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It’s election time in Malaysia, and the spectre of a foreign bogeyman emerges

JOHOR BAHRU — All politics is local, so goes the adage coined by former United States Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. When it comes to elections, however, it is not uncommon for politicians to cast an eye abroad and fashion a bogeyman, and Malaysia’s political opposition has done just that.

Visitors, many of them from China, are shown around the sales gallery of Forest City, a sprawling US$100 billion (S$133.3 billion) development in Johor, Malaysia.

Visitors, many of them from China, are shown around the sales gallery of Forest City, a sprawling US$100 billion (S$133.3 billion) development in Johor, Malaysia.

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JOHOR BAHRU — All politics is local, so goes the adage coined by former United States Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

When it comes to elections, however, it is not uncommon for politicians to cast an eye abroad and fashion a bogeyman, and Malaysia’s political opposition has done just that.

Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who leads the opposition, has led a chorus against what he calls China’s widening clout in the country as well as joint projects with other countries, and the claims have earned a swift riposte from the leaders of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

But while the issue is not uppermost in voters’ minds, it has found resonance among some quarters on both sides, experts here say.

Those who are swayed by Dr Mahathir’s arguments fear that the increasing Chinese investment in the country has the effect of diminishing its sovereignty. The former premier has promised to review “unnecessary” mega-projects, which he claims threaten to saddle the country with a large financial burden. These include the planned RM60 billion (S$20 billion) high-speed rail stitching Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, has warned that Malaysia’s good ties with China would be destroyed if the opposition wins, noting the enormous benefits the country has reaped from the relationship.

Opposition members hasten to add that not all investments are unwelcome - only those which do not directly benefit Malaysians.

Dr Mahathir, for instance, cited Country Garden Holdings’ plan to invest US$100 billion to build homes in Johor, which would cost over RM1 million each.

"We don’t have enough people with wealth to buy all those very expensive flats, so you’re bringing in foreigners,” he told Bloomberg recently. “No country wants to have an influx of huge numbers of foreign people into their country."

Ms Wong Shu Qi, who is contesting the Kluang parliamentary seat in Johor for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) - which is part of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition - said the opposition is not “against China as a country at all”.

Most PH leaders, she added, welcomed foreign direct investment, whether from China or elsewhere, “as long as they bring jobs, help uplift our technological advancements and also bring money in”.

“So far, those who have benefited (from these investments) are tycoons. All those mega-projects will not benefit ordinary people directly, especially the small- and medium-sized enterprises which have to compete with Chinese businessmen,” said Ms Wong.

Fellow Johor opposition politician Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which is led by Dr Mahathir, said certain deals with China, such as the export of solar panels produced in Malaysia, were positive.

However, he cited as an issue of concern the “overpriced” loans from the Export-Import Bank of China, with a 3.25 per cent interest rate, to finance the construction of the East Coast Rail Link connecting Malaysia’s east and west coasts.

“These issues can be resolved if you’ve good governance,” said Mr Saddiq, who is in the running for the Muar parliamentary seat.

Dr Ong Kian Ming, DAP’s candidate for the Bangi parliamentary seat in Selangor, said: “PH’s position is that we welcome legitimate Chinese investments that have a long-term positive value to the country and its people. We do not want any investments which will be a burden to us.”

Members of the ruling BN have hit back, pointing out that ordinary Malaysians have gained much from foreign investment in the country, and warning that such attitudes would set the nation back.

Tengku Putra Haron Aminurrashid Tengku Hamid Jumat, an immediate past Johor state assemblyman with the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), said Johor would have “missed the boat” if it had not embraced Chinese investments, which are not confined only to the state.

China also invests in other countries, like Singapore and the United States, he said, adding: “We need funds to develop our state and we can’t do that without money. We are not selling off our sovereignty. We’re co-investing.”

He noted that while there was initial unhappiness over Chinese investments in Johor, the positive effects are evident, with more jobs created. “Once the service industry is up and running, the influx of tourism creates jobs for locals,” said Mr Putra Haron.

The spectre of a foreign bogeyman is often raised during Malaysian elections - Singapore has been a frequent target in the past.

In 2013, for instance, the BN and opposition crossed swords over the Iskandar special economic zone in Johor. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim cautioned investors, including Singapore, against assuming business must go on “as usual” should the opposition win.

Datuk Seri Najib, too, aimed a jibe southwards without mentioning Singapore during a campaign stop at a Southern University College, which was built by the Chinese community.

