KUALA LUMPUR • The signature project of the Malaysian government's planned redevelopment of Kampung Baru, a Malay enclave clinging on to a way of life that existed before Kuala Lumpur morphed into a bustling city, boasts an ostentatious Ferris wheel at its peak offering a 220m-high vantage point.
Having resisted the march of progress for decades, stubbornly holding on to their land titles and proud Malay heritage, the settlers of Kampung Baru may well feel a sense of dread over the M101 Skywheel that will loom over their homes once it's completed in 2020.
Not only are the 78-storey twin towers being developed by a Chinese Malaysian company, but the firm also announced last week that it has contracted the giant Shenzhen-based construction firm China Huashi Enterprises as the main builder of the RM1.8 billion (S$576 million) project.
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, if not since the Malacca sultanate was established six centuries ago. A widely held belief of many in the ethnic majority is that the Chinese minority control the economy, and Umno - the Malay-only ruling party - has leveraged on this fear to cement its political hegemony.
But with an election due in 18 months and expected much sooner, it's not just Prime Minister Najib Razak's party that is both feeding and feeding off this insecurity. Rivals in the breakaway Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), who are vigorously trying to oust him, have also weighed in with their own doomsday warnings.
Datuk Seri Najib's narrative is that if Umno falls, then the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), the largest opposition outfit in Parliament, will be in control and will dismantle various pro-Malay and Islamic institutions, even though DAP has allied with PPBM, led by former Umno stalwarts Mahathir Mohamad - who was premier for 22 years - and Mr Najib's sacked former deputy, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.
"Democracy and politics are a game of numbers. Who has the most seats wins. Even if the top post of the government is not given to it, the party with the most seats will effectively rule. I watch the pieces of the game and see that if the opposition wins, DAP will rule," Mr Najib said in Tun Mahathir's home state of Kedah last week.
On the other hand, PPBM is warning that the billions in Chinese money flooding the country at Mr Najib's invitation are a far greater threat. Last November, the PM returned from a week-long trip to Beijing with a whopping RM144 billion in new deals, raising alarm over the sudden expansion of China's already sizeable influence in Malaysia's economy.
From ports to power, real estate to rail, and even e-commerce and education, China companies seem to be everywhere, and deals like the Kampung Baru one are becoming run-of-the-mill.
"Our heritage is being sold, our grandchildren won't have anything in the future," Dr Mahathir, PPBM's chairman, said at the public launch of his new party a fortnight ago.
Mr Najib's critics claim that some deals, like the RM55 billion East Coast Rail Link and the purchase of land and energy assets from troubled 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), are to cover for billions allegedly siphoned off from the state investor.
At least US$700 million (S$993 million) linked to 1MDB was found in Mr Najib's private accounts, but he denies any wrongdoing, insisting it was a political donation from the Saudi royal family.
With the 1MDB saga failing to capture the imagination of rural Malays, a crucial vote bank, Dr Mahathir has gone further to say that real estate sales to China firms will result in the loss of land - an emotive subject for Malays - and a flood of hundreds of thousands of China nationals living in Malaysia and eventually claiming citizenship.
But fingering the massive US$42 billion Forest City project in the Johor Strait has irked the state's influential Sultan, who is also a part owner of the four-island reclamation that is three times the size of Singapore's Sentosa. This has left PPBM president Mr Muhyiddin, a potential prime ministerial candidate and Johor native, to take a more nationalistic stance, lest his loyalty to his monarch is questioned.
The large Chinese presence could wipe out opportunities for Malaysian companies, he said in an interview with Sin Chew Daily headlined "China robs rice bowls of locals" last week. Mr Muhyiddin added that PM Najib was "opening the floodgates for the foreign power to influence local political parties".
The former deputy premier's less cavalier approach may also have to do with the fact that should he succeed Mr Najib, he would very well still need Chinese money to reinvigorate a slowing economy. The Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) has howled in derision at PPBM's attacks on foreign direct investment, especially the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which pointed out that Mr Muhyiddin himself had gone to Beijing to solicit investments when he was still in government.
MCA may see PPBM's anti-China sentiment as a way to claw back support from Chinese Malaysians who have largely fled to the opposition.
But it would still have to assuage fears from these constituents that they too are being crowded out of an economy that already reserves a share of business for bumiputeras, the term used for Malays and the aboriginal minority.
As Mr Muhyiddin's colleague, DAP Johor chief Liew Chin Tong, articulated: "Investments from China are not a problem per se but investments that are against national interests are what we are against."
He added: "Having almost all ports in the peninsula being owned by one particular great power should not be comforting to anyone at all. We must reject investments that do not utilise local materials... some of the projects involving China's investments generate almost zero domestic employment."
Citing Beijing's stalled rail projects in Thailand and Indonesia, the Kluang MP also argued that "China needs Malaysia more than the other way round".
What's clear is that both sides of the political divide are stoking ethnocentric fears to sway the rural Malay vote, which is crucial for victory at the polls. And theirs will not just be an appeal to emotions, but an argument rooted in dollars and cents.
ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore deputy director Ooi Kee Beng told The Straits Times: "The next general election is one fought over the soul of the Malays, really. There is a substantial body of unsure Malay voters, shaken by the cost of living, by Mahathir's challenge, and by the 1MDB scandal. The question is, can PPBM convince them to desert Umno for the good of the Malay agenda."
While there is no certainty that PPBM's messaging will trump Umno's, it will give pause to the Najib administration over the pace of China's growing footprint in Malaysia's economy. A potential economic multiplier is well and good, but not if Malays - who form the majority in more than half of parliamentary wards - are left out of its winnings.
The ethnic majority is accustomed to having significant portions of large infrastructure projects set aside for the group. For example, the first of three lines of Klang Valley's Mass Rapid Transit saw 47 per cent - or RM8.6 billion - of contracts heading their way, and half of all retail space at stations allocated to them.
PPBM has seized upon this expectation to warn that Chinese firms have no interest in subcontracting out their business, as seen in previous projects such as the Second Penang Bridge, and have a distinct preference for hiring their own nationals. Malays may well feel their country is up for sale if they fail to get a slice of these pies, especially if they bear billion-ringgit price tags.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysia parties use China investments to sway Malay vote'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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