Friday, June 6, 2014

The Foreign Policy of Malaysia under Mahathir : 1981 - 2003

Was the foreign policy (FP) of Malaysia during Mahathir’s era predicated primarily on national interest (NI) or was it premised on the cognitive factors of idiosyncrasy or iconoclasm? Did the domestic and international factors also play a significant role in the FP formulation and decision making that was principled, consistent and pragmatic?

The FP went through the process of evolution since the country achieved independence in 1957, with change and continuity. Beginning with Tunku, the PM had been central in the formulation and decision making of the FP, though this should not ignore or exclude the role of the Foreign Minister, foreign policy institutions, bureaucracies and other non-state actors in influencing and shaping the FP. I had reviewed works of scholars, academics and political writers, on the FP of Malaysia during Tun Mahathir’s period. The concepts and theories of international politics and IR such as realism, neo realism, idealism, constructivism and the English School had been taken into account to analyse the NI and FP. I took the opportunity to analyse them to determine how Tun Mahathir shaped the FP. It was a qualitative and descriptive analysis based on narrative interpretation of the issues, events and episodes of the FP to determine how it twined with the NI. 

I agreed with the majority literature that the FP formulation and decision making Tun Mahathir as the Prime Minister played a central role. This was evident from the FP postures, initiatives and outcomes, factoring the political culture, system, structures, values of Malaysia and the international system.

My proposition was in the Mahathir era, NI was the fundamental driver of the FP of the country, which was intertwined with the goals and aspirations of the nation to meet the domestic demands as well as the influence of the external environment. Vision 2020 was also a significant factor that underscored her vision to achieve a developed nation status. The objectives of the vision were for national identity, national integration, to be a self-confident nation whilst at the same time maintaining the equilibrium between the material and spiritual needs of the society, in line with the security, political, economic and societal needs and wants of the nation. 

Tun Mahathir was a great believer of the need for a sound economic policy in order to be successful nation and gained the respect of other nations. This explained the economic orientation of the FP of Malaysia during his period. The first shift of the FP was moving from political focus to the economic. The public policy of Malaysia was therefore directed towards achieving this goal. Malaysia targeted for economic growth and development to improve the quality of lives of the citizens. The Vision was set to build a self-confidence Malaysian nation according to its own mould. Even democracy and human rights were embraced but subject only to them being consistent to its local culture and conditions. He was one of the leaders of the developing world that advocated for a strong government and leadership. He liked to suggest that the success of South Korea and Taiwan were due to the strong government and leadership. Hence he was a passionate advocate of strong leadership. Due to this advocacy many Western countries and writers considered Tun Mahathir dictatorial and authoritarian. In my view Tun Mahathir did act with a strong hand and grip on the country’s affairs but this was done for sustaining political stability, peace and security. In a way he did not act differently from previous PMs except that his public policy shifts were seen as radical and he took a more nationalistic, assertive and profiled FP. 

Dr. Feisal Ahmad in his unpublished PhD thesis (p 295) suggested that the motivation for Tun Mahathir’s FP was the desire to seek self-esteem and recognition. This would create a self-confidence nation, with self-respect and self-esteem. In my view this search for recognition was associated with the notion of how he perceived the NI of the country should be. The administration of FP premised on the NI was managed in a consistent, principled and pragmatic way, bearing in mind the limits and constraints prevailing in the domestic and international spheres. 

The FP postures, initiatives and outcomes, encompassed the country’s security, economics, political and societal wants and needs in the fulfilment of its goals and aspirations to be a developed nation by 2020. It is a truism that any policy formulation and decision making would have the stamp of the leader, his interpretation of events and environments as he perceived them as well as his reactions towards them. What elevated Tun Mahathir’s stature was when the FP postures, initiatives and outcomes had the consensus, relevance and acceptance not only of the domestic audience but also amongst the countries of the South, Islamic Ummah and East Asia (including ASEAN). 

The NI approach towards FP formulation and decision making, made it sustainable and flexible. In the interview with Tun Mahathir on 13 March and 13 June 2013 he emphatically said that the FP during his premiership was premised on the NI of Malaysia. As far as he was concerned it did not matter what other countries said of the NI and FP of Malaysia or think of it so long as it brought good well-being of Malaysians and their support. The support he obtained from the Malaysian public was evident in the areas of politics, economics, security and societal. The consequent was it brought the sustainability of his regime. 

