PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AP) – Malaysia is looking to cancel multibillion-dollar Chinese-backed infrastructure projects signed by the previous scandal-tainted government as it digs itself out of debt, Malaysia’s prime minister said Monday during an extensive interview in which he also blasted Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims as “grossly unjust.”
Mahathir Mohamad, at 93 the world’s oldest prime minister, spoke with The Associated Press days before he heads to Beijing for his first visit since returning to power in a stunning electoral upset three months ago.
Mahathir said he wants to maintain good relations with China and welcomes its investment, so long as the projects benefit Malaysia. But he took his toughest stance yet on Chinese-backed energy pipelines and a rail project along peninsular Malaysia’s eastern coast that were struck by his predecessor, Najib Razak.
The former prime minister, who remains in parliament but is barred from leaving the country, faces trial on multiple charges related to the alleged multibillion-dollar looting of the 1MDB state investment fund. He denies wrongdoing.
“We don’t think we need those two projects. We don’t think they are viable. So if we can, we would like to just drop the projects,” he said from his office in the administrative center of Putrajaya.
During his time in power, Najib drew Malaysia closer to China, which sees the multiethnic Southeast Asian country as a key part of its ambitious One Belt, One Road global trade initiative. The former prime minister reached deals for the 688-kilometer (430-mile) East Coast Rail Link and the two gas pipelines in 2016.
Malaysia’s new government has already suspended work on the projects, being built by Chinese state-backed companies, and called for drastic cuts in their ballooning cost, which it estimates at more than $22 billion. Some of that money has already been paid and could be difficult to recoup.
If scrapping the projects altogether isn’t doable, Malaysia will need to at least put them on hold until the future, Mahathir said.
Mahathir also urged China to respect the free movement of ships throughout the South China Sea and reiterated his call for no warships to be based there.
China and multiple Southeast Asian nations including Malaysia have competing claims on South China Sea islands and reefs – along with the rich fishing grounds and potential fossil fuel deposits around them.
“We are all for ships, even warships, passing through, but not stationed here,” Mahathir said, adding that this included U.S. vessels. “It is a warning to everyone. Don’t create tension unnecessarily.”
China, which considers much of the sea as its own, has built up several man-made islands and equipped them with runways, radar systems and missile stations to defend its claims. It has accused the U.S., which routinely deploys warships and planes to the sea, of meddling in a purely Asian dispute. Chinese ships also patrol the sea.
Mahathir was scathing in his criticism of Myanmar, a country whose inclusion into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations he had pushed for in 1997 despite concerns over human rights abuses and protests by the U.S.
“It is grossly unjust to do what they have done, killing people, mass murder. That’s not the way civilized nations behave,” he said.
The previous government of predominantly Muslim Malaysia strongly supported the Rohingya, a persecuted minority in Myanmar who have fled by the hundreds of thousands to neighboring Bangladesh after a crackdown last year that some have called ethnic cleansing. Malaysia has said the displacement of Rohingya is no longer a domestic issue for Myanmar, in a rare departure from ASEAN’s non-interference policy in each other’s affairs.
Mahathir added that he was “very disappointed” in Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to halt the persecution.
“Obviously she appears to be with the government of the day on how they treat the Rohingya. It’s a question of justice and human rights. You can’t do that,” he said.
He stopped short of committing Malaysia to taking in more Rohingya refugees, however, saying the 7 million legal and undocumented foreigners he said Malaysia already hosts are “far too many.”
A doctor by training, Mahathir is a larger-than-life figure in Malaysia. His influence has dominated the country’s politics from the Cold War into the new millennium.
His first turn as prime minister stretched for 22 years, coming to an end only in 2003. He rose to prominence by controversially championing the county’s indigenous Malays, whom he saw as disadvantaged compared to the country’s Chinese minority, and he oversaw the rapid development of his young country while concentrating power under his increasingly autocratic rule.
Mahathir long seemed to relish his role as an antagonist to the West. He frequently criticized the U.S. and its close allies – often with colorful and at times offensive language – while promoting what he saw as Asian values and interests.
A longtime champion of Palestinian causes, he doubled down Monday when asked about his record of comments seen as anti-Semitic, saying that “we should be able to criticize everybody” while assailing laws denying the scale of the Holocaust.
“Anti-Semitic is a term that is invented to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for doing wrong things,” he said.
Mahathir’s criticism of Western leaders has extended to U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he described as an “erratic man” during an AP interview last year.
His return to office hasn’t tempered that opinion.
“So far he has not indicated that I should change my views,” he said of Trump on Monday. “He changes his mind within 24 hours. I mean it is difficult to deal with any person whose mind is not made up.”
Still, Malaysia would continue to welcome American investment, particularly in high-tech sectors, he said, as he promised tax breaks and other incentives.
Mahathir was sharp during the interview and looked surprisingly youthful considering his age and history of heart problems.
If his legacy is weighing on him, he didn’t let it show.
“Frankly I don’t care. I won’t be around,” he said, chuckling, when asked how history would judge him. “When I am dead, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
He has previously vowed to hand over power to former foe-turned ally Anwar Ibrahim, who in May was freed from custody over a sodomy conviction he says was politically motivated, within two years.
Mahathir insists he will keep that promise – though he now seems to be giving himself a little wiggle room.
“I expect to be (in office) at least two years,” he said Monday. And could he stay longer? “If Anwar agrees.”
Associated Press writer Eileen Ng contributed to this report.