Malaysia, he said then, was more “liberal and accommodating” towards Chinese education than any other country besides China and Hong Kong, more so than “across the Causeway, where you won’t find any Chinese schools”.  

DIFFERENT IMPACTS  OF ISSUE

Malaysia observers interviewed by TODAY said the issue of foreign influence could be a factor in various ways.

Dr Serina Abdul Rahman of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute said the opposition’s pledge to review mega-projects and Malaysia-China ties would be of concern only to a more urban community in touch with global matters.

Rural voters may see these issues differently, said the visiting fellow with the institute’s Malaysia Studies Programme. For instance, some may be concerned that Malay rights would be diminished or may be concerned about the dilution of Malay culture.

There are also those who may fear an influx of outsiders, since the projects sprouting across the country mean more foreign workers, which could spawn concerns over safety or other issues, such as congestion.

“Individual responses to this issue will depend on personal experiences with the China projects. If the rural person has personally benefited from it and has access to the opportunities the project might provide, then they might disagree with the opposition,” said Dr Serina. “If the person has suffered immediate negative impacts from it, then they might see that these mega projects only benefit a few — and not themselves — and thus should not be allowed.”

Dr Khoo Ying Hooi, a senior lecturer with the University of Malaya’s department of international and strategic studies, said Malaysia’s relations with China are not a main factor in the elections.

“But of course, in the long run, the country needs to be cautious as the investments need to be managed carefully with the aim to contribute to human development and not solely be investments with profit,” she said.

Industry players told TODAY that while investments undoubtedly bring benefits, concerns are increasing about stiffening competition from China firms.

Mr Steve Chong, Johor chairman for the Real Estate and Housing Developers Association, said Chinese developers have driven up the cost of building materials, and competition for workers has resulted in a shortage of skilled professionals such as engineers.

He acknowledged, however, that competition had raised quality, which would benefit buyers.

Mr Tan Seng Leong, president of the Johor Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said many local businesses in Johor, such as architectural and event companies, have benefited from the investments’ spillover effects.

“Hoteliers, retailers, food-and-beverage operators, travel agencies and shopping malls are also receiving more business,” he said.

“The downside of it is that local businesses and employees are forced to constantly renew our competencies and be more sensitive to global market changes in order to stay in this competitive market,” said Mr Tan.

While Malaysia-based workforce crowdsourcing start-up Supahands noted the benefits of Chinese investment in developing infrastructure and property, for instance, it said the main concern for many businesses is the potential inflow of Chinese rivals into Malaysia.

“Being able to compete with these Chinese companies would be a challenge since we already know that they are able to offer lower prices than most Malaysian companies,” the company said.

Some voters said the issues surrounding foreign investments would play a part in how they vote. Most who said so were displeased owing to the perception that Malaysians do not appear to be benefiting from landmark projects - including the sprawling US$100 billion (S$133.3 billion) Forest City in Johor by Chinese developer Country Garden.

Diagnostics executive Ammar Osman, 30, was with his family on Thursday near a beach fronting the Forest City sales gallery.

He said the development, about 5km from the Second Link, was “beautiful”, but few Malaysians could afford to buy a unit there. “It’s going to be filled with foreigners. It feels less Malaysian,” said the father of three.

He added that the government should ensure Malaysians have the same buying power, saying: “It may be profitable to the country, but when there’s a development like this, (Malaysians) want to be a part of it as a citizen issue.”

Mr Zafri Samugam, 29, an auxiliary police officer who commutes across the Causeway to work at Singapore’s Changi Airport, said it was pointless if the Chinese contributed only to the housing sector. “It doesn’t benefit Johoreans. It would only benefit us if there are jobs and factories,” he added.

However, other Malaysians were less perturbed.

Mr Khoo Fatt Beng, 49, a Johor resident who works at a restaurant in Danga Bay, said the growth of tourism from China and the inflow of Chinese nationals settling in Johor have helped businesses, including food-and-beverage establishments.

Mr Ng Ghee Chang, 59, who is in the painting trade, said Malaysia’s economy would be in the doldrums if not for external investment. “If Chinese people don’t come, who will spend money here?” he asked.

Nevertheless, retired schoolteacher Younie Ooi, 58, was unhappy that Johor’s seafront was being taken over by foreign-backed housing developments.

“It’s not really helping the economy, (and) the people don’t feel it,” said the Johor resident of seven years.

While she could live with the presence of more foreigners from China, as it helps the economy, this should be kept “under control”, she said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY EILEEN NG IN SELANGOR

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