Malaysia’s participation in the recently concluded UN General Assembly, while laden with high hopes and expectations on the returns on the country’s economic and soft power revival, remains a missed opportunity for a bigger showcase of the country’s global return in role, impact and influence.
The UN is divided, and the world remains divided at the economic, ideological and security perspectives. The UN remains fractured, and fast becoming obsolete because of the impasse at the UN Security Council and the toothless and non-binding UN General Assembly. The so called rise of BRICS and Global South led by different factions wanting to display greater influence and dominance has further created incentivization of power bandwagoning.
From Lula da Silva of Brazil, to Xi and Putin, the tussle for the bloc leadership of challenging the Western hemisphere has further eroded the efficacy and dividends of the multilateral global mechanisms. As Guterres has pointed out in his address, the increasing divide and tussle for global power and dominance, one that is shaped by the North-South- and East-West divides, and the division between economic power bloc and security power bloc, remain the ultimate challenge to the sustainable assurance of peace returns.
Malaysia faces a critical crossroads in its foreign policy and global standing ventures, and the litmus test now beckons as to how effective and reliable our ingrained focus on neutrality and non-alignment mantra in facing the renewed power rivalry and its aftermath. Recent policy approaches have indicated yet the consistent alignment of closer ties with regional and traditional partners and institutions. The question remains whether the country will continue to hedge its bet on the Global South, ASEAN and the rise of middle powership and in capitalising on the best of both worlds in its neutral model, or to project a long term assurance with proven values-based approach and normative framework espoused by the West.
Malaysia’s Reluctance to Escape its Past Dogma
On one hand, Malaysia is trying to play its card well in getting the best out of the bipolar rivalry and bloc divide between Beijing led East/South and Washington led West/North, but the strategy seems to have lost its lustre with backfiring implications. Increased pandering and overtures to the perceived growing momentum of the South and in greater supporting the de-dollarisation movement and deeper reliance on Beijing led capital market and infrastructure.
Malaysia is now caught in the middle of the big transition and once in a century geopolitical shift, and how it positions itself remains critical in shaping regional power and economic tussle and in ensuring its own future economic resilience and security returns.
Is the country leadership and voice in OIC and ASEAN to name a few, and the bandwagon with the so-called rise of the middle powers and the multilateral approach in the perceived multi-polarity of power?
Malaysia’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the address is a breath of fresh air. Although this condemnation is welcomed, the West realises that there will not be major changes in Malaysia’s orientation, as Malaysia is still reliant on ASEAN as a collective voice and support and continues to rely on Russia for a number of supportive fields, and ASEAN’s stance on the Ukraine issue has been disappointing.
By initiating a meeting with Iran and Iraq, and with ever closer ties with Ankara in all fields especially new potential defence cooperation, Malaysia is seen to send a message to both the West and China and the Global South.
To the West, it implies that Malaysia still has different fallback options in security and defence support, and not seeing West as the only reliable source of security umbrella.This gives more options for Malaysia to have better chips and cards in dealing with both China and the West.
To China, it also implies that Malaysia still has considerable external deterrence and security support apparatus and bulwark, apart from the predominantly Western security domain.
The UN General Assembly sees the normalization of the trend for recurring issues of maintaining peace, and the demand of developing states to be seen as equal and the push for more equality in terms of treatment and fairness in international trade and financial system, singling out the West as the main root cause of this economic and security imbalance.
Malaysia’s position on common progressive values, fairness, social justice and continuing the neutral stance in pushing for joint cooperation in regional and global prosperity has been well known.
Reimagining Soft Power
The theme for this year’s General Debate is “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity” with a focus on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Malaysia has been a leading proponent for most of the SDG goals, including on green and digital economy, climate responsibilities, poverty eradication and socio-economic goals. Malaysia needs to reorient its position on how best to elevate its standing and use future growth indicators and strategic advantage with its bargaining chips and cards in its critical resources, especially palm oil, rare earths, semiconductors, and other geographical advantages as greater chips and cards.
However, despite the various reiterations of Malaysia’s stance and approach and in elevating our global credentials, it remains a missed opportunity to tackle the crux of the dilemma and in presenting a clear, consistent and bold reform and transformation of the country’s future driven ambition.
A major part of this remains the need to reform the country’s soft power image and presence, especially in correcting the past tainted image of systemic and structural negative implications and causes of bad governance. People-to-people understanding and appreciation of the country’s true offerings in all fields have been lacking, and areas of low politics that will create spillover and sustained impact will need a total transformation.
In areas of high politics, it remains imperative that Malaysia be seen not just from the prism of institutional and balancing power trap. We cannot afford to remain under the architecture of regional institution, or the inevitability of a powerful neighbouring economic and security force, and the ingrained role of being the balancer in power play and rivalry, and being confined to the voice and role as a middle or small power and the bandwagon of a multilateral reawakened Global South that is opposing of the traditionally Western led system of trade and peace assurance.
It also depends on whether Malaysia has the conviction of faith and audacity in breaking free from its conventional and entrenched policy trap of the past, and in impartially facing the reality of the future.
