BEIJING: Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Friday (Apr 26) pledged to support the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), while calling for “longer, bigger” trains to bridge the distance between the East and the West.
Speaking at a high-level meeting during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, Dr Mahathir gave his seal of approval to the ambitious initiative.
“I am fully in support of the Belt and Road Initiative. I am sure my country, Malaysia, will benefit from the project,” he said.
Railway makes up the “belt” part of the expansive initiative put forth by Chinese President Xi Jinping in October 2013 to boost economic connectivity via infrastructure investments. Since its proposal, 152 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa have come onboard as participants.
Dr Mahathir had been a staunch critic of China-backed investments in Malaysia for concerns over national sovereignty and inflated cost.
He put several projects on hold as soon as he come back to power last May, but recently revived the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) after a renegotiation between Beijing and Putrajaya brought down the price tag by a third.
In his Friday speech, Dr Mahathir suggested that trains should be improved to cater to the demand for transportation of goods and people on land. Furthermore, trains are faster than ships, he said.
“If ships can be built bigger, why can't trains be equally big to carry more goods and raw materials and people?
“Have we reached the limit in terms of the size and lengths of trains? I think not. If the rail gauge is widened, can we not build bigger trains? Can we not have longer trains, maybe a kilometre long?
“With all the sensors that are available can we not build safer fast trains to cope with the increased needs of trade today?” he said.
Dr Mahathir said the BRI would improve ease of travel and communication. “Yes, the Belt and Road idea is great. It can bring the land-locked countries of Central Asia closer to the sea. They can grow in wealth and their poverty reduced,” he said.
While stressing that freedom of passage should be guaranteed, Dr Mahathir warned that terrorism and wars might render these modern marvels incapable of delivering the benefits they promised.
This was Dr Mahathir’s second visit to China since Pakatan Harapan took over the federal government from Barisan Nasional.
On Thursday, he and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang witnessed the signing of several agreements on palm oil trade, ECRL, as well as the revival of Bandar Malaysia – a mega township project in Kuala Lumpur with an estimated cumulative gross development value of RM200 billion (US$48.4 billion).
Under a Memorandum of Understanding, China is set to purchase an additional 1.9 million tonnes of palm oil from Malaysia over the next five years. Dr Mahathir had revealed earlier that Malaysia hoped to take advantage of the ECRL renegotiation to sell more palm oil to China.