Malaysia’s Foreign Policy Reawakening Under New Leadership – Analysis


The new political leadership in Malaysia heralds a new critical need for a reimagination and orientation of its foreign policy, long beheld by conventional dogma of self-trapping and stagnation. For decades, Malaysia has been traditionally known for the voice and champion of the developing world, regional organisations and the Muslim world, through the approaches by different premierships and agenda pursuits, and its strict adherence to centrality and non-alignment has been its hallmark. It is time that we look beyond this and transcend to a new pervasive overview. In facing the new dawn of challenges and threats, it remains to be seen the efficacy of this approach.

Under this new leadership, the personal dignified personality and appeal of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim play a significant factor that reverberates the world over, and it signals the need for a new shift in Malaysia’s strategic pursuit in its global perception, position and recognition.

In line with the moral high road taken and the value-based path as espoused by PM Anwar’s good governance umbrella, a three-pronged approach is seen as needed as the basis for its new pillars of foreign policy and presence. Firstly, to restore the country’s image and standing and regain trust and confidence. Secondly, repair and enhance ties with key players and review its current approach to China and the West. Thirdly, to elevate Malaysia’s standing, role and position as a progressive, democratic and influential middle power that has firm guiding principles of true freedom and democracy and respect for human rights, with good governance and integrity and conviction of purpose for global progress and peace.

While ASEAN has been earmarked as the foremost importance for its next priority, it needs to strategically leverage on the right allies who are both capable and effective in providing the support and trust to its long term needs. In looking beyond ASEAN, a more comprehensive bedrock of stability and trusted consistency will provide the country the needed assurances in both economic and security umbrellas. The West and the US remain its foremost capable and trusted partners in this regard, and Kuala Lumpur will need to be wise and future-driven in casting its policy especially in the way Malaysians treat their partners in the West, after decades of non alignment and years of China pandering.

Beyond that, it will need to bolster and elevate its international profile and reputation, setting out to repair the decades of tainted image that has been dominated by the state of corruption, kleptocratic nature of governance and tainted leaders that have framed the profile and stature of Malaysia for years.

By transforming Malaysia’s global standing and perception, the first priority would be to capture hope, trust, confidence and desire by key players and institutions in choosing Malaysia as their key destinations for economic, trade and investment options. In projecting a new Malaysia on a true reformation and transformation of the full spectrum of economic, political and socio-cultural indicators it must be able to fully chart its own course without kowtowing to any state’s coercive, intimidating or deceitful behaviour.

A foreign policy orientation that is in line with Anwar’s legacy and track record of standing up for fairness, justice, inclusivity, peace and adherence to law and norms is vital in capitalizing on his established and proven reformist profile based on unyielding principles. The onus is on him and the Foreign Minister to reorient the role, influence and standing of Malaysia in the eyes of the world to one which is rooted on the basis of a modern, progressive, inclusive, and a clean state of government governed by the rule of law and sanctity of democratic principles. This will propel the country to the moral high road and in galvanising support with the West in a collective determination to salvage and strengthen democratic ideals and functions against the onslaught of autocratic forces.

Malaysia needs to be wiser,more strategic with greater urgency in elevating its bargaining power and cards, especially in key strategic areas and capacities and critical resources including growing its semiconductor capacity and leadership in food and energy security that will ensure its domestic needs and external stakes.

A Malaysia First doctrine, similar to America First approach espoused by former President Trump, remains the way to go. With its long term survival at stake, its interests and sovereignty must remain supreme regardless of the depth of its historical ties or in feeling the pressure to cave in to the demands and dictate of certain powers.

In elevating its influence and soft power, it must have the audacity to stand up for equal representation of peace, justice, respect, rules adherence, principles and human rights. As much as the country stood up for Palestine and the Muslim world all along, it must equally apply that to all states and cases, including China. Being silent on the Uighur issue in Xinjiang or any other debacles in China but remaining vocal and uncompromising in other similar issues including the Palestinian cause rings a huge bell of hypocrisy in compromising its principles and values for the sake of the fear on inciting China’s wrath.

