By Sophie Kamaruddin and Daniel Ten Kate
Anwar Ibrahim, who’s in line to become Malaysia’s next prime minister, sought to reassure foreign investors concerned about recent decisions to scrap several high-profile infrastructure projects in a bid to reduce debt.
Anwar said the government’s review is limited to specific “dubious” projects approved under the previous administration and shouldn’t be interpreted as a snub to China. He’s expected to replace 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in a year or two.
“It’s confined to these companies,” Anwar said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Sophie Kamaruddin in Hong Kong, where he’s attending an investment forum. “Mahathir took the initiative, visiting China, assuring them that the bilateral relations, trade, investments with China must and will continue.”
Since his surprise election victory in May, Mahathir has canceled or suspended several major projects backed by Chinese interests, including the East Coast Rail Link and three pipeline projects. He also delayed work on a proposed bullet train linking Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, which had also attracted interest from Chinese contractors, and questioned whether foreigners should be able to buy property in a $100 billion project backed by a Chinese company.
“Mahathir represents the sentiments in the country that firstly we cannot continue with these mammoth projects at a time when the economy is struggling,” Anwar said. He added that the government is focusing on transparency and debt reduction, and overall “the economic fundamentals are strong.”
“Yes it is weak compared to the position that we had in the last two years, but it’s in no way close to being a weak, fragile economy,” he said.
Anwar, 71, is the official leader of the four-party Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition that backs Mahathir. Jailed for a sodomy conviction widely seen as political, Anwar was granted a full pardon following an election that ended the six-decade rule of Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organisation.
Mahathir has launched investigations to recover potentially $4.5 billion lost due to the mismanagement of state fund 1MDB by Najib, who denies wrongdoing. Anwar said Malaysia can’t recoup all the losses, but believed they could get “most” of the money back.
Mahathir, once a bitter rival of Anwar, had pledged during the election campaign to stand aside for him once he was pardoned. The timeframe for the transition remains unclear, with reports suggesting rivals within the party were positioning to outmaneuver Anwar.
Anwar will soon contest a special election for a seat in parliament where he intends to work on reforms in the legislative body to give Mahathir space to run the government. Lawmaker Danyal Balagopal Abdullah announced on Wednesday that he was resigning to make way for Anwar.
“This sort of teamwork will be very essential for him to continue getting the latitude and space without any encumbrances, and for me to assume the position much later,” Anwar said.
“We’ve accepted the fact that the country must be saved, that the country takes precedence,” Anwar said of Mahathir. “Credit given to him: He’s doing what he promised prior to the elections, and he’s doing it remarkably well.”
© 2018 Bloomberg L.P