Malaysia’s personality driven foreign policy
Pragmatic and reactionary, rather than grounded on a Malaysian view of the world
Malaysia’s foreign policy has always been more focused upon bilateral relationships out of necessity rather than the more grandiose multi-lateral groupings. Even the importance of ASEAN has waned to Malaysia over the last decade. This has particularly been the case where Malaysia had four separate administrations over as many years.
Consequently, Malaysia’s foreign policy to some degree has reflected the agendas of leaders like Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamed who both had clear visions. In addition, Malaysian foreign policy sometimes skewed on the personal views of emissaries like Abdul Hadi Awang on particular issues related to the MENA and Central Asia.
Although Malaysia released a policy vision, Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia: Change in Continuity in 2019, followed up with a defence white paper, a few months later, most Malaysian foreign policy has been pragmatic and reactive acting on bilateral issues with its neighbours Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Post-independence foreign policy
Under the tenure of Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and later Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia pursued a pro-Commonwealth and anti-communist foreign policy. Malaysia was a founding member of both the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1969, with Tunku serving as its first Secretary-General in 1971. Malaysia also developed strong relations with the non-aligned countries, based upon the principles of neutrality, and peaceful relations, regardless of ideology or political system. Malaysia also gave a high priority to regional security with the Five Power Defence Agreement.
The first Mahathir administration (1981-2003)
Malaysia’s foreign policy from the 1980s until 2003 was very introspective upon then prime minister Mahathir Mohamed’s view of Malaysia within the world. Mahathir was almost evangelistic on a number of causes.
In an ostentatious move back in 1981 with nationalistic and anti-colonial fervour, Mahathir sanctioned a raid on the London Stock Exchange to buy control of the estate company Guthrie that had massive land-holdings and assets across Malaysia. This stance which became anti-western traditionalist dependence on western inputs for Malaysia continued with his ‘Look East’ policy, where the Malaysia government would seek to move closer to East Asia for ideas, technology, and goods.
Mahathir saw Malaysia as a leader within the non-aligned Islamic world. Mahathir was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement, and developed close relations with South Africa, once Nelson Mandela became president. Malaysia hosted large numbers of Bosnian refugees as Muslim brothers and sisters during the Balkan conflict, yet cast away Vietnamese refugees arriving by boat on the shores of East Malaysia in the early 1980s.
Mahathir supported the first invasion of Iraq to liberate Kuwait but was strongly opposed to the second invasion of Iraq after 911. Malaysia developed good relations with most of the Arab countries within the MENA, with more students studying in countries like Egypt, but staunchly anti-Israel.
Malaysia’s bilateral relationships within the region developed coinciding with the development of ASEAN. Land borders with Thailand were defined and fenced off by the Malaysians. However, although Malaysia and Singapore had many integrated economic aspects, much of the bilateral relationship hinged upon Mahathir and Lew Kwan Yew’s personal relationship. Personal relationship also intervened between the Australia-Malaysia relationship when former Australian prime minister Paul Keating called Mahathir recalcitrant for not attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference in Seattle in 1993.
Mahathir tried to create an East Asia Economic Group as an alternative to APEC. He wanted to exclude Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. Thinking regionally, Mahathir also proposed an ASEAN built car. However, this was rejected and Mahathir went alone creating the Proton Saga. To show Malaysia’s non-alignment, the nation purchased Mig 29s from Russia in a palm oil for aircraft deal and US McDonnell Douglas FA-18 Hornets.
The Badawi and Najib Years 2003-2018
After Mahathir’s often anti-Western rhetoric and Look East policy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi pushed Malaysia much closer to the west, developing much warmer relationships. Badawi made an agreement with Brunei on their mutual maritime border, leading to criticism he had given too much away to Brunei. Najib Razak continued this direction developing much closer relationships with the White House, and was criticised with his meeting with former president Trump, offering Malaysian assistance to Trump’s “America First” policy. Najib also made a visit to Gaza in Palestine to meet with the Hamas leadership, which appeased Muslims in Malaysia who are staunchly pro-Palestinian.
Malaysia’s foreign policy since 2018 has been greatly affected by four changes on prime minister. Pakatan Harapan’s tenure in government was dominated by Mahathir Mohamed as prime minister once again, who dominated policy. Mahathir, upon becoming prime minister was able to renegotiate a number of Chinese Belt & Road and development projects in Malaysia. Mahathir was very critical of Israel at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, with further statements at Columbia University meeting with fierce criticism.
Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister focused deeply on domestic issues and keeping his administration in power with very tight support in the Dewan Rakyat, or lower house of parliament. Incoherence in foreign policy rhetoric was seen with Hishammuddin Hussein’s approach to the South China Sea. In dealing with the harassment of Malaysia’s oil exploring vessel West Capella by the Chinese vessel Haiyang Dizihi 8, where US and Australian naval vessels came to the area to assist, Hishammuddin distanced Malaysia from the US and Australian response.
Hishammuddin’s use of the term ‘older brother’ for Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi caused a stir with Western political analysts.
With Ismail Sabri Yaakob only being kept in power by an MOU signed with the opposition, and his increasing estrangement with his own party UMNO, domestic policy is again the major focus of Putra Jaya.
Saifuddin Abdullah, foreign minister under Mahathir returned to the position under Ismail Sabri. In line with Saifuddin’s human rights activist background, he was one of the prime movers among ASEAN foreign ministers to block Myanmar’s Chairman of the Administrative Council Min Aung Hlaing from attending the 2021 ASEAN Summit.
Saifuddin was also very weary over the formation of AUKUS in September 2021, by Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States because of the potential to increase tensions within the South China Sea.
Malaysia, like some other non-aligned nations declared it won’t unilaterally impose sanctions upon Russia, unless they are sanctioned be the United Nations. Yet, Malaysia voted for a UN resolution condemning Moscow’s aggression. There is some criticism that Malaysia has gone out of its way to assist Russia circumvent sanctions.
Malaysia’s prime foreign policy focus has been on bilateral issues. An MOU is being made with Indonesia concerning the recruitment and remuneration of Indonesian maids working in Malaysia. An agreement has also been made with Indonesia not to compete over palm oil prices. Malaysia is under domestic criticism for failing to take a definite position on the Uyghur issue in China.
Malaysian foreign policy very much continues to be personality driven, bringing much policy incoherence, and reactionary approaches to arising issues. Foreign policy is still very much ad hoc, even with the December 2021 Foreign Policy Framework titled “Focus in Continuity: A Framework for Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in a Post-Pandemic World,” reiterating the 2019 policy framework.
Perhaps territorial disputes have been Malaysia’s most challenging area of foreign policy, both with Singapore and the South China Sea. Malaysia has been primarily pragmatic towards solving disputes. Many claims like Malaysia and the Philippines have been left ambiguous. Malaysia’s hesitancy not to confront China within the South China Sea is now under strain.
Malaysia often utilizes regional diplomacy, through ASEAN, to handle some of the more contentious issues like Myanmar. Foreign policy has long played second fiddle to domestic policy, particularly with the recent pandemic, and unstable government.
Malaysia’s execution of foreign policy is influenced by other parties outside the foreign ministry. The role of PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang as a special envoy to the Middle East has embarrassed Malaysia. Abdul Hadi’s son, PAS International Affairs and External Relations Committee Chairman Muhammad Khalil Abdul Hadi congratulated the Afghanistan Taliban for retaking Kabul after the US withdraw. Mahathir’s recent call that the Indonesian Riau Islands should be part of Malaysia, can potentially disturb bilateral relations.
Malaysia faces potential future challenges that are still under the radar. Indonesia is quickly rising as a regionally assertive power. Its future influence in regional affairs is an unknown. The moving of the Indonesian capital to Kalimantan, will have future influence upon Sabah and Sarawak. Political instability or a major natural disaster within Indonesia in the future will challenge Malaysia physically. There is a risk the spirit and ideology of the insurgency in Southern Thailand may spill over to Kelantan and cause instability over the next decades. Finally, the growing competition, and growing assertiveness of China within the South China Sea is something Malaysia must watch closely.
Even with the 2021 Foreign policy paper reasserting the basic principles of the 2019 paper, its doubtful whether Malaysian foreign policy can advance past the current ad hoc personality based policies. Ismail Sabri’s recent appointment of Tajuddin Abdul Rahman as Malaysia’s ambassador to Indonesia is very symbolic that many of Malaysia’s bilateral relationships are still very much transactional.
Originally published in Eurasia Review 28th June 2022