Analysis of NI and FP

The NI had its historical beginning in the 16th and 17th century Europe and it became the universal practice in international politics and international relations justifying the FP actions with the NI. Mahathir underlined the role and identification of Malaysia with the South, Islamic Ummah and ASEAN (including East Asia) as its closest neighbours in accordance with her NI. The relationship with China, Japan and Korea became active due to the political, economic growth and development dictates, which required the country to move away from the traditional relationships once the west. Mahathir was impressed and convinced these was something learn from the work ethics of Japan and South Korea. This was in his belief the way forward for Malaysia. Malaysia gained tremendous benefits from these associations and the new approaches of its economic policies. In this context the NI notion as expounded in the political ideologies of international politics and international relations by such scholars like E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, Keinhold Weihbow , Charles Beard, Joseph Frankel explained the theoretical framework and conception in the FP decision making of Malaysia. 

In this regard the FP of Malaysia between 1981-2003 could be said to be guided by Tun Mahathir’s political ideology and belief. Malaysia exercised independence, nationalism, assertiveness and was seen profiled in its diplomacy in international relations. For this reason Malaysia identified herself to the small and developing countries, ASEAN (including East Asia) and the Islamic Ummah. Tun Mahathir believed the international order was unjust and unfair to the developing, Islamic and third world countries thus the NI and FP were aligned to them. He was plain speaking in expressing his views that the international order practiced double standards, selectivity, and hypocrisy. To him the system was mainly aligned to the interests of major Western powers. He read the international politics of the west as moving to own hegemony and domination of the developing world. In this Tun Mahathir applied his own norms and ethical values based on his experience and interpretation of history to the NI and FP of Malaysia. He was at times an idealist who wanted to change the global order. Notwithstanding, he was cautions to taint this ideology with a very strong sense of pragmatism. This was often referred by academicians and political writers as the paradox of the policies of Tun Mahathir. He was an idealist (liberalist), at times realist as well as constructivist in the formulation and decision making of the NI and FP.

As a very strong trading nation the economy of Malaysia was one of the most globalised. He criticised globalisation because of the negative impacts of globalisation on the small and developing countries. Was he unreasonable on his approach? The majority of experts and governments would now said he was right. It was during his era that Malaysia achieved credible economic growth and was in the top twenty of the world’s trading nation. For some it was perplexing for Mahathir to go so hard on globalization or to suggest that it was a new form of colonialism or neo colonialism as described decades earlier by Sukarno. To him though neo-colonialism was real and a methodology adopted by Western powers to dominate the world economy and international politics, in short according to recolonize in a different form. Malaysia disliked what she consider the imbalanced and disequilibrium that persisted in the international system which caused the unjust and unfair treatment of the countries of the South, Islamic Ummah and even in the broader perspective ASEAN (including East Asia). He argued there could not be fair competition in the absence of a level playing field. At the core of the FP of Malaysia was the need to change the international system, the rejection of hegemony and refusal to accept domination by the West. These positions were reflected in the FP postures of Malaysia in the speeches and comments made by Tun Mahathir, Ministers and officials at the regional and international fora. Malaysia advocated for the right of every nation to exercise independence, sovereignty and non-interference in the economic and political affairs by other nations. Malaysia was against the use of humanitarian intervention or Right to Protection (R2P) as provided under Chapter VI and VIII of the UN Charter to legitimise interference in internal affairs of another state. Malaysia was at the forefront in criticising the use of this provision of the UN Charter by the west to justify their interventions.

Tun Mahathir had been labelled as anti-West especially in his international political posturing but his interpersonal relationships with some Western political and business leaders would indicate otherwise. There were two sides of Tun Mahathir. Firstly Tun Mahathir in the defence of the NI, he was essently independent and uncompromising and secondly in the economic policy and personal relationships he was a more pragmatist. His actions to some extend were very much driven by his view on the injustice and unfairness of the colonial era, and the international system. He wanted to rearrange the international political, economics, security and societal systems to create a more balanced world order for the benefits of the developing and developed countries. 

