Like that one Facebook user that (more or less) approves everyone as a friend, Malaysia adopts a similar approach to international relations, at least on the surface. It has 105 missions in 83 countries and has diplomatic and trading ties with the United States and Europe, as well as China, India, Japan and Iran. This diverse array of diplomatic relations is very reflective of Malaysia’s pragmatic attitude towards foreign policy.
With a population of around 28 million, Malaysia is a diverse nation with three main races sharing demographics and political power: Malays, Chinese and Indians. Situated in South-East Asia, Malaysia has prided itself as being the crossroads between East and West ever since its 15th century heyday under the leaders of the Malacca Sultanate. Besides spices and other trading goods, Islam arrived through the Straits of Malacca, Islamising the previously Hindu Malays. With the subsequent Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese invasions and settlements over the centuries, Malaysia has had its fair-share of foreign influence, domination and heritage – whether in its official language, its political and judicial structure, or in its landscape.
In other words, Malaysia is not altogether unfamiliar with interaction with the wider world. Not exactly a global player, Malaysia has had to maintain a working balance between East and West. Since independence from the British in 1957, Malaysia has had to reinvent its foreign policy to suit changing times, attitudes, and visions. Although initially a keen opponent of Communism (Malaysia was under Emergency laws for over a decade while it fought a Communist insurgency within its borders), it was the first country in South-East Asia to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
During the premiership of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, he put forth a policy of ‘West is Best but East is Better’. His vision was to place Malaysia at the head of the Developing World. He shunned the United States, Britain and Europe and instead, fostered relations with African and Arab nations. He spoke openly and aggressively against Israel and internationalised the Palestinian cause, at times, overtaking the Arab leaders themselves. During this period, this aggressiveness towards Israel trickled down to society and the Arab-Israeli conflict was viewed as a religious conflict between Muslims and Jews. The complication of this implication continues to this day with the unfortunate presence of anti-Semitism within Malaysia, which includes the belief in Jewish-led conspiracies.
However, the current Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak has opted for a more global approach to foreign relations. This includes a more open attitude towards the West, which can be seen with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent visit to Malaysia. Najib has also tried to play the role of a typical international leader by paying a visit to the Pope.
In many ways, Malaysia’s foreign relations go beyond diplomacy. In recent years, it has become a popular choice for higher education among those from the Islamic world, particularly from Iran. There is an estimate of 70,000 Iranians in Malaysia today. After the 2009 elections, the ensuing demonstrations and the crackdown, many Iranians fled the country. Those who could went westwards. Many however, came to Malaysia – some arrived to pursue degrees, jobs, and many others came to retire under the country’s Second-Home Programme. Additionally, Malaysia has welcomed students from African countries such as Ghana. Malaysians themselves are very well-travelled and many have pursued their higher education in countries such as Britain, Australia, the United Stats, Russia, and Egypt.
Malaysia has also been active as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. It has sent peacekeeping forces all over the world, and most recently dispatched an army company out to Lebanon. Malaysia has avoided many major conflicts and though it has had some skirmishes with Indonesia in the past, it has been able to maintain stability in its foreign relations. Though not a global player, Malaysia’s somewhat pragmatic attitude towards its international position means that it has avoided becoming a global doormat.