Where Duterte, Mahathir stand on pressing ASEAN issues


One embraces China investments with open arms, the other shows more caution. One sees US President Donald Trump as a ‘friend,’ the other calls him an ‘international bully.’

GAME-CHANGERS. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad are game-changers in the Southeast Asian region. Duterte photo from Malacañang, Mahathir photo from Agence France-Presse

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and new Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad are set to hold their first bilateral meeting on Monday afternoon, July 16.

Mahathir returned to power only in May after leading the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan to victory against the coalition of former prime minister Najib Razak who was besieged by corruption allegations and is now barred from leaving the country.

At 92, Mahathir is the world’s oldest prime minister. Before his win, Mahathir already held the title of longest serving Malaysian leader after ruling the country for two decades as its 4th prime minister. The nonagenarian is credited for transforming Malaysia into one of Asia’s tiger economies during his two-decade rule, even as he was criticized for imprisoning political opponents without trial and curtailing powers of the judiciary.

Mahathir’s return to power heralds changes not just in Malaysia but for the entire Asian region as well. More specifically, reverberations will be felt in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional bloc of which Malaysia and the Philippines are a part.

Here is a comparison of where Mahathir and Duterte stand on critical ASEAN issues:

Economic deals with China

It’s on this issue where the two leaders differ the most. While the Duterte administration has embraced economic deals, including loans, with Beijing, Mahathir is showing more caution. He has promised to renegotiate billions of dollars worth of agreements with China that were signed in the Najib era. One of these deals is the US$13-billion East Coast Rail Link, a rail line to be built by Chinese state companies meant to connect the capital Kuala Lumpur to less developed regions in the east. Mahathir thinks these will leave Malaysians buried in debt.

“We will be friendly with China, but we do not want to be indebted to China.” he said in Tokyo in early June.