Malaysia was a good example of diversity that succeeded. The mosaics of the international society, in his view made it imperative to accept multiculturalism as a source to build a better world. Malaysia throughout her history participated actively in promoting diversity, tolerance and harmony. Despite criticising the West including the US, Malaysia in a pragmatic way maintained close economic, trading, investment, security and military links with the US. This practical approach served her national and strategic interests. 

In my recent interview with Tun Mahathir, he flatly rejected being anti-West, though he accepted he was vocal in criticising them. From his blunt speeches, statements and pronouncements on many aspects of Western civilisation and culture, international politics and relations it was difficult to suggest he was not anti-west. He justified these posturing to be right consistent with the free speech and expression. He reminded his audience what he was doing was consistent with the inherent right of every individual or nation. Tun Mahathir seemed to be a realist but at times showed an inclination towards idealism in FP formulation and decision making. In sum, Tun Mahathir could be regarded a realist / idealist. It was equally true to say he constructed the FP of Malaysia based on the norms and values as he understood them.

Vision 2020 was crafted to create a truly Malaysian nation that is developed, self-confidence, united and respected by other nations. In reality these encapsulated the contents of realism and idealism as well as constructing the policy to attain security, prosperity and wellbeing of all Malaysian citizens. What was obvious in the motivation of the FP of Malaysia was to be treated as equals amongst equals in international relations including on her conduct of FP. The underpinning factor to legitimize the FP of Malaysia had always been the NI. Being different in the policy postures and initiatives should not be equated with being idiosyncratic or iconoclasm. Similarly departing from past traditions because of the needs of the time of the nation and the prevailing conditions of the world order should not change that. The FP of Malaysia was premised on NI, though that NI might change. Taking new postures or initiatives in FP, or for it to be different from the previous policies should not be treated as idiosyncratic or iconoclastic. What was pertinent was the public policy (including FP) must produce the outcomes beneficial to the country. Tun Mahathir insisted he knew when and how to put a brake if the policy was adverse to the interests of Malaysia (Interview on 13 June 2013). In his words he knew when ‘to draw the line’ to ensure the FP did not jeopardise the overall national and strategic interests of Malaysia. This was consistent with the realist conception of balancing power and defining capabilities for coexistence and survival.

In spite of Malaysia being a small nation in term of size and population, some scholars categorized Malaysia as a “middle power” country due to her active participation and contribution to the ideas and activities of the UN, its agencies and the international community. Due to the similarities of historical experience and values, Malaysia found comfort in identifying her security and politics with the countries of the South, Islamic Ummah and ASEAN (including East Asia). Hence Malaysia’s FP was consciously anchored with the struggles of the South, Islamic Ummah and East Asian countries. This was the NI of Malaysia in the political, economic, security and societal domains. The domestic constituents supported the government approach to FP and NI. The FP postures, initiatives and outcomes therefore had relevance and international acceptance, which served the NI of Malaysia. 

The FP motivation for Malaysia under Tun Mahathir to borrow the term of Dr Ahmad Feisal was for recognition which was for dignity and self-esteem (Dr. Ahmad Feisal) of the country, which, I agree). Definitely this quest could be related to the NI of the nation. The pragmatic outcomes of the assertive and profiled FP could be seen actualised when Malaysia played host to the Commonwealth Games, CHOGM, LID, Formula One and others. According to Tun Mahathir through its hosting and participation in regional and international events coupled with economic growth and development it was able to promote Malaysia internationally as well as influenced the international agenda. This made Malaysia known and recognised by other countries. He believed that there was a need for profiling and branding the country as amongst the original five ASEAN countries, Malaysia was the least known internationally. This justified the FP postures and initiatives of Malaysia (Interview with Tun Mahathir on 13 June 2013). This was similarly the reason for reinvigorating the relationship between Malaysia with China, Japan and Korea. The bold steps in finding new directions in the public policy that was in foreign and domestic spheres brought dramatic transformation of the economy, which was in her NI.

Foreign Policy towards the Small and Developing Countries

By defining the NI clearly, and aligning it to the struggles against the injustices and unfairness in the international political system in all dimensions, Malaysia was noticed by Third World countries of the South, the Islamic Ummah and ASEAN including East Asia, as well as the developed countries. Malaysia due to its economic success and political stability was able to take the lead for the interests of developing countries and circumvented the pressure for hegemony and domination of the big Western powers. It was the call of Malaysia for small and developing countries to stand up and defend their rights, interests and well-being. The FP indicated the independent posture of her policy which demonstrated the ability to exercise sovereignty and prevent interference of her domestic policy. This of course could be interpreted as ignoring the reality of international politics and the structure of the international system, nonetheless the implementation of the FP was the NI of Malaysia. 

