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PM Anwar’s challenge in diversifying diplomatic horizons for Malaysia

Opinion: Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar’s visit to China underscores Malaysia’s important economic relationship with China while highlighting Malaysia’s openness to other global partners.

Anwar emphasized that Malaysia’s Belt and Road Initiative engagement won’t deter strengthening ties with other nations. Yet, Malaysia’s foreign policy needs refining.



by Simone Galimberti

The recent visit of Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar to China, the second since he assumed power, could reveal some important features of Malaysia’s foreign policy.

While China is and will remain the country’s most important trading and economic partner, at the same time, PM Anwar showed determination in proving that Malaysia is also open to the rest of the world.

Speaking in Nanning, where he attended the 20th China-Asean Expo (Caexpo), Mr Anwar certainly did his best to highlight the centrality of China in developing Malaysia’s economy, the Prime Minister also emphasized that Malaysia’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative will not come at expenses of strengthening relationships with other key nations.

In order for this goal to materialize, Mr Anwar must ensure that the country’s foreign policy apparatus becomes fit for purpose.

Can, for example, the Malaysian diplomatic missions play a stronger role in promoting their country’s national interests?

The recent pledge made by Mr Anwar during his trip to Singapore last week to reform the national governance, an indispensable process to implement the recently launched new industrial policy, will also require more proactive foreign policy, starting from fixing national diplomacy.

But equipping embassies with more resources and better-skilled personnel can only go so far.

As vital as they are, attracting new foreign investments should not be their only strategic goal.

The network of embassies that Malaysia has over the world should also be retooled to project a clear geopolitical vision of the country.

The problem is that such a vision is still missing, depriving the country of a geopolitical framework through which Malaysia could do a much better job at engaging the world.

Will Mr Anwar be able to shape an ambitious foreign policy that can truly elevate the country’s image and grant Malaysia a place within the international community it should aspire to?

Two striking facts that often go unquestioned. Malaysia is neither a member of the G20 nor a member of the OECD, the policy club of the wealthy nations.

On the former, the G20 always offered room to accommodate also invitees, nations that, despite not having secured a formal membership to the group, are attending the formal gatherings.

Spain, Netherlands and Singapore are some of these nations.

How come a nation like Malaysia did not join them and be among the larger family of nations attending the G20?

In relation to the OECD, why can’t Putrajaya make a bid to join it as Indonesia is confidently trying to do?

Because it might not be feasible in the short and medium term for Malaysia to build a presence in other strategic areas in the world, like Oceania, Africa and Latin America, PM Anwar should consolidate his country existing relationships with its partners beyond the Asia Pacific.

If in the Asia Pacific, alongside China, Malaysia already boosts strong partnerships with Japan and South Korea, resetting the relationships with partners in the West could offer Putrajaya a high return and not only in terms of additional investments that is trying to pursue.

Giving impetus to a process of diversification of its relationships with the wider world, would also help Malaysia in terms of image and global status of the country.

To start with, a region where Malaysia should focus its diplomatic outreach should be the Europe.

The current challenges existing between the sides should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles.

While the EU remains an important but not yet essential trading partner, the current relationships between the two sides are narrowly defined by the ongoing disputes, starting from the one surrounding palm oil.

While also proactively enhancing the accountability of the sector, Malaysia, together with Indonesia, has all the rights to counter the predominant narrative about palm oil as a major cause of deforestation.

It is true that entry into force of a separate legislation, the EU’s Deforestation-Free Products Regulation at the end of June, won’t simplify the complex relationships between the EU and Malaysia.

Yet Malaysia should allow the palm oil dispute to take its course through the mechanisms of the World Trade Organization  (WTO), where both Putrajaya and Jakarta lodged formal complaints.

Yet, just focusing on a defensive approach over the issue and stubbornly pushing back on the EU’s claims about the negative impact of palm oil on local biodiversity and human rights, is preventing Malaysia from deepening its relationships with a key international player eager to expand its relationships in the South East Asia and wider Asia Pacific.

