MALAYSIAN INTERNATIONAL ISSUES AND FOREIGN RELATIONS

MALAYSIA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Malaysia is a member of ASEAN. It is also one of the 54 self-governing member states of the Commonwealth (formally the British Commonwealth of Nations). Malaysian soldiers have participated in peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon, Cambodia and the southern Philippines.

In 2006, Malaysia was chair of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Nations. Malaysia is a visa-free travel destination for citizens from most Muslim countries. Malaysia, which is 60 percent Muslim and strongly supports the Palestinian people, does not recognize Israel and maintains no diplomatic ties with the state. It has also supported Iran’s nuclear program. In welcoming Iran’s controversial leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian foreign minister said, “We hold the position that nuclear technology to be used for energy—for peaceful purposes—should be allowed.”

During the Cold War, Malaysia’s foreign policy was directed toward defeating domestic insurgency and constraining international communism. Since the defeat of the insurgency in 1989 and the later decline of socialist governments, Malaysia’s foreign relations have been largely characterized by economic and trade issues and by its domestic treatment of immigrants. Relations with many Asian countries have improved as a result of growing trade, but Chinese, Indonesian, and Philippine authorities have expressed concern about official and societal treatment of fellow ethnics within Malaysia. The United States regards Malaysia as having undertaken important steps against terrorism, such as creating a counterterrorism training center, but Malaysian authorities have been upset by the U.S. listing of Malaysia as a “terror-risk” country. Relations with the Philippines also have been strained over allegations that members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Filipino insurgent group, have commandeered parts of Borneo as a haven. Relations with Brunei and Singapore have been tense because of disputed territorial claims that involve commercial and natural resource interests.

Membership in International Organizations: Malaysia is a member of numerous international organizations including the Asian Development Bank; Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation; Association of South East Asian Nations; Bank for International Settlements; Colombo Plan; Commonwealth; East Asia Summit; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Group of 15; Group of 77; International Atomic Energy Agency; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes; International Chamber of Commerce; International Civil Aviation Organization; International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; International Criminal Police Organization; International Development Association; International Development Bank; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; International Finance Corporation; International Fund for Agricultural Development; International Hydrographic Organization; International Labour Organization; International Maritime Organization; International Monetary Fund; International Olympic Committee; International Organization for Standardization; International Telecommunication Union; Inter-Parliamentary Union; Multilateral Investment Guarantee Association; Nonaligned Movement; Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; Organization of the Islamic Conference; Permanent Court of Arbitration; United Nations (UN); UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; UN Industrial Development Organization; Universal Postal Union; World Bank; World Confederation of Labor; World Customs Organization; World Federation of Trade Unions; World Health Organization; World Intellectual Property Organization; World Meteorological Organization; World Tourism Organization; and World Trade Organization.

Major International Treaties: Malaysia is a signatory to numerous international treaties including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; Chemical Weapons Convention; Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (signed but not ratified as of July 2006); Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Convention on the Rights of the Child; Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat; Geneva Protocol; International Tropical Timber Agreement 1983; International Tropical Timber Agreement 1994; Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer; Protocol of 1978 Relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973; Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water; Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Malaysia: a Bridge Between Islam, the U.S. and the West?

In October 2005, U.S. goodwill envoy Karen Hughes appealed for Malaysia to use its influence in the Islamic world to help bridge a gulf of misunderstanding about U.S. policies abroad. "I do think that Malaysia can be a very important part of our outreach, the civilised world's outreach, in confronting terror," Hughes said in Kuala Lumpur. "I think Malaysia is uniquely placed to help with that," she told reporters. She described mainly Muslim Malaysia as an example to the rest of the world -- "like Iraq for example" -- of how different cultures and religions can live together in tolerance. At that time Malaysia was chair of the world's largest grouping of Islamic nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But almost half of Malaysia's people practise other religions, including Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism, or beliefs such as Confucianism.[Source: Reuters, October 23, 2005]

In February 2010, Malaysia dismissed its envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog for voting against a resolution rebuking Iran. Mark Heinrich of Reuters wrote: “The rare removal of a senior serving diplomat on the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors underlined the volatile politics and high stakes in policymaking involving Iran's disputed nuclear program. Malaysian Ambassador Mohd Arshad Manzoor Hussain, a 35-year diplomatic veteran, told Reuters he had been dismissed by his government following the November 2009 vote and several weeks of consultations. Diplomats said the Malaysian government acted after the United States expressed concern to it over the envoy's vote. [Source: Mark Heinrich, Reuters, February 9, 2010]

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry said in December that Hussain disregarded orders by voting "no" to a resolution passed by a 25-3 margin with six abstentions to censure Iran for building a second uranium enrichment plant in secret. "I am very disappointed at this development as I had hoped my government would renew my contract to enable me to complete my mandate as chairman," Hussain said in Vienna, where he had returned to await his government's decision. "This has not happened and I just have to accept it as my fate."

