Malaysia Remains Trapped Under China’s Orbit – Analysis

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Malaysia is placed as the 10th most influenced by China by China Index, a database relaunched on December 8 by DoubleThink Labs. This study that measures Beijing’s expanding global sway mentioned Malaysia’s links to and dependency on Beijing, in terms of foreign and domestic policy, technology, and the economy that make it particularly susceptible to Chinese influence.

On top of the recent Freedom House report that summarised the same diagnosis on Malaysia’s state of affairs with China, it gives a renewed sense of vulnerability yet it will be projected to have little to no impact on Malaysian policymakers’ readiness to change course. Apathy, ignorance and fear of overreaction to these findings that might incur the wrath of Beijing created a continuous climate of self-trap, allegiance and haplessness, at Malaysia’s expense and Beijing’s gain. 

In compiling the China Index, the research team focused on nine categories to track influence around the world that include higher education, domestic politics, economic ties, foreign policy, law enforcement, media, military cooperation, cultural links, and technology.

One surprising facet that is pointed out in this report is that there is no one clear pattern for how China influences a country, and based on the data compiled, the economic tool is not the determinative one. A country can be economically independent but be tied in other ways that are equally effective and pervasive. For Malaysia, the entrenched economy and trade dependence remains the deepest stumbling block to future comprehensive risk patterns and policy independence and flexibility.

Trade and investment were an early impetus for Beijing’s global sway, but Chinese influence in foreign policy, local media, and increasingly in defense and security has been the predominant pursuit with ripple effects seen throughout, especially in Malaysia.

Beijing’s influence and grip on Malaysia have been extensive and in depth, although not necessarily being highlighted to the greater public. Awareness on Chinese influence and measures taken to elevate its reach and impact on the public, government, organisations and critical sectors including the media and public institutions has been low but general resistance against the increased efforts has been on a gradual rise.

As outlined in the Freedom House report, Beijing’s media influence efforts in Malaysia are based on intensive propaganda and promotion of favoured narratives, especially in trying to win over the non-Chinese and Muslim community in the country, knowing that it lags behind in these groups in terms of perception and buy in.

The ISEAS survey that was published this year displayed the projected division of perception on China based on ethnic lines. It is expected for the local Chinese community to be receptive and positive of their view on China’s impact, with over 67% having a strongly favourable view towards China, with only 3% having the opposite thought.

Efforts to discredit evidence of mass detentions in Xinjiang and other atrocities by the Chinese government against Uyghurs are common, portraying itself as respecting religious freedoms. Narratives aimed at whitewashing the party-state’s policies in Xinjiang include portraying the region as a prime tourist destination, highlighting similarities in how Islamic culture is celebrated in China and Malaysia and projecting how the Chinese government is allowing religious sites or permitting halal restaurants.

Direct and exclusive groups were created with journalists in the efforts to communicate directly the views and intent of Beijing, apart from holding closed sessions with the media on issues including Xinjiang, with direct channeling of pressure and displeasures with the editors and journalists on articles that are deemed to be hostile to China.

Distorted content including outright disinformation from Chinese state media and other pro-CCP outlets reached Chinese-language media in Malaysia. One prime example includes the extensive criticisms by Chinese state media of Hong Kong’s 2019-2020 pro-democracy movement where some of them are based on false claims, and are replicated by Malaysia’s mainstream Chinese language media.

Chinese state presence on television and social media has been extensive, with self censorship being rampant in the media fraternity for the fear of Chinese reprisal especially in the threat of pulling off advertisement and pressure exerted on the management of the media outlets. Only a handful and rare media institutions that are not in reliance on the Chinese revenue have the independence and audacity in reporting on the truth and in giving balanced and truthful assessments and views on anything China related, in a climate of overwhelming China pandering and pro China narratives in Malaysia’s local media and public discourse.

The strategies go a long way, from partnering with local broadcasters to supporting publications of Malay language contents and books portraying Chinese culture and history from the Chinese perspective, including Malay translations of Chinese contents.

Subsidized journalist trips to Xinjiang with the hope on projecting a new narrative and perspective on the issue have been regularly organised, with notable impact on the outline and direction of reporting with the hope of capturing the buy-in from the public, especially the Muslim community.

Political support and grip have been ingrained, with both sides of the divide in Malaysia having been tied with the inevitability of seeing China as too critical in economic security and for local regime security, as have been seen in both sides trying to win over Chinese favour and in toeing the line of Beijing in presenting China friendly narratives and justifications in their policy and approach.