In the implementation of the FP Tun Mahathir obviously lacked diplomatic finesse. These postures on FP and pronouncements seemed to be contrary to Tun Mahathir personally, who was soft spoken and polite. However, sarcasms and cynicisms were part of his personal traits. According to him, this was his way to get his message across. He repeatedly iterated a small country like Malaysia had to be vocal and loud in order to be heard. One of the common assertive styles of Tun Mahathir was to answer every question posed. Usually he did this bluntly and boldly. He was often seen to be engaged combatively with the West or its media on every subject when he was challenged, be it on the practice of democracy or his authoritarian tendencies or even the so called cronyism in managing the economy of the country. He was populist at hitting back the criticisms of Western countries like US and Australia. He liked to tell the West not to adopt the holier than thou attitude towards the South or Islamic countries, as their own records had not been exemplary, especially in the treatments of the former colonies or of the indigenous population of the countries they colonialised. 

His rhetoric and political statements and pronouncements aside, did not preclude Tun Mahathir from being pragmatic on issues of importance to the security and economy of Malaysia. Tun Mahathir argued that the problem he had with the West was limited to its government leaders and not with the people of the West. Malaysia therefore welcomed Western tourists and investments though it might disagree with their governments on the international political front. Everything he did, boiled down to his complete refusal to accept the international order as it was, on the question of justice, domination, hegemony and the imposition of the Western values and systems on the small and developing or Muslim countries. These thus reflected his sense of justice and fair play in the international order. Of course he had his own interpretation of what democracy and human rights should be. Again in sharp contrast to what were promoted by the west. Malaysia agreed with democracy and human rights but insisted that this should take into account the local conditions and peculiarities, its cultures and values. He asserted that in Asia, the rights and freedom of individuals were not the top priority but rather secondary to the overall interests of the society.

It was for this reason he promoted the concept of Asian values in economic management and politics. The vocal postures of Malaysia to international relations was very unpopular with western countries especially their leaders but he was well received by the societies in the South-South, Islamic Ummah and ASEAN (including East Asia). 

Tun Mahathir’s arguments to the West had always been in preaching democracy they themselves must truly be democratic. He felt the West was quick in criticising the developing countries but could not accept criticisms from the developing countries. The justification for the FP postures and initiatives was to defend and promote Malaysia’s own constituents. 

The FP of Malaysia was active, nationalistic and assertive in defending and promoting her NI. As a player, Malaysia had an influencing role in the organisations of the South countries, such as the NAM, G15, (where Malaysia was one of the founding members). In the Commonwealth Malaysia, during this period, cosponsored the CPTM (he was able to obtain a lot of contributions from the Malaysian corporate sectors) to support its activities. The programme was intended to enhance cooperation between the Small developing countries of the Commonwealth. This was not popular with the Western countries of the Commonwealth especially Australia, Britain and Canada (ABC). They did not agree in the establishment of CPTM or its activities. Malaysia was also one of the main backers of the South Centre, a body established as a secretariat for the South countries to champion the cause of the developing countries on issues of trade and the economy at the WTO in Geneva.

Malaysia showcased itself during the Mahathir era as a model of a successful developing country, though she has a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious population. Malaysia however sustained a more tolerant and harmonious diverse society and was politically stable. She succeeded in the implementation of the NEP, with the objective of achieving economic growth with equity. Malaysia thus stood tall in the community of developing nations and admired even by some developed countries in the West for its economic success and her Vision 2020. 

