When the right words count


Alarm bells: Dr Mahathir caused a stir across China and Hong Kong when he said foreigners were banned from buying residential units in the US100bil (RM410bil) Forest City project in Johor.

Alarm bells: Dr Mahathir caused a stir across China and Hong Kong when he said foreigners were banned from buying residential units in the US100bil (RM410bil) Forest City project in Johor.

ANY journalist who has had the pleasure of covering a press conference by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will tell you that he is a delight because the Prime Minister is so quotable, and his witty and trademark deadpan sarcasm provides the best news stories.

Two decades on, he has made a return to helm the country’s top post and remains very much the character we’ve come to know.

Brimming with confidence, he is never guarded or cautious, unlike some other politicians. He can deliver a speech from prepared text, but Dr Mahathir is at his best when he’s spontaneous.

He openly says what’s on his mind and in his heart, and sometimes, does so impulsively. That perhaps sums up what he has gotten himself into lately.

Dr Mahathir has never shied away from any questions from reporters no matter how provocative, but he needs to rein himself in sometimes.

There is really no need for him to weigh in on the issue, particularly when it involves bilateral relations with China, a situation which can now best be described as delicate.

Last week, he triggered alarm bells across China and Hong Kong when he said foreigners – as good as singling out mainland Chinese – were banned from buying residential units in the US$100bil (RM410bil) Forest City project in Johor.

Most Malaysian businessmen have also expressed concern and discontent at the remark.

“One thing is certain, that city that is going to be built cannot be sold to foreigners,” Dr Mahathir told a news conference here.

“We are not going to give visas for people to come and live here,” he was quoted in an interview with Reuters.

He then added that the government would tear down the perimeter wall around the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP) in Pahang, which has been described as the “Great Wall of China.”

He rattled off all this right after his official visit to China, which isn’t likely to go down well with Beijing.

While the Chinese government has been able to exercise restraint and patience with Dr Mahathir’s outbursts, sentiments on social media – in which the Chinese government has become more sensitive – are exacerbating the situation.

Dr Mahathir, who visited Beijing for the first time since he took shots at Chinese investment ahead of a May election win, told China that he supports free trade, so long as it’s fair. Everyone needs to remember that countries are at different stages of development, he said.

“You don’t want a situation where there’s a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries in terms of just, open, free trade,” he said.

Dr Mahathir has got this wrong though. Johor allows foreigners – especially Singaporeans – to buy properties in the state.

It’s very simple – there is already a policy in place on what it takes for foreigners to purchase real estate there.

A glut of houses amounting to RM1mil and above is bad enough, and the soft market has only stretched the wallets and maxed out the credits of property developers. Like in any business, contractors, too, are badly hit when not paid in full. The property market is, after all, the biggest multiplier of jobs.

Malaysia cannot afford to pick and choose its property clients because it is not legal and is also irrational and impractical.

The diplomatic and commercial faux pas sent all the wrong signals to Beijing and Hong Kong, causing bewilderment and uncertainty among developers and buyers alike.

Dr Mahathir’s remarks sent the shares of Country Garden Holdings, the developer of Forest City, into see-saw mode in Monday’s trading amid confusion.

The stock, which had risen by as much as 3.9% earlier last Monday, returned almost all its gains for the day on the Hong Kong exchange after his comments were published, ending the day 2.5% higher at HK$12.14.

As part of a damage control exercise, Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Osman Sapian had to reiterate that the state still welcomes foreign investors buying high-end residential units here, assuring Johor stays friendly with foreign direct investment.

“Our restriction on foreign property ownership is still the same – foreigners are only allowed to buy housing above RM1mil,” he said.

There is also ambiguity between Permanent Residence status and the “My Second Home” programme, which is aimed at enticing the well-heeled to take up temporary residence in the country with every purchase of high- end property, a common practice in many countries.

And let’s be honest, because to the rich mainlanders, in terms of draw for temporary stay, we can’t compete with Canada, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom or even Singapore.

It is a fallacy and the handiwork of misguided fears to believe that mainland Chinese would invade Johor Baru to take up residence.

While some politicians have made it an issue of Chinese investments in Malaysia, the question that needs to be asked is, are we seeing anyone else, besides the Chinese, coming to our shores with serious investment plans?

Yes, we have found ourselves stuck with over-priced and over-paid deals, and agreements that should have been better drawn up and with exit clauses, but let’s be mindful and tactful, too.

And for sure, there is no Great Wall of China in Kuantan, as sadly represented, because it is merely a fencing parameter.

The Pahang state government, in trying to defuse the issue, told Dr Mahathir that the government should take into consideration the consequences before tearing down the perimeter wall around the MCKIP.

State Tourism, Environment and Plantations committee chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Sharkar Shamsuddin said the previous, Barisan Nasional government had already deliberated the matter, putting it down to the culture and working style of the Chinese citizens.

“That might be the working culture of the Chinese nationals, who prefer a secluded area. It could also be due to security reasons that the previous government had allowed the construction of the wall.

“Just like when we are there (China), they respect our working culture, including the need for halal food supply, surau facilities and separate washrooms. So, I believe the wall is due to their working culture,” Sharkar said.

He also expressed concern that such minor issues could affect the relationship between Malaysia and China.

The reality is that all our properties – whether residential or commercial – have walls or fences, for security reasons at least.

With a 1,400 workforce at the MCKIP, owned by Alliance Steel (M) Sdn Bhd, the majority locals, it is illogical to imagine that the whole project is shrouded in secrecy.

The Chinese have been told that they need to “follow the laws” on issues related to Forest City and MCKIP, but the federal government hasn’t detailed their offences, which is only casting further confusion.

Meanwhile, investments from China to Malaysia have come to a halt now that the Chinese are truly spooked, particularly because no one seems to know what’s going on currently.

Flip-flop statements, contradictory remarks and unfriendly gestures won’t do us any good. Instead, we should be recognising that between Asean members, Malaysia has the best link to China with our cultural and linguistic advantages, something other member nations can only be envious of.

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai

Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the group, after having served as group managing director/chief executive officer.

On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.