Written by William Case.

We know much about what Southeast Asia’s leaders think of China. They are divided in their outlooks, but we can reasonably group them. Among those in closest proximity to China, some leaders have come to resent what they see as the country’s imperiousness, manifest in the skewed terms of its infrastructural projects and energy deals, the rapacity of its claims in the South China Sea, and the pugnacity of its frontier traders and migrant retailers. By contrast, other leaders value their territorial nearness, welcoming Chinese investment in rail lines, ports, dams, and mines. In addition, they may find refuge in the penumbra of China’s authoritarian rule, whether they too operate Communist parties, a rare military government, or a hybrid form of personal dictatorship. Further away from China’s borders, leaders in Southeast usually grow more detached. But even here, we sometimes find leaders who are effusive, hailing China as a boon for the region, a driver of economic advance, and a barrier to US interference. One such opinion leader is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia.

We also know much about what, in turn, China’s leaders think of their counterparts in Southeast Asia. Those whom it regards as ingrates or irritants, it openly berates as unworthy of national office. But for those whom it views as forthcoming, it may even designate their country as a “comprehensive strategic partner.” On this count, we see how China has returned Mahathir’s good will. As President Xi Jinpeng journeyed to the APEC meeting in 2013, he stopped over in Kuala Lumpur to engage Najib Razak, currently Malaysia’s prime minister. But he paid a call on Mahathir too. And in reciprocating, an awestruck Mahathir proposed that a Zheng He Institute be set up—contrasting starkly with the bitterness he registers toward Malaysia’s citizens of Chinese ancestry, despite their co-ethnicity with Xi and the admiral.

But apart from Xi, what might more ordinary people in China think of Mahathir and Malaysia? At this level, we know much less about attitudes toward Southeast Asia’s leaders. But recently, here in Hong Kong, we were given a glimpse.

Mahathir still holds great sway in Malaysia. He has also discovered a calling as a professional speaker overseas. And in October last year, he came to Hong Kong to address an afternoon gathering of “pro-establishment” political figures and business elites. For the purpose, a large function room was requisitioned in the Wanchai Convention Centre. And its many tables were filled with guests, notwithstanding the high price of tickets and the commonness of the lunch. I went too, relishing this rare chance to see Tun. But what, I wondered, could have been the draw for local Hong Kongers? Few seemed to know very much about Malaysia. But they knew enough that they admired the firm managerial hand that during his long tenure, Tun had been famous for wielding.

At the time of Mahathir’s visit, Hong Kong was well into the second month of its Occupy Central movement. Initially planned by veteran “pan-democrat” activists, as they are called, street action was energized now by student protesters. And as they gained momentum, swelling in numbers and combativeness, pro-establishment figures grew steamed. Hence, their motivation for seeking out Tun.

Mahathir began by reacquainting his audience with his anti-Western sentiments, which seemed even to have intensified alongside his mounting affections for China. “The West colonized we Malaysians for a hundred years”, he acidly recalled. “China never colonized us. Of course, they could still do so. For they have a fifth column”—again intimating his distrust of Malaysia’s Chinese, though few Hong Kongers in the audience detected this. Rather, they sat enraptured as Mahathir went on to characterize Chinese outside Malaysia as beneficent and nobly intentioned, their country’s economic expansion uplifting all of East Asia. Personally, though, I was less taken with this vintage Mahathirism that the stamina with which it was delivered. Mahathir will soon turn 90. Yet he held the floor for an hour, without notes or nary a stumble. And then he took questions.

Local notables in attendance were quick to queue at the mike. A member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and a delegate to China’s National People’s Congress implored Mahathir, “Tun, can you give us some of your precious advice [about how to deal with the student protesters]?” Mahathir reassured her that they were easily dismissed: as they represent “just a small number, they are not genuinely fighting for democracy.” A spokesman for the anti-Occupy Alliance for Peace and Democracy, doubling as leader of the Silent Majority of Hong Kong, asked similarly how, in his day, Mahathir would have handled the protesters, “who (the spokesman’s voice rising) have blocked our streets and businesses for 28 days?!” Mahathir pursed his lips, then sagely responded, “the best way to handle it is to handle it before the occupying”—thereby preventing a majority ever from forming. But Mahathir then gave more measured counsel than he himself ever took while in power: “beating them is not the solution, of course. [For if you do,] you can be sure that CNN, MNBC, and all the rest will be there”, drawing guffaws from the audience. Better to wait them out, he continued, for “over time they will get tired and other people will turn against them”—which turned out to be quite true. And then, beaming warmly, Mahathir stood back from the lectern, made his way to his table, and took his place alongside Siti Hasmah. He was thunderously applauded.

At my own table, guests were mostly from Hong Kong. But a few hailed from the mainland and even Malaysia. And fired by Mahathir’s insights, they continued discussion, quavering with indignation over Occupy Central. A deceptively petite local woman on my left, a business executive, hissed that what the students needed was “a slap. They are immature and misled.” “But who is misleading them?”, I asked. “Foreign interference. You know who—the US”, she nearly spat. She was evidently more open to Mahathir’s intervention. Sensing this, another guest, a visiting businessman from Malaysia, told us of his taxi ride to the convention center. Darkening with anger, he recounted his having been made to detour by the students. What was more, he had observed them daring to stop police, opening the boots of squad cars, and searching for canisters of tear gas. “I’d like to bring the Malaysian police in here”, he growled. “They’d teach these kids something.” Others at my table nodded in vigorous agreement. “And what do you think?”, I was finally asked. Knowing that no good could come from sharing my views, I replied, “I’ve just made new friends here. I need to learn more before making any judgment.” But though they didn’t learn much from me, I learned much about how they felt about Mahathir. In this part of China, at least, a Malaysian leader had plainly found favor with ordinary Chinese.

William Case is a professor of politics at City University of Hong Kong, Department of Asian and International Studies. Image credit: CC by M Afif/Flickr.