talent, so it’s important that we support them. The Malaysian government supports entrepreneurs of Chinese origin.
In 1970, we had what we called the new economic policy, which was positive discrimination. The discrimination was derived from the law and this was something all races agreed to when we achieved independence.
There was discrimination in the civil service where the majority were Malay and also in the distribution of scholarships. But this has changed. I think there’s a better distribution of scholarships. Chinese Malaysians used to be unhappy. Because of the economic policy, many contracts were given to Malays and this also created great unhappiness. I think the government is trying to adopt a more open tender for everyone to compete.
On our economy, the supply chain and factories mostly belong to Chinese Malaysians. So even if a contract is given to a Malay, the majority will still be paid to the Chinese Malaysian suppliers.
Question: Will relations between the Chinese Malaysians and Malay majority have any impact on the bilateral relationship?
Khan: No. Before, yes. Currently, even the Chinese government has greater contact with other races in Malaysia.
I mentioned to the Chinese government that China must understand that Malaysia is multiracial and the majority are Malay. While there’s nothing wrong to be close to Chinese Malaysians, more contact must be made with other races, and the officials are doing this. Even Chinese Malaysians want things to be done this way. Before, maybe it was because of language. But now, more Chinese officials can speak good English.
Question: What impact do the 1MDB scandal and the murder case of Kim Jong-nam have on Malaysia?
Khan: On the 1MDB, the way to correct it is to bring these people to justice. We have to follow the rule of law. So we brought them to court and charged them. It’s now in the process, and I think people are happy.
The North Korean case affects our image for security reasons. But our security is not bad because the airports are equipped with cameras. Within two hours they managed to discover who were responsible. So it’s not bad, otherwise you wouldn’t know who killed him.
Question: What kinds of Chinese investments does Malaysia want?
Khan: While he welcomes infrastructure, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is more into technology. Because he thinks technology can better develop the country. Malaysia has been very traditional, relying on community and palm oil.
Malaysia needs to have a technological platform. And I think Mahathir has decided to partner with China. We have good partners in China now. The first is Huawei. Huawei is very strong in Malaysia. Malaysia has decided to support Huawei, which we do not see as a threat. We are very clear about what Huawei is and I can see there will be more cooperation with Huawei.
The second partner is Alibaba. We also want to cooperate with China in artificial intelligence. China is one of the leading centres of AI.
Question: Countries like India have accused China of using the BRI to seek geopolitical influence. What’s your take on this?
Khan: It’s a pity. I hope India can be more practical. India and China are the two regional powers. We hope that the two countries can narrow their gap because we like all Asian powers to be strong. Malaysia gains if everybody is in good terms. We can gain a lot especially in international trade.
I think India and China need to better build confidence and trust.