A senior diplomat close to the matter said Malaysia's IAEA mission had been instructed to vote in line with the position of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations, which has historically opposed Western-driven international actions to isolate Iran, a fellow member of NAM. Iran denies Western suspicions that it secretly seeks nuclear weapons and NAM has stood up for Iran's proclaimed right to develop a sovereign civilian nuclear power industry.

When the vote was held, the diplomat said, Hussain was surprised to see NAM members Egypt, Pakistan and South Africa abstain, and India vote "yes." Hussain had no time to double check policy with his capital, and so voted against as originally planned, the diplomat told Reuters. He said Malaysian diplomats who attended NAM strategy talks before the vote in Hussain's stead because he was busy with other duties as board chair briefed him that sentiment in the group against censuring Iran was widespread. But another diplomat familiar with the issue said NAM states reached no consensus on how to deal with the resolution so the varying votes on the floor should not have been a surprise.

In the mid 2000s, Iran was Malaysia’s third largest trading partner in the Middle East. In 2005, bilateral trade equaled $727 million, with Malaysia exporting palm oil, rubber and machinery and importing crude and refined petroleum.

Malaysian Relations with Asia and ASEAN

Relations with many Asian countries have improved as a result of growing trade, but Chinese, Indonesian, and Philippine authorities have expressed concern about official and societal treatment of fellow ethnics within Malaysia. Malaysia continued to lead efforts to stymie the efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Committee on Migrant Workers to negotiate a legally binding instrument for the protection and promotion of the rights of migrant workers.

Malaysia has several territorial disputes with other countries, but none have resulted in military conflict. Malaysia disputes sovereignty over the possibly oil-rich Spratly Islands with Brunei, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The Philippines previously claimed the state of Sabah, and Indonesia has disputed Malaysia’s incorporation of Sarawak. Indonesia and the Philippines claim the Ligitan and Sipadan Islands, which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded to Malaysia in 2002. However, the ICJ left those islands’ maritime boundaries in the hydrocarbon-rich Celebes/Sulawesi Sea unsettled, and thus the countries still have overlapping claims to petroleum resources located in the seabed. Brunei and Malaysia both claim offshore seabeds, so the dispute has terminated gas and oil exploration in the area. Finally, Malaysia has disputed Singapore’s land reclamation, bridge construction, maritime boundaries, and claim to Pedra Branca Island (Pulau Batu Putih), approximately 15 kilometers off the southern coast of the state of Johor. However, in 1998 the two countries agreed to future ICJ arbitration on the island dispute, and observers expect the case will be heard in 2007.

Malaysia has claims to the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea. While the 2002 "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea" has eased tensions over the Spratly Islands, it is not the legally binding "code of conduct" sought by some parties; Malaysia was not party to the March 2005 joint accord among the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam on conducting marine seismic activities in the Spratly Islands. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Piracy remains a problem in the Malacca Strait

Malaysia’s Relations with Brunei and Thailand

Relations with Brunei have been tense because of disputed territorial claims that involve commercial and natural resource interests. Per Letters of Exchange signed in 2009 and Malaysia in 2010 ceded two hydrocarbon concession blocks to Brunei in exchange for Brunei's sultan dropping claims to the Limbang corridor, which divides Brunei.

Part of Malaysia and Thailand are divided by an 8-foot-high barbed wire fence. Separatist violence in Thailand's predominantly Muslim southern provinces has prompted measures to close and monitor border with Malaysia to stem terrorist activities.

In April, 2004, Malaysia and Thailand pledged to work together to fight terrorism, improve development along their border. Thailand is concerned that Islamic terrorists that have launched attacks in Thailand have sought refuge in Malaysia. After the attack in late 2003 and early 2004, there was evidence that the terrorists came from Malaysia.

