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Malaysia’s Diplomacy Is Trapped in Mahathir’s Shadow
The newly energized democracy is missing the chance to make its diplomatic mark in the region.
Last month, Malaysians voted for a change of government for the first time in their history, and handed power to a broad, untested coalition led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Diplomats around the world rushed to figure out whether such a dramatic reversal in domestic politics would lead to a realignment in Malaysian foreign policy.
But a critical clue has been missing. In the days after the election, Mahathir unveiled a list of five key ministers, then another nine. But foreign affairs was not among the portfolios announced, and six weeks later observers are still waiting, even as big names inside the government stake their own claims to foreign-policy leadership.
It’s a strange omission. Malaysia is a cosmopolitan middle-income country with a well-educated, well-traveled elite. At a time of concerns about a coming trade war, it is among the world’s most open economies, with trade volume running to 129 percent of GDP. And like many Southeast Asian countries, it has long charted a careful course between Washington, with which it maintains low-key security cooperation, and Beijing, its largest trading partner.
Arguably, it was forced off that course under Najib Razak, the defeated former prime minister now facing likely corruption charges. Najib worked hard to form a close personal relationship with his American counterparts; but he also sought financial assistance from Chinese President Xi Jinping to conceal the extent of his family’s alleged corruption, while offering Beijing infrastructure deals on favorable terms that have left Malaysia heavily indebted.
The ethnic Chinese party in Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), relied upon the government’s close relationship with Beijing to drum up support from ethnic Chinese voters, even using photos of President Xi Jinping on some campaign posters. The Chinese ambassador visited the MCA president’s constituency and promised it would be showered with investment from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. (The gambit failed, as ethnic Chinese voters punished the MCA for its closeness to Najib.)
But even as the MCA campaigned on its relationship with China, and as Najib drew down on credit from Beijing, there were signs of defiance from Anifah Aman, the previous government’s foreign minister. Anifah hails from Malaysia’s easternmost state, Sabah, on the front line of Malaysia’s territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. In debates among foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Anifah was outspoken in arguing for stronger statements of concern regarding Beijing’s violations of international law, and pushed consensus communiques in a tougher direction.
Anifah’s lonely stand within the previous government demonstrates the influence available to a Malaysian foreign minister even under difficult circumstances. There are few outstanding foreign ministers in ASEAN, and a strong Malaysian advocate would quickly give the country influence beyond that which its modest population would normally receive. Among younger members of the new governing coalition, there are several strong members of parliament with the energy, savvy, and overseas experience to make a mark. But none of them seem to be in the running, and few want the job.
Part of the problem is the boss. Mahathir, who ruled Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, has always had strong views on foreign affairs, and since his return to office he has not been shy about voicing them. A recent speech in Tokyo suggests that Mahathir’s mindset is stuck in the 20th century, with its debates about a conflict between Asian and Western values, and a lack of appreciation of the challenge to the regional order posed by a mainland China now much stronger than when he last held office. Though Mahathir has indicated that the new government will review Chinese contracts made under its predecessors, he has characterized this as primarily a commercial matter. Those who were expecting a geopolitical shift will be disappointed.
That is not to say Mahathir’s second turn in office will not be eventful. Known for needling his Singaporean counterparts during his previous two decades in the top job, Mahathir picked up where he left off in an interview last month, suggesting that citizens of the city-state to the south might, like Malaysians, also be tired of having the same government since independence. Then, he canceled an agreement to build a high-speed rail line between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that was a favorite project of Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
Mahathir did not consult his cabinet colleagues on the rail announcement, and the next foreign minister is unlikely to receive greater consideration. Given the course of events over the last six weeks, it seems that much of the foreign minister’s job will be to clean up after Mahathir’s arch rhetoric about his old sparring partners in Singapore, Australia, and the United States — not to mention his occasional excursions into anti-Semitism.
The other problem is the future boss, Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir has promised to turn over power to Anwar, the erstwhile protégé-turned-rival, who he jailed on specious grounds two decades ago. Anwar, in turn, has chosen not to take a role in the government until then, in order to reduce tensions within cabinet and allow Mahathir room to govern. But Anwar, jailed again in 2015 and recently freed, has been no less shy about expressing views on world affairs, and is currently headed out on a world tour. The new foreign minister will thus have to compete for time and profile with Anwar, as well.
Then there are more prosaic concerns. In a political system still driven by patronage, the foreign ministry offers little of it, and demands that the minister spend long stretches on travel overseas, away from the capital and his or her constituency. In a broad coalition of four parties, no party leader wants to waste a limited allocation of cabinet seats on the foreign ministry. And no ambitious young politician wants to raise their hand to take on a portfolio that would set their career back.
As a result, Malaysia is likely to get a foreign minister on the way out rather than on the way up, who will do little to determine the foreign policy agenda in the shadow of Mahathir and Anwar. If that does happen, the new government will have lost a opportunity to present a new face to the world and set the diplomatic agenda of the region.