Foreign Policy towards the Islamic Ummah

As a Muslim majority country it practised Islam with moderation and was able to lead a multi-ethnic diverse society. The position of Islam and modernity stood side by side. To the Malays, their positions revolved around the Islamic faith which was practised in a tolerant and harmonious manner under the patronage of the various constitutional Sultans in each of the Malay state of the Federation. The British recognised the relationship of the Malays with the Sultan when they colonialised or established protectorates in Malaysia. This was made absolutely clear to the colonialist with the rise of Malay nationalism when the Malays rejected the Malayan Union implemented by the British in 1946. This caused the British to withdraw from their desire to force a unitary state and turned Malaya into a colony under the Malayan Union Scheme. Due to the strong opposition the Malayan Union they introduced the Federation of Malaya in 1948. When independence was negotiated and achieved the recognition of the privileges and positions of the Malay rulers and the status of Islam were maintained and incorporated into the Federal constitution. This was further reflected in the definition of a Malay as a person who habitually speaks Malay, practices Malay culture and is a Muslim (Article 160 (2)). By virtue of this definition anyone could be accepted as a Malay in the Malaysian context for so long he fulfils the three criteria. Islam was therefore entrenched in the Malay character, personality and psyche, even when they may not be good Muslims. The special position of Islam and the Malays had to be taken in this context. This was not new as it was present even before the advent of colonialism. Hence to incorporate Islam as the religion of the Federation (Article 3 (1)) in the Federal Constitution should be understood in that manner. Tun Mahathir’s declaration that Malaysia is a Muslim country was not out of turn or regarded unconstitutional by the Malay segment of the society. 

What he had done was simply to reaffirm the historical and legal heritage of the country. Tun Mahathir himself was a keen reader on the subject of Islam. He self-thought on the syariah and the various ‘Mazhabs’, so as to be learned on Islam and its history. He was never accepted as an Ulama’ or Islamic scholar in the traditional sense of the word at the domestic level. He knew this but found more space and ready acceptance of his views as a Muslim leader and scholar amongst the global Muslim community. The declaration that Malaysia is a Muslim state was not wholly accepted by all segments of the Malaysian society and became a bone of contention amongst the opposition parties and other non-Muslims. The fact remained that even Western countries, like the US and UK, accepted Malaysia as a good example of a successful moderate Muslim country to be emulated by other Muslim states.

Before and after independence, Malaysia had always identified itself with the struggle of the Muslims, which was reflected in her FP. Malaysia was one of the founding members of OIC and had strong bilateral relations with the majority of Muslim countries. Malaysia identified the country with the struggle of the Muslim countries and the Islamic Ummah.[1] This role became more pronounced and visible, on issues central to the Ummah. Malaysia was acknowledged as a leader and champion of the Islamic causes. Tun Mahathir on his own admission said his action, was also driven by the domestic political agenda to give UMNO better leverage over PAS to speak on Islam (Interview with Mahathir on 13 June 2013). The FP postures and initiatives on Palestine and Bosnia by Malaysia in the name of justice and humanities were globally recognised. These FP initiatives were justified to be in the country’s NI. In fact a big segment of the domestic constituents supported Malaysia to take such FP postures and initiatives. Furthermore the FP outcomes contributed to the regime’s stability and sustainability in the political, economics, security and social spheres, thus to be in the NI of Malaysia. 

During his premiership he spoke against the stereotyping of Muslims with terrorisms or any forms of extremisms. The argument put forward was acts of terrorisms or extremisms should not be made synonymous with the faith of the offender. They were other acts of terrorism whether committed by non-state actors or state actors but their beliefs or religions were not labelled as such. He lambasted Western governments and media on their double standards and stereotyping in their portrayals of Islam and Muslims. He proposed that the use of drones against the so called terrorists’ targets as acts of terrorism. The West was also considered to be dragging their feet on issues affecting the Palestinians and Bosnians causes. Malaysia was critical of Israel due to its blatant disregard of international laws and the non-compliance with the UN resolutions. Malaysia was disillusioned with the Western failure to take action against Israel for their non-compliance with the UN resolutions or blatant disregard of international law. Malaysia was of the opinion the military action by Israel against the Palestinians as terrorist acts by the state. Malaysia also called on the international community and the UN to take action against the Serb’s genocide acts in Bosnia during the Balkan War. 

Malaysia together with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan defied the UN’s sanction to enable the Bosnians to defend themselves against the Serbs. It was Malaysia that organised the OIC Foreign and Defence Ministers meeting to discuss on the appropriate strategies to discuss the ways to stop Serbs aggression. Malaysia kept its pragmatic, principle and consistent posture when it took part in the peacekeeping force of the UN in Bosnia. Domestically the participation of Malaysia in Bosnia had the support of the Malaysian public. Thus supporting the Palestinian and Bosnian against aggression were deemed to be part of the NI of Malaysia. 