Malaysia’s Relations with Myanmar

For a long time Malaysia did not take a strong position criticizing Myanmar for its lack of democracy and reforms and the internment of Aung San Suu Kyi—insisting on a longstanding policy of noninterference. But in 2008, it began shifting away from this position and began criticizing Myanmar more strongly, with Malaysia’s foreign minister saying that for ASEAN to fail to take action on Myanmar “was becoming a liability to the group’s relations with the rest of the world.”

Malaysia has traditionally been one of the biggest defenders of the Myanmar military regime. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad repeatedly told the international community to mind its own business and let the Myanmar government handle its own affairs.

Mahathir helped pave the way for Myanmar’s admittance to ASEAN. In the early 2000s, Mahathir began putting some pressure on the Myanmar regime to reform and free Aung San Suu Kyi.

Malaysia’s Relations with China

Malaysia has fairly close ties with China. It agreed to a request by Beijing to summarily return to China a group of ethnic Uighurs in Malaysia despite the likelihood that they would face torture and ill-treatment. Eleven were sent back while five remain in Malaysia. Chinese have expressed concern about official and societal treatment of fellow ethnics within Malaysia.

China imports palm oil, rubber and natural gas from Malaysia. China was Malaysia's fourth-largest trading partner in 2004 after the United States, Japan and the European Union; bilateral trade jumped 33 percent that year, to 71.4 billion ringgit, or $18.9 billion.

Relations between Malaysia and China reached a low point when a strip search video involving a Chinese women in Malaysia went viral.Wayne Arnold wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “A widely publicized video that purportedly shows the police in Malaysia conducting a strip-search of a female tourist from China has unexpectedly touched off a furor in both countries, sending Malaysian officials scrambling to soothe relations. The incident has raised questions about whether the numbers of tourists from China are cloaking a wave of illegal immigrants, smugglers and prostitutes. Given Malaysia's eager efforts to defuse the issue, it also signals the extent to which China's growing economic clout is quickly turning it into an important diplomatic and political influence in Southeast Asia. [Source: Wayne Arnold, International Herald Tribune, December 8, 2005]

The video, recorded using a cellular phone's video camera, contains a clip of a naked ethnic Chinese woman being directed by someone who appears to be a Malaysian policewoman to squat repeatedly while holding her ears. Its circulation followed complaints by four tourists from China of similar treatment by the Malaysian police. With Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao scheduled to arrive in Kuala Lumpur soon afterwards for the inaugural gathering of the East Asia summit, Malaysia's home affairs minister, Azmi Khalid, flew to Beijing this week to apologize officially for mistreatment of Chinese in Malaysia and try to salvage the country's reputation as a tourist destination.

After initially dismissing the strip-search in the video as an isolated incident, Chinese officials have become more insistent that the issue be resolved. The Foreign Ministry has called for severe punishment for those responsible."China will continue to urge Malaysia to take effective measures to, on the one hand, find out the truth and punish perpetrators and, on the other hand, ensure the dignity and personal safety of Chinese citizens in Malaysia, so as to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents," a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said .Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of Malaysia has appointed a five-member panel headed by a former chief justice to investigate the video incident and to look into allegations that the police subject Chinese women to racial profiling.

Whatever the incident may suggest about police procedures in Malaysia, it illustrates China's growing importance to the region's trade-dependent economies, particularly the importance of its tourists. Perhaps more than anything, Malaysia's response underscores the diplomatic stature China is gaining in the region thanks to its meteoric economic expansion. "There's no question that China has increased its influence," said Sheng Lijun, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Nations. "So Malaysia is not only concerned with the reduction of tourists but also with its trade with China."

Chinese Tourists and Illegal Immigrants in Malaysia

Wayne Arnold wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “China's tourists are also an important source of income for Malaysia: More than a half a million Chinese visited Malaysia last year, making the mainland the largest source of tourists outside Southeast Asia. Not all the Chinese who visit Malaysia return home, however. Last month, Prime Minister Abdullah ordered an investigation into revelations that immigration officials were unable to account for as many as 50,000 Chinese tourists who came to Malaysia this year. In previous years, higher numbers were reported.[Source: Wayne Arnold, International Herald Tribune, December 8, 2005 ^^]

