Beijing rebuts critics who say it is stealing locals' rice bowls

PM Najib Razak and Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang (right) looking at a model of the Bandar Malaysia project last year. Former deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin, in criticising China, has said that many Malaysians would not feel comfortable see
PM Najib Razak and Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang (right) looking at a model of the Bandar Malaysia project last year. Former deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin, in criticising China, has said that many Malaysians would not feel comfortable seeing mainland Chinese buy up Bandar Malaysia and make them work for them.PHOTO: FOTOBERNAMA

China has hit back at Malaysian opposition politicians who have criticised its growing presence and investments in the South-east Asian country.

Some critics of the improving ties have accused Prime Minister Najib Razak of selling out Malaysia's interests.

But the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, which has not shied away from wading into domestic issues, issued a statement last week to rebut the opposition claims.

The controversy began shortly after Datuk Seri Najib returned from a week-long trip to China in November with RM144 billion (S$46 billion) worth of investment pledges and soft loans from Beijing.

An ebullient Mr Najib declared that the China funds would serve as a boost for the struggling economy, a stand dismissed by his critics who mostly charged that Malaysia could ill-afford such huge loans.

  • Expanding cooperation

  • •In the past few years: Billions of ringgit poured in by several Chinese property developers in southern Johor's Iskandar Malaysia.

    •Nov 2015: Edra Global Energy, owned by state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), is sold to state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corp for RM17 billion (S$5.4 billion).

    •Dec 2015: State-run China Railway Engineering Corp and Johor-based Iskandar Waterfront Holdings buy a 60 per cent stake in Bandar Malaysia from 1MDB for RM12.4 billion.

    •Nov 2016: PM Najib Razak brings back RM144 billion in pledges of China investments and soft loans.

    •Jan 2017: A Chinese submarine visits Malaysia for the first time, stopping at the naval base in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.

    •Jan 2017: Intelligence sharing between KL and Beijing leads to Malaysia deporting 28 Uighur militants since 2013.

    •Jan 2017: China is offering to help Malaysia with border-control technology like that used in Yunnan.

The latest criticism came from former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who, in an interview with Malaysia's Chinese newspapers last Monday, said that the entry of Chinese companies would take away the rice bowls of both Malay and ethnic Chinese Malaysians.

"I'm sure Chinese Malaysians won't feel comfortable seeing mainland Chinese come here with tonnes of cash to buy up Bandar Malaysia and make us work for them," said Tan Sri Muhyiddin.

He was referring to the township on the fringes of the Malaysian capital which will serve as the terminus for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed rail.

In response to the mounting criticism of China, the Chinese embassy issued a statement last Tuesday through its spokesman.

The statement appeared in both the local press here and in Beijing's state-controlled media.

The embassy, led by Ambassador Huang Huikang, said: "There are people who, when they were in power, pushed for friendly ties with China and welcomed Chinese investments to Malaysia.

"But when they are no longer in power, they strenuously fan anti- China sentiments and deliberately dismiss Chinese investments as China 'robbing rice bowls of locals'."

Many political analysts believe the embassy's response was counter-productive, probably bolstering anti-China views rather than diffusing them, even though much of the criticism was politically motivated.

"Some criticisms have been overboard," said Dr Ngeow Chow Bing, deputy director at Universiti Malaya's Institute of China Studies, of the "rice bowls" comments.

Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: "The opposition was right to raise the issue of overdependence but they need to provide evidence."

But he added: "Given that Muhyiddin's statement was over the top, the Chinese could have done better by staying quiet."

Said Dr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, of the embassy's comments: "It does strengthen the suspicions many have that the investments are made under conditions that suit the Chinese much more than Malaysia."

Ambassador Huang has waded into local issues before. In September 2015, as pro-Malay group Red Shirts threatened to rally in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown, he visited the area to speak about the importance of racial unity.

He was later summoned by Malaysia's foreign ministry over what was seen as interference in domestic affairs.

Five months later, he raised eyebrows again after donating RM40,000 to eight Chinese schools in Johor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Beijing rebuts critics who say it is stealing locals' rice bowls'. Print Edition | Subscribe