Let’s remind ourselves that the negotiations of a trade agreement between the two sides is stuck in limbo since 2012.

With July’s French court verdict in favour of Malaysia over the claims of the heirs of the Sulu Sultan, another major hindrance has been removed in strengthening the relationships with Brussels.

Putrajaya should also redouble its efforts to enhance its relationships with the United States of America and Canada.

Between the two exists a Comprehensive Partnership signed in April 2014.

According to the State Department, Malaysia is the United States’ 17th-largest trading partner and the second-largest trading partner among the 10 ASEAN members, after Vietnam.

At the same time, according to the same source, the United States is Malaysia’s third-largest trading partner after China and Singapore.

The last visit of the US Secretary of State to Malaysia was in December 2021, when Anthony Blinken travelled to the country.

In the medium term, the goal would be to elevate the partnership to a strategic level, undoubtedly an ambitious task to pursue but nevertheless worthy of the effort.

Despite renewed interests of Canada towards South East Asia, a relationship recently upgraded to a strategic partnership during the bilateral meetings on the sidelines of ASEAN Summit held in Jakarta, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau never visited Malaysia, but he has been twice to Singapore and Indonesia and the Philippines and once in Cambodia.

While it should be taken into consideration that many of these visits were related to the ASEAN-Canada cooperation, an additional visit to Malaysia during these Asian tours of the Canadian prime minister should not have been inconceivable.

Certainly, Putrajaya is still paying the consequences of years of anti-western rhetoric by former PM Mahathir and the recent tumultuous years of instability.

But it is past time that every key stakeholder is now ready to set aside this distrust and move on.

Both Mr Anwar and Mr Trudeau should build on the symbolic phone call they had at the end of December 2022 and dispatch their respective foreign ministers to hold a bilateral meeting at the earliest.

This should be a smart move for Canada, cementing its new status in the region by stepping its game with one of the most important players of ASEAN.

Investing in consolidating relationships with the West does not mean for Malaysia to retreat from its own backyard.

Indeed, the best place that could boost the country’s credibility is within South East Asia itself. During his recent trip to China, PM Anwar reiterated the ASEAN’s centrality in the wider region.

Praising the bloc as an attractive investment destination is one thing, and that’s what Mr Anwar did in Nanning.

But ASEAN cannot be just seen through the prism of being a magnet for foreign multinationals.

The supposed centrality of the bloc goes well beyond that.

At the stake, there is relevance of ASEAN as a player that is able not only to bring stability in the Asia Pacific region but also as an agent for peace, human rights and sustainable development.

Such relevance is now being questioned, and the glass is still half-empty in this regard.

A way to reverse this situation is for PM Anwar and his diplomatic corps to invest some political capital in reforming ASEAN.

Such endeavour would surely offer the country an enhanced level of credibility, granting Malaysia its due place among the international community.

The country should stop punching well below its weight.

Will Mr Anwar be able to rise to the challenge?


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useful idiot. malaysia will bankrupt like sri lanka at this rate.

Malaysia is a massive and beautiful land mass. She is blessed with nature and natural resources. Unfortunately for her, she’s run by nationalistic and racist bigots riding the corruption express. Then you have the religious freaks trying to divide the mass all for their personal gains knowing that the simple villager is gullible and will swallow anything that is fed to them. Other than that, this guy is trying to make a difference but he’s going downhill fast with all the distraction from different parties trying to divide the country and turn the people on one another.

Malaysia needs to look to moving beyond Palm Oil. As a cash crop, it has low productivity, relying on foreign labour to function. Yes, grow enough for domestic consumption. But shift to other crops, preferably food crops.

In a de-globalised world, food insecure nations will be looking for self-sufficient ones for sustenance. Malaysia can either be part of the beggars or join the few that will be setting the table.

Embassies are a long-outdated concept. When Internet is instant, where video conferences are so common, why even have embassies and spend tens and hundreds of millions stationing ambassadors in so many countries. Visas can be issued upon arrival and it is all electronic now. Time for the world to re-think…when world leaders can now meet on-line, why have ambassadors?