Malaysia took Bosnian who wanted to escape from the war as refugees to its shores. It was not unexpected for Malaysia to associate itself with other Muslim’s countries worldwide as a Muslim majority country. Tun Mahathir was an idealist when he was determined to change the image and trajectory of Islam and Muslims. Malaysia, was recognised as a true model of a Muslim state pursuing modernity and development. The FP in this regard was constructivist when she associated herself with the Muslim countries and Islamic causes, definitely it was not idiosyncratic. 

Malaysia’s courage to criticise the major powers on their unilateral actions in Iraq and Afghanistan was an exception amongst developing countries. It was also Malaysia that propagated Muslim states to be economically and militarily strong. This was well received especially in the Muslim streets of the OIC countries but unpopular with the ruling elites and the Western countries. Tun Mahathir thus became a household name and an icon, while Malaysia became an example of what a Muslim state could do at the international platform. With this proven track record UMNO overcame the challenges of PAS in the domestic political arena. Malaysia gained recognition through its FP postures, initiatives and outcomes which was NI in term of its trajectory of power, security and prosperity. This satisfied the political, economic, security and societal interests and imperatives of the country. 

The FP postures of Malaysia on Palestine, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan was with the objective of pressuring the international community to act and treat Muslim issues not as peripherals but at the centre in a fair and just manner. He also equally blamed the state of the Ummah and her economic conditions that allowed oppressions against the Muslim communities. He also said prejudices and bias of Western powers on the Muslims was due to their own making. He lamented on the absence of a Muslim country as a major power or for that matter as a permanent member of the Security Council. Hitherto Malaysia’s bilateral and multilateral imperatives were closely linked to the struggle of the Islamic Ummah. 

During the Chairmanship of Malaysia of the OIC, she played an active role in bringing substantive issues affecting the well-being of the Ummah. Malaysia participated in regional and international fora and did direct engagements with Western countries and powers on Palestine. These undertakings on behalf of OIC and the Ummah could be associated with the NI of the country, hence Malaysia was acknowledged as a leader. Amongst the least developed countries of the world the figures as published by UNDP, showed two thirds of them were members of the OIC. In this way Malaysia was able to convince fellow Muslim countries that their under development and economic weaknesses shaped their influence and role on the global stage. Therefore the call of Malaysia for Muslim countries to take the route of modernity and human capital development through education was well received, accepted and supported. 

Tun Mahathir aspired to see one day a Muslim nation that was strong and united amongst the international community on the platform of scientific knowledge, consistent with the call of the first five verses in the Surah Iqra’ inter alia which said “to read and learn from the knowledge of creation”. In order to achieve success education in science and technology became imperative to revive the glorious age of Islamic civilization. It was the position of Tun Mahathir for Muslim countries to focus on economic development if Muslim states want to play a bigger role and be respected member of the international community. He called for cooperation and collaboration between the Islamic countries and South-South countries. (Hng Hung Yong, Identity & Ideas : Building National Identity, 2004, p141). 

Tun Mahathir’s ambition was to see Malaysia become a role model of a successful and developed Muslim nation as envisaged in Vision 2020. Hence the economic focus on his public policy became an important element in the NI of Malaysia. (Interview with Tun Mahathir on 13 June 2013). 

The FP was implemented and its outcomes showed that the FP postures and initiatives did not have an adverse impacts on the political, economic, security and societal interests and imperatives of Malaysia. The FP implementations made Malaysia to be accepted as the leader of the Ummah. This demonstrated her independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and free from external interferences. These benefitted the national and strategic interests of Malaysia in a consistent, principled and pragmatic manner.

Foreign Policy and Malaysia’s Regionalism

Regionalism was one of the cornerstone’s of the FP of Malaysia since the time of Tunku. Tun Mahathir continued with the policies of his predecessors. Maintaining regionalism was a fundamental factor of the NI. The prerequisite for domestic economic growth and development was to see the region living in peace, security and stability with freedom and neutrality free from any major powers rivalry. Thus maintaining very close bilateral and multilateral relations with ASEAN as well as with the North East Asian countries became a pertinent priority of its FP. On top of that Tun Mahathir strongly believed East Asia could be the counter balance for the attainment of a more just and fair world order.