A growing number of states are realising, albeit too late, in the futility of their past approach to China in which they have started reviewing the scope and direction of the ties and security approaches with Beijing including the UK, Canada, Japan and many others.

In moving away from being seen just as the voice or the saviour of the developing world, it must have the audacity and unyielding in upholding universal norms and values, and not acting out of fear or submission and coercion.

The US remains the only power that is now both ready and capable at any eventuality to help Malaysia defend and safeguard its survival and interests, yet Malaysia continues to bet on its centrality that has yet to be proven to be effective.

America remains the world’s sole superpower which will continue to uphold the global order based on rules, respect for human rights, and upholding freedom and democracy. Its much perceived decline remains a myth, as reality now kicks in on the importance of its role and duty and on the criticality of its devotion and commitment in preserving the rules based order centred on peace and stability. In outright blaming Washington for its readiness to show deterrence and military support to Malaysia during the West Capella incident as a case in point, it shot itself in the foot and in framing the wrong narrative.

More than USD200 million in security and military assistance packages and donations have been provided to Malaysia by the US during the past years, and various military exchanges and trainings have been in place in bolstering the country’s readiness and capacity which have been well-received and appreciated by its military community who is acutely aware of the real threats and risks involved on the ground, but sadly ignored and unduly received by the political establishment with its strict non-alignment approach and fear of upsetting Beijing.

Malaysia relied overwhelmingly on quiet and backdoor diplomacy and hedging against big powers with the hope of getting the perceived consistent returns, blinded by the idealistic and utopian belief in engaging through confidence building mechanisms and dialogue initiatives and choosing to ignore the urgent reality and threat settings on the ground. In placing hope on China’s own self-restraint and its somewhat projected ability to refrain from further challenging our interests, it remains ,Malaysia’s continued hope on China’s part to restraint its intention, a far-fetched utopian belief in the realm of international politics where only permanent interests exist, not permanent friends or enemies.

Efforts and concerns of the West on the state of affairs in the region that will affect Malaysia’s interests and security are brushed off as just another ploy by the West in using the country and the region in their grand geopolitical chessboard in containing Beijing, a narrative that has long been espoused by China with its victim card cry and in which the region and the country are increasingly abiding with.

For as long as the country remains under the orbit of China with its ingrained influence and grip, and the ignorance and apathy of not wanting to face the truth and reality, it will remain trapped under this dogma of archaic self-trap.

By continuing to hedge and to play it safe by being deafeningly silent on anything China related, it is a recipe for long term policy disaster.

When push comes to shove, it comes down to trust in choosing its long term allies and partners, in giving them the trust to play by the rules and to secure the country and the region’s needs and assurances.

The region and the country do not have the luxury of second chances or time to play by the wrong card, or to assume that their current orientation will be the right choice in the long future. It is equally counterproductive to adhere to the long held perspective and global bandwagon for the past decades that China’s rise is inevitable and that we need to mould our policy based on that fact that has somehow been cast in stone. All at the same time assuming that the West and the US are fast losing their long term appeal, to be dwarfed by the might and sustaining lustre of Beijing.

Value based investment on the right partner pillared on unyielding ideals of conviction for a rules based international order, peace, stability and progress that are based on democratic freedom, good governance and respect for human rights and dignity will shape Malaysia’s security and international recognition. Easy, fast and addictive capital and support from Beijing might seem the easiest way out for its current economic debacle and for internal political survival and needs, but it comes with great risks at the expense of its overarching survival.

The world and the security architecture are changing rapidly, and Malaysia will be left behind should it be stuck in the conventional mentality and dogma of power trap and fear.It remains to be seen if the new political leadership has the audacity of change in charting its own path and interests, in breaking free from external coercion and influence and the entrenched trap of the past and China fear.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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