“WE have so much to learn from China.”
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad often repeated this line throughout his recent five-day visit to the world’s second largest economy.
Be it at private or public functions, to the Malaysians or the Chinese, and even at his last press conference before heading home, he had no qualms saying it.
The Prime Minister was definitely impressed and amazed by China’s progress and success. He must have read about it and seen it on TV but there is nothing like being there to see it with his own eyes.
After nearly two decades, Dr Mahathir was back in the world’s most populous and third largest country as head of government.
Once poorer than Malaysia and a recipient of our assistance with its development, China has moved on far ahead.
“When Proton was first produced, Geely was nowhere around. We sent six cars here. I don’t know where they are today,” said Dr Mahathir while at the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group headquarters in Hangzhou. “You have ousted us in term of quality and productivity.”
He should be slightly relieved now as the national car is making its way into the world’s largest automotive market. Proton is joining hands with Geely to set up a manufacturing plant in China.
During the trip, he also frequently urged Malaysians to tap Chinese technology and innovation and learn to apply it back home. He then pointed out that his countrymen preferred to be “happy buyers” than producers of goods, an attitude that leads to the outflow of money.
Dr Mahathir was in China from Aug 17 to 21 for his eighth official visit to the country as Prime Minister but his first after returning to power in May.
Despite being labelled as “anti-China” after the Pakatan Harapan government cancelled two mega projects backed by China, he was given the highest honour by the Chinese, who firmly believe Malaysia is still a friend.
The Prime Minister was chauffeured in an exclusive Hongqi L5 limousine and greeted in an official welcome ceremony by Premier Li Keqiang. He was also guest of honour at a state banquet at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse hosted by President Xi Jinping.
The Hongqi L5 is among the world’s five most expensive state cars and is reserved for the most honourable leaders.
The Diaoyutai State Guesthouse was built over 800 years ago. A vacation home of the emperors in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it was turned into a place for Chinese leaders to stage important diplomatic events since 1959, according to China’s national news agency Xinhua.
Although he had a hectic schedule in China, Dr Mahathir showed no signs of slowing down.
He was, however, caught off-guard at a joint press conference when Premier Li threw him a question on the China-US trade war, somewhat compelling Malaysia to make public its stance on the matter.
Dr Mahathir paused for a while and then gave a brilliant answer, saying Malaysia supports free trade but it also has to be fair trade.
“The level of development of countries are not all the same,” he explained. “We do not want a situation where there is a version of new colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries.”
There were six ministers in the Malaysian entourage: Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (Foreign Affairs), Teresa Kok (Primary Industries), Darell Leiking (International Trade and Industry), Datuk Salahuddin Ayub (Agriculture and Agro-Based Industry), Mohd Redzuan Md Yusof (Entrepreneurial Development) and Datuk Liew Vui Keong (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law).
This trip was an eye-opener for the first-time ministers and their aides. At times, they were overwhelmed by the protocol and high-level security extended to a respected head of government.
One of the ministers arrived late for an event. By then, Dr Mahathir was already touring an innovation plant.
The latecomer tried using a back entrance to join the group but was stopped by security personnel who had trouble believing that a Malaysian minister would sneak in through the back.
It was an embarrassing episode but at least it showed that the minister is keen to learn about new technologies, even if these had little to do with the minister’s portfolio.
Dr Mahathir’s visit came in the wake of announcements that signal the possible scrapping of the East Coast Rail Link and two gas pipelines projects.
In the Prime Minister’s meetings with top Chinese leaders, both countries did not openly talk about the projects. However, it was made clear to the Chinese that Malaysia has fiscal problems and that it will be much appreciated if China is understanding about this.
It is believed that the nations have reached some sort of agreement, with Dr Mahathir announcing the cancellation of the projects on his last day in China.
The Prime Minister can proudly say that the chief task of his China visit has been accomplished.
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