“The authorities have said some of the missing tourists migrated to Europe after obtaining forged passports. Others are believed to be working illegally in Malaysia, blending in with the nation's ethnic Chinese minority. Many of the women have joined growing ranks of mainland Chinese prostitutes plying their trade in seafood restaurants, karaoke clubs and massage parlors around the country, the authorities said. Chinese nationals reportedly accounted for 40 percent of the women arrested on suspicion of prostitution in Malaysia this year, outnumbering women from neighboring Indonesia or Thailand. ^^

“That fewer Chinese are now disappearing into Malaysia than in previous years could reflect not better enforcement, but rather that fewer Chinese are visiting. Tourist arrivals from China fell 45 percent in the first nine months of this year amid reports of official harassment and unscrupulous tour operators. Malaysia narrowly averted another diplomatic incident in July when more than 300 tourists from China took offense at drawings on display at Genting Highlands, a casino resort. Although the resort said the drawings were meant only to distinguish their Chinese guests from Muslims, who cannot eat pork, the Chinese staged a sit-in in the hotel lobby that took 40 police officers with dogs to clear.” ^^

Malaysia’s Relations with Japan

Malaysia and Japan established diplomatic relations in 1957, soon after Malaysia became independent. The two countries signed the Malaysia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (MJEPA) in 2006. Bilateral trade between Malaysia and Japan was $49.27 billion in 2011, a 22 percent increase from the previous year, with exports to Japan valued at $30.38 billion and imports from Japan valued at $18.79 billion, making Japan Malaysia’s third largest trading partner. Japan was the largest source of foreign investment in Malaysia in 2011, with approved investment of $3.36 billion in 77 projects.

In July 1981, after Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad was prime minister for six months, he announced an initiative to learn from the experiences of Japan (and Korea) in the nation-building of Malaysia. He considered that the secret of Japanese success and its remarkable development lies in its labour ethics, morale, and management capability. He felt a programme enabling that young Malaysians to learn in Japan would contribute to the economic and social development of Malaysia. For this purpose, Malaysia decided to dispatch their students to Japan, to study not only academics and technical know-how but also to learn labour ethics and discipline of the Japanese people.

This initiative was called the "Look East Policy." The programme consisted of two parts. The first was to send Malaysian students to Japanese universities and institutes of technology. The second was to send trainees to Japanese industries and training institutes. The programmes were funded by the governments of Malaysia and Japan. Some 15,000 young Malaysians were educated or trained in Japan during those years.

Relations with the United States

The United States regards Malaysia as having undertaken important steps against terrorism, such as creating a counterterrorism training center, but Malaysian authorities have been upset by the U.S. listing of Malaysia as a “terror-risk” country. United States special forces have provided training to government forces in things like tracking down political opponents, mounting surprise helicopter attacks, employing "close quarters" urban combat techniques and improving their killing efficiency. The United States and Malaysia hold joint military exercises called CARAT.

According to Human Rights Watch: The United States continues to exercise significant influence in Malaysia through expanding links in trade and investment, military-to-military ties, and cooperation in regional security. When Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassim visited Washington in January 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the “positive track” of the growing bilateral relationship and suggested the possibility of a US presidential visit. She also urged a fair trial for Anwar Ibrahim. [Source: Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012: Malaysia]

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad angered Washington with his some of his pronouncements and views. See Mahathir.

In the 1990s, U.S. Vice President Al Gore was accused of inciting violence when he praised the reform movement in Malaysia. Gore praised the "brave people" who opposed Mahathir. One Malaysian cabinet minister said the comment was "the most disgusting speech I ever heard” and accused him “gross interference in the internal affairs of the country.” Anti-American sentiments in Malaysia were inflamed by the war in Iraq. One group called for a boycott of Coca-Cola company soft drinks.

After receiving death threats from an unknown group, the U.S. ambassador called on the United States and Malaysia to make a better efforts to get along, asking the United States government to stop calling for Mahathir to resign and asking Malaysians to tone-down their anti-American rhetoric and stop blaming the United States or all the world’s ills.

Development and Foreign Aid in Malaysia

The Malaysia model of economic growth and handling racial differences has been a model for Third World nations. Some Malaysians even participate in a Peace Corps-like organization.

Foreign Aid: From 1960 to 2004 official development aid to Malaysia increased from US$12.8 million to US$289.5 million per year—an increase from US$1.56 per capita in 1960 to US$11.49 per capita in 2004. Approximately 99 percent of official development aid in 2004 was bilateral aid, and nearly all of that came from Japan.

The government's objective is for Malaysia to become a fully developed country by 2020 as expressed in Wawasan 2020.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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