One of the future scenarios include a setting where the current liberal global order of rules-based mechanism and the Western led normative values will stand the test of growing autocratic practices and threats to the stable peace that have safeguarded the UN Charter and ties among nations.
Democracy vs Autocracy
Minilateralism is being railed against, and the US has been called out for pursuing a bloc mentality and a minilateral and direct approach with targeted countries instead of a true multilateral engagement. Direct bilateral and minilateral approach is taking grounds with growing importance simply because the impact and efficacy of a multilateral platform have been dwindling for years. ASEAN and the UN remain the prime examples of how and why a multilateral platform has been dominated by certain powers or being trapped by an endemic perspective and policy affiliation.
Multilateralism and certain regional and global institutions have long remained benign, ineffective and a symbol of a toothless tiger that have failed to adequately uphold the very core principles and tenets they have been founded upon, being beholden to conventional dogma and influence seeking activities of other powers. They often lack the audacity in being bold, direct, consistent and unwavering in their adherence to systemic values and principles, often succumbing to external pressures and dictate.
U.S. President Joe Biden has urged the world to stand up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during his speech at the UNGA and has consistently raised the urgency of the fate of democracy and freedom against the onslaught of oppression, autocracy and the mantra of might is right. How might Malaysia, as a participant, navigate its stance on this critical issue, especially considering its potential impact on global security? This remains the ultimate call for a bold adherence to justice, freedom and rights of all players to play by the same set of rules, and for a just, equal and peaceful global order.
Peace and freedom come at a price and commitment, and the sacrifice that one takes must be the unwavering audacity in defending the core tenets of equal respect for the law and norms as enshrined under the UN Charter, and to unyieldingly and staunchly defend and align with the strive for rule of law, freedom and rights of all nations and the people.
Narratives have been tried to be expanded both by Moscow and other powers that Moscow is provoked or being dragged into the conflict by the enticement and provocation from NATO and the US led system. This has been projected as the reality on the ground, projecting a greater Global South buy in.
If the land grabbing and invasion are allowed, as Biden has reiterated, this will not stop at Ukraine. It will be a precedent for all other players that use the might is right approach and hard power intimidation, and the strategy of playing the victim card in justifying future moves.
This will put all nations, especially small and middle powers in danger, as they do not have the capacity to defend themselves.
Malaysia is being very careful with its diplomatic nuances and wordings, so as not to offend any party, including china, being our economic lifeline, and Russia. In the long run, this will backfire on its economic and security assurances.
Wise and Bold New Positioning
America and the West have always been projected to decline, and the argument that it is now the dawn of the Asian century and the Chinese century has been the central narrative. However, the future trends and statistics showing otherwise, in how the resilience of the Western economy and the continuous security and military superiority will endure are being drowned out by this ingrained new narrative of the rise and future dominance of the Asian Century.
The Global South leadership will be contested among the small circle of elites including Brazil, China, Russia, Turkey or Middle Eastern states. In the OIC, rising powers including Jakarta, Tehran or Riyadh and Ankara will be leading the new drive of influence. Malaysia is now trapped by the dogma of its position, in finding its way either in regional organisations like ASEAN or to continue to reclimb its position in bigger multilateral platforms that are now a free for all arena for power and muscle flexing. Growing internal tussle in the Global South and the East in using these platforms to leverage against the Western dominance and in challenging the conventional global system has also been a growing risk to the states, and remains a future threat to the rules-based order.
How Malaysia face these new turbulences remains a critical factor, and the common sense approach is to be wary of any passionate jumping into the bandwagon of perceived new trends and power shifts.
Malaysia has been known for rising influence in areas of low politics, including cooperation in environment, socio-economic issues, common development, and progressive humanitarian uplifting. As the next decade and century are shaped by hard power and high politics on security and power assurance, it remains imperative for the country to have a clear and consistent stance on this sphere, particularly on the rule of law, rules-based order, human rights and freedom, and the sanctity of democracy and rights of all nations in respecting international norms and rules.
Apart from having a resolute stance in the international order and areas of high politics, our soft power credentials will need further improvements, expanding on its cultural and low politics elements in projecting further awareness and appreciation of its regional and global trust, understanding and presence.
With greater economic role and presence, linking ASEAN with other regional entities in the Global South in South Asia, Africa and Latin America in deepening economic and people to people ties remains strategic and future-reassuring. Building understanding and connecting bridges in digitalization and education and mobility of talent and knowledge and skills training programmes in new sectors especially green and digital economy remain the areas where Malaysia is at a position of strength.
Malaysia remains a sought after nation by rival powers due to our growing strength and advantages in food and energy security, critical resources including rare earths, chips industry and semiconductors, role in supply chain resilience and geostrategic offers.
These must be utilized well to strengthen its chips and cards, to secure its future global positioning and security and economic returns. For that, its future foreign policy orientation must be wise, direct, bold and unwavering in our conviction with the decades of established global system of values-based approach in security and economic moulding, one which is pillared on normative rules based order and the espousing of equality, respect for international law, enshrined national rights and freedom and democracy of humanity and good governance. This bulwark remains of utmost importance, against the new tide of rising authoritative tendencies in challenging this entrenched global norm that has safeguarded world peace and economic progress.