ASEAN when it was formed had as one of its primary objectives, the avoidance of open military conflicts between and amongst South East Asian nations. Pursuant to this principle they hold that all disputes between them should be settled through peaceful means. Initially it could be said the reason behind the formation of ASEAN was as a counter balance to the spread of communism in South East Asia spearheaded by Vietnam.[2] ASEAN was formed after the confrontation with Indonesia ended and Malaysia re-established diplomatic relations with both Indonesia and the Philippines. With peace and security the five countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore came together to form ASEAN premised on the principles of freedom, social justice and economic wellbeing (Bangkok Declaration of 8 August 1967). 

ASEAN as a mechanism for South East Asia ensured peace, progress and prosperity in the region, with the ideals of the Bangkok Declaration for the nations to cooperate in the spirit of understanding, good neighbourliness and meaningful cooperation. ASEAN reaffirmed their desire to maintain stability and security from external interference. Generally this was achieved as the region enjoyed peace, stability and security[3]. Similarly the TAC reaffirms the objectives of promoting regional peace and stability and to respect justice, rule of law and enhancing regional resilience in their relations[4]. Both these documents were ratified consistent with the national and strategic interests of Malaysia. With equal status and national resilience, South East Asia established close cooperation and built trust amongst each other in order to avoid conflicts. This then became the basis of inter and intra ASEAN cooperation to avoid South East Asia from turning into a platform of big power rivalry. It was due to these objectives and spirit of inclusiveness that ASEAN was finally expanded to include all the ten nations of South East Asia. The recognition of equal status, non-interference enabled the NI of Malaysia to be promoted and defended. This also became the predication of its relationship with external powers outside the region. The respect for each other as proclaimed by the Bangkok Declaration not only bind intra ASEAN relations but also its relations with the North East Asian countries. 

ASEAN holds firmly the ideals of respect and non-interference in the domestic affairs of other nations. Whilst this doctrine was laudable but at times it created problems when there were outright human rights abuses or conflicts within a particular ASEAN nation. To remain silent could be likened to endorsing the abuses. The strategic location of Malaysia with shared maritime as well as land borders with almost all of its ASEAN neighbours made it imperative for Malaysia to choose the route of peaceful settlement of disputes and avoidance of open conflicts. There were strains as well as the ups and downs of the bilateral relations between Malaysia and her ASEAN neighbours particularly on overlapping claims and strained relationship due to internal political differences especially with Singapore. This could be attributed to the personalities of Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Mahathir. More than that due to the historical baggage of separation, Singapore was perceived to lack sensitivity and adopted business-like approach in its relations with Malaysia. This was aggravated further when “The Package of Issues” negotiated between the leaders could not be resolved such as on CPF, Air space, water agreements and the overlapping claims on Batu Puteh or Pedra Blanca. 

During this period, the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia though generally cordial, at times went through difficult patches on issues relating to Indonesian migrant workers and overlapping claims on Ligitan and Sipadan. However, the personal relationship between Tun Mahathir and Suharto saved the day and avoided it to turn into tension in the overall bilateral relations. Nonetheless after the downfall of Suharto and the financial crisis in 1997/98, the adoption of democracy in Indonesia, the bilateral relations between the two countries became more complex and challenging as Indonesia was more dominant and assertive in its conduct of her bilateral and regional affairs. 

The ASEAN solidarity and its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other ASEAN countries was slightly shaken when Malaysia was criticised on the sacking by Tun Mahathir of Anwar Ibrahim in September 1998, the then Deputy PM. I was personally involved in the campaign to counter the negative impacts of Anwar’s dismissal amongst ASEAN countries as well as its Western dialogue partners. Malaysia to some extend was successful in its campaign amongst ASEAN countries, as criticisms on the action against Anwar became more muted but the Anwar issue continued to be loud and clear on the Western fronts. 

