According to Mahathir Mohamad: Malaysian PM’s take on Philippine issues

March 8, 2019 - 6:47 PM
President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Mahathir Bin Mohamad watch a dance performance during the welcoming ceremony for the Malaysian leader at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila
Malaysian Prime Mahathir Mohamad and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte greet each other before a joint press conference at the Malacanang Presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, March 7, 2019. (Reuters/Francis Malasig/Pool)

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was in the Philippines for a two-day official visit in which he discussed several matters of mutual importance with President Rodrigo Duterte.

The 93-year-old expressed his views on many issues that involve Philippines and Malaysia during his visit from March 6 to 7 which is as a reciprocation of Duterte’s visit in Kuala Lumpur last July 2018.

The China debt trap phenomenon was one of the things Mahathir commented on during his official visit, among other things.

On Chinese loans and influx of foreigners 

Mahathir in an interview with ANC said that Duterte should be “very careful” with his infrastructure projects with China, citing his own experience.

“If you borrow huge sums of money from China and you cannot pay — you know when a person is a borrower he is under the control of the lender. So we have to be very careful with that,” the prime minister said.

Mahathir previously announced that his government would shelve $22 billion worth of China-backed projects for the meantime, claiming that they couldn’t afford the cost.

As of May 2018, Malaysia has a recorded government debt exceeding 1 million ringgit ($251 billion).

“This (debt trap diplomacy) is something that of course, China has been accused of, but it is also the country’s concern which can regulate or limit all these influences from China,” the prime minister said as a warning to the Philippines.

Duterte’s new foreign policy sought the help of China to back his infrastructure projects under the “Build, Build, Build” program where he aims to boost the country’s economy and investments.

Mahathir also said that the Philippines should be wary of the number of foreigners entering the country as it could “disturb the political equations.”

On February 2019, a photo of alleged Chinese nationals lining up in a photo booth sparked concerns among some Filipinos who noticed the influx of Chinese people entering the country since Duterte took office.

“Foreign direct investment should not involve bringing huge numbers of foreigners to live in the country because that might disturb the political equations in the country,” Mahathir said.

“If huge numbers of any foreigners (come) to live and stay in the country or to even influence the economy of a country, then you have to do some rethinking as to whether it is good or bad, or the limits that you have to impose on them,” he continued.

On claims to Sabah

Sabah, a state of Malaysia located in the northern part of Borneo Island, was once under the influence of the Philippines’ Sultanate of Sulu between the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the late 19th century, it was seized by the British North Borneo Co. and in 1963, it became part of the Federation of Malaysia.

Island in Sabah
Mantanani Island in Sabah. (Flickr/Eddie Yip)

The Philippines claim Sabah was only leased to the chartered company before, not ceded. Up to this day, the heirs of the Sulu sultan continue to receive lease payments for Sabah.

However, Mahathir said in his visit that the Philippines does not have territorial rights over the Malaysian state.

“Well, as far as we’re concerned, there is no claim,” he said in the ANC interview.

Malacañang countered his statement and said that it was only Malaysia’s position. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo recalled Duterte’s promise to pursue the country’s claim over Sabah in May 2016.

On International Criminal Court withdrawal 

Mahathir was also asked about his opinion on Duterte withdrawing the country’s ratification of the Treaty of Rome that established the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“I think he has the right to decide on his own according to what he perceives is happening in the Philippines, as well as the rest of the world,” the prime minister said.

Malaysia recently joined the ICC before Mahathir visited the country, becoming its 124th member. It cited the need to combat “international crimes for global peace and security” following the attacks and deportation of an ethnic group.

The Philippines withdrew its inclusion to the treaty in March 2018 after Duterte cited its supposed unlawful attempt to place him under its jurisdiction on basis of committing alleged crimes against humanity for perpetuating extrajudicial killings.

On Bangsamoro Organic Law ratification 

The prime minister also expressed his willingness to help Mindanao as it transitions to a Bangsamoro region under the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).

Mahathir said that the peace efforts within the country will lead to a more robust economic cooperation between Malaysia and the Philippines.

“Given the vast economic potential of this area, I believe with the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao or BARMM, we have to boost economic ties between both countries,” he stated.

“I, therefore, assured Mr. President of Malaysia’s desire to continue to be of help in the development of Mindanao,” Mahathir continued.

BOL is the culmination of the peace agreement that was signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014 under the Aquino administration.