Malaysia cancels Chinese project – Bandar Malaysia

Indian media covers CPEC a lot but happenings in other parts of the world that are equally important receive scant coverage. How many of us know that unlike CPEC which is mostly talk (and some coal fired power plants on one sided terms that no sensible nation would accept) China has already invested US$35b between 2010 and 2016 in Malaysia.

Malaysian Government decision to scrap the sale of Bandar Malaysia site to a consortium that included a Chinese government entity is one such event has has passed unnoticed by Indian media.

About Bandar Malaysia

The Sungai Besi airport, about 7km from KL city center is an old one – this is where Tunku Abdul Rahman landed from London, bringing news of Malaysia’s independence in 1956. It was used by Malaysia’s Air Force and for some VIP flights and is largely unused.  The site was sold in 2011 to the infamous 1MDB to become “Bandar Malaysia”, a city within city incorporating various developments and drive Kuala Lumpur area’s future growth. When 1MDB collapsed (a hugely entertaining story in of itself) the land was taken over by Ministry of Finance as part of “restructuring”, rather rescue.

The area of land involved is about 190Ha.

In late 2015, 60% ownership of the land parcel was sold again by MoF to IWH / CREC consortium for RM7.4b. IWH owned by ethnic Chinese tycoon Lim Kang Hoo who also runs the Danga Bay Waterfront city (4300acre) in Johor in the south, close to Singapore. CREC is PRC goverment owned China Railway Engg Corpn. CREC also threw in a sweetener, promising to build a RM8b Regional HQ in the site.

As with CPEC various grandiose plans were bandied about (one was a “digital” FTZ), along with talks of changing face of Malaysian growth, enormous local employment opportunities etc.

Subsequent developments have made the site worth a lot more – the Singapore – KL High Speed Rail (HSR) project terminates in Bandar Malaysia. This plus the new MRT line under construction that will link Putrajaya (in the south) to Sungai Buloh via KL city is also likely to boost land values. In fact the original RM12b valuation, it is reported, will be well above RM20b now.

Malaysia wakes up?

As with most other deals of this sort in Malaysia, it is not clear how this particular consortium was chosen for the award. Supposedly at government levels without any bidding. But at that time it was justified since 1MDB collapse was hurting Malaysia badly and no one else was willing to come to its rescue other than the Chinese.

This is where the unknown unknowns come in. Because it was a rescue operation, it is not clear what was promised to the Chinese in return. Reports indicate the Singapore-KL High Speed Rail project is one such quid pro quo. That’s worth a lot – US$23 billions by some estimates. Now Japan is rumoured to be the front runner.

JV with Chinese characteristics

PRC has its own way of doing things in such “joint ventures”. It controls the entire supply chain and brings its own labour even for unskilled jobs. Supply of materials too is from Chinese entities. As Singapore’s Straits Times reported, even the canteen staff in Xiamen Uni campus in Malaysia are from China! While this may be perfectly acceptable to the mard-e-momeens of Pakistan thanks to its irrational anti-India hatred and army de-facto rule, Malaysia is a different case.

Although it was desperation (caused by the 1MDB collapse) that threw Najib into the arms of the Chinese, (a theme that should be familiar to Pakistanis re CPEC) he is smart enough and Malaysian politics unstable enough for things to change when circumstances change. Under the table promises are also harder to enforce.

There have been murmurs of dissent and complaints from local industrialists over lack of goodies from the gravy train to local tycoons, who, ironically are almost all ethnic Chinese. In fact there have even been reports that Chinese citizens will be allowed to settle in Malaysia in real estate projects such as Danga Bay, because there are not enough locals to fill those apartments! Such reports have been denied but allegations are not just by the fringe, and have been made by Mahatir Mohammad, Malaysia’s ex-PM.  Since ethnic issues are never too far below the surface in Malaysia, this can be troublesome for the ruling elite to explain.

What next?

Going by reports, it seems Najib cleverly grabbed the chance to get away from a bad deal using non payment as a convenient excuse. The Chinese quid pro quo demands (termed in one report as a “shopping list”) was just too much for Malaysia to pay. Now he can re-sell the same land to another consortium for even bigger amount (should one be willing) and start all over again!

However, it is not clear how PRC will react to this since it seems its capital control restrictions on overseas investments have a role to play. If it is so, it may bite the bullet, even if the bullet train project is not for it to take a bite on. In fact, China has been rolling back or pulling out of numerous Malaysian (and other international) projects because of its internal issues, capital flight, dubious viability and other concerns. The fact that it is still “investing” in CPEC goes to show the juiciness of those contracts, thanks to Pakistani surrender. After all who else can give 15-30% assured returns on equity, 7%+ interest rates on loans and ability to sell third rate products (anyway in surplus) at super premium prices without any competitive bidding?!

Or it may react with under the table pressure and squeeze Malaysia to give up something else in return for the 1MDB rescue act. The fact that such murky deals always involve murky pay offs may give it additional leverage given the political situation in Malaysia.

All this gives us enough indications on how CPEC itself will proceed. Given Pakistan’s utter helplessness and abject surrender thanks to its own visceral hatred for India, the scale of loot is likely to be worse. If the aam Abdul in Pakistan wakes up one day just like Najib did, there could be interesting repercussions!