Tun Mahathir was always searching for new ways to strengthen and enhance the trade and economic relations of East Asian Countries. The idea of EAEG / EAEC was initiated as a result of witnessing that greater cooperation amongst the countries of the North with the establishment of NAFTA and EU had benefitted them in the economics, investment and trade. Tun Mahathir came out with the idea for the formulation of East Asia for economic and trade cooperation amongst ASEAN and the countries of North East Asia. However this invited strong adverse reactions particularly from the US and Australia, who were excluded from the proposed mechanism. They assumed that this was done on purpose though in reality they were excluded on the basis of the geographical footprint since they were outside the region. Malaysia’s assurance that this was not the case did not intended convince them. It was seen as to undermine, APEC or exclude western countries. They did not accept that this was to emulate NAFTA and EU in the expansion of their economy and trade. EAEC was not as a mere thought of loose consultative mechanism for cooperation on economic and trade matters in an interdependent globalized world. US and Australia openly criticised and objected to the formation of EAEG or its substitute EAEC. The pursuit of an expanded economic mechanism would fulfil the NI of Malaysia. In one of the ASEAN FM’s meeting in Jakarta, the writer was asked by Tun Mahathir to offer Kuala Lumpur as the venue for the EAEC Secretariat at Malaysia’s cost. This idea was not well received and rejected by ASEAN particularly Indonesia and Singapore. The EAEC was perceived to be intended to undermine APEC, which was driven by US and Australia and in ASEAN, Singapore. 

Malaysia and Tun Mahathir in particular could not accept why it should be opposed so strongly. The objection to EAEG / EAEC was thus construed as another clear evidence of the distrust of the West on ASEAN and a demonstration of its intent on hegemony. Malaysia however was not easily dissuaded but kept on pursuing the idea but EAEC could not take off. However the financial crisis of 1997/1998 saw the need for the ASEAN and the countries of East Asia to expand their cooperation. Since EAEC was not an acceptable concept, an alternative was agreed to with the establishment of ASEAN+3 mechanism. It was duly formed during the financial crisis to harnessed this objective of cooperation. This in a way comforted Malaysia earlier failure to establish the EAEC. This proposal and ultimately the establishment of ASEAN+3 was consistent with the NI of Malaysia as well as the region. The individual member state of ASEAN gained tremendous economic benefits through ASEAN + 3, which in reality was the EAEC under a different name. 

Tun Mahathir wanted to get more space for Asian values in the new global civilization. There was nothing unbecoming for Malaysia to ask that the East Asian countries be given a bigger role in the decision making processes of a new international order and institutions due to the contribution of East Asia to the global economy. The notion for justice and humanities in the international system had the consensus, relevance and acceptance within Malaysia the South-South countries, Islamic Ummah and East Asia, which made the policies become a significant component of the NI as contained in Vision 2020. 

In an interdependent world Malaysia acknowledged that its future was very closely aligned to the region, though Malaysia rejected hegemony by the West. She was sensitive to the question of exercising independence, sovereignty, and non-interference in her domestic affairs to maintain the territorial integrity in the pursuit of the NI consistent with the political, economic, security and societal interests and imperatives. As a member of the international community Malaysia performed her responsibilities and obligations in concord with the UN Charter. 


The various FP postures, initiatives and outcomes during the Mahathir’s era was shaped and influenced by the NI, with change and continuity. It was not motivated by idiosyncrasy or iconoclasm of Tun Mahathir. Malaysia showed in her FP it was guided by her national and strategic interests. She was at the same time pragmatic in her management of FP to achieve her political, economic, security and societal interests and imperatives.

*The subject was deliberated based on my experience as a Foreign Minister during Tun Mahathir’s era from 1999 to 2003, under Abdullah Badawi from 2003 – 2009, a Cabinet Minister in the government of Malaysia from 1990 to 2009. It would also include my interactions and interviews with Tun Mahathir, officials and academics, who were familiar with the subject. There were already many existing writings on various aspects of Tun Mahathir leadership and his role in shaping of the FP of Malaysia. 

[1] (Shanti Nair, Islam in Malaysian Foreign Policy, London & New York Routeledge, 1997, p.269)
[2] During this period there was a believed that if Vietnam fell to the communist it would have a domino effect on other countries in South East Asia. This was propagated by the US and other western powers. However this was proven not to be true. Vietnam now is also part of ASEAN.
[3] Bangkok Declaration : 8 August 1967
[4] Treaty Amity & Cooperation, Bali : 1976


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