Disinformation campaigns have gained intensity, with Malaysia being at the epicentre of a couple of major Chinese-language and pro Beijing disinformation campaigns who take their repetitious material directly from Chinese-language content farms. A 2020 Atlantic Council report found that some of these farms were based in Malaysia and target Malaysian audiences, where in one farm nicknamed “Qiqu,” it hosted content that closely tracked with Chinese government talking points and was distributed across Chinese-language Facebook accounts and pages that focus on Malaysian politics.

Censorship and intimidation remain pervasive, where pressure and reprisals induce a climate of fear and enormous self-censorship with tied hands. Critical pieces and coverage on China and on the issue of Xinjiang and Taiwan, among many others, have been met with displeasure and pressure to restrain. Some media practitioners have pointed out that local Chinese media used to be “freer” before Media Chinese International (MCIL) started buying up these outlets in 2008.

All these are on top of the risks and threats from the digital sphere and cyberwarfare vulnerabilities, with worrying ignorance and apathy from Malaysian policymakers on the threat assessment to the country’s future resilience and national security posed by Chinese affiliated firms and tech institutions. While the West including Canada, UK and the US have been tough and swift in their approach towards these risks including potential and ongoing ban and restrictions on Huawei, TikTok and the likes, Kuala Lumpur has yet to possess the urgency or capacity in doing the same based on imminent and long term risks to national security.

Huawei controls 13.8 percent of Malaysia’s mobile phone market and has also long been Malaysia’s dominant supplier of internet modems, while Xiaomi, accounts for another 11 percent of the market. In total, Chinese suppliers collectively provide about half of all mobile phones in Malaysia, providing ample vulnerability settings on digital security.

While it has been for years under the inevitable orbit and influence by Beijing, all is not lost yet. Shifts on the ground have been encouraging, albeit slow and gradually and more independent and openings must be given to stir free and open dialogues and discussions on matters of national interests and survival. 

Sentiments have largely been consistent with ethnic lines but general perception has slowly tilted against one sided acceptance of all the tactics and measures taken by Beijing to continue its grip on the country. Polling by the ASEAN Studies Centre and ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute found that 58 percent of Malaysian respondents had little or no confidence that “that China will ‘do the right thing’ to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance” in 2021. Almost 80 percent worry about China’s strategic influence, 63 percent are troubled by the country’s economic influence, and 63 percent have strong concerns about its growing footprint in the South China Sea.

When asked which of five statements best reflected their “view of China’s re-emergence as a major power with respect to Southeast Asia” in 2021, 45 percent of Malaysian respondents replied that China is a revisionist power working to turn Southeast Asia into part of its sphere of influence, up from 41 percent in 2020. When asked in 2021 what ASEAN should do if forced to choose between Beijing and Washington, 53 percent of Malaysian respondents chose Washington, compared to 47 percent who chose China.

All these project an encouraging sign of resilience and determination in withstanding the might of Chinese tactics and influence, although this risks further erosion and shifts should Malaysian policymakers continue to ignore the realities and truth and to let the enhanced Beijing tightening measures to be unimpeded.

Malaysia has been largely at the mercy of external demands that require its acceptance of some form of adherence and quid pro quo in exchange of assurances and meeting urgent internal needs. 

To state that the nature of changing geopolitical and security landscape and architecture require certain flexibility and unescapable pandering to certain powers, is akin to admitting the new form of inevitable infiltration of our independent axis in policy formulation.

It masks Malaysia’s real potential and tools of future cultivation, entraps its chips and cards and freezes its options to independently secure its long-term interests. The enticing lure of easy capital and relatively easy requirements for capital and resource inflow, which are concurrently critically needed to plug the deep hole of systemic leakages of funds to corruption and abuses, forms the start of a perfect storm in trading its future strategic interests to urgent current needs, politically or otherwise. 

Growing sentiments locally, especially among the Malaysian Chinese populace, of equating criticisms of China as part of the West’s containment efforts and deemed as non-sensical and hypocritical have further created an apt cycle of ignorance and risks involved. 

This yearning to affiliate with Beijing’s influence and power has resulted in dangerous and risky overtures, and blind acceptance of all the narratives churned out by Beijing, at the detrimental expense of its principles and values. 

Domino effects seen in various countries at the receiving end of this new engulfment and penetration of influence, from port takeovers to political and media sway, should warrant enough alarm bells. Policymakers are in full awareness of their dilemma and trapping, but it takes more than political will to reimagine a new direction in Malaysia’s orientation. 

Its current contextual need and demand require that it keeps its status quo, in ensuring its short-term goals are met, at the potential expense of its long term interests. Continue that long enough or without proper oversight, it will soon fall deeper into the abyss, barring effective strategies and meticulous countermeasures of its own.

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