Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Malaysia's threat to Rudd's Asia Pacific Community

  • 07 July 2009

This week's visit to Malaysia of Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith reminds us of stormy bilateral relations under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Following Mahathir's retirement in 2003, Australia-Malaysia relations returned to stability under the Badawi Administration. But with current Prime Minister Tun Haji Abdul Razak appointing Mahatir's son Mukhriz Mahathir (pictured) as Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry, some now fear a return of 'Mahathirism'.

To assess the likelihood of that, it is important to understand something of Malaysian foreign policy, and of Mahathir Mohamad himself.

Malaysian foreign policy is guided fundamentally by 'pragmatic neutrality'. It avoids imperialism and big power alignments while ensuring regional stability and meeting domestic political expectations.

A classic example of this is Malaysia's ability to choose its alignments based on needs. It formed a defence pact with Australia, Britain and New Zealand, which was crucial to the newly independent Malaysia, but declined to become a member of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation, instead opting for the Non-Aligned Movement to demonstrate Malaysia's neutrality, while also remaining a faithful member of the Commonwealth.

Regional stability is exemplified by the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, its principle of non-interference and keeping big powers and its allies out of the region.

When he became Prime Minister in 1981, Mahathir remained faithful to the policy of 'pragmatic neutrality'. However, foreign policy became very much influenced by this micro-managing Premier, whose ego and tenacity subsumed the professionalism of Wisma Putra, Malaysia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mahathir envisioned himself as a champion both of the Malays and of the Third World.

Mahathir's negative perception of Western democracies were heightened by his experiences with Australia. In 1986, Prime Minister Hawke described as 'barbaric' the hanging of two Australians in Malaysia for drug trafficking. In 1988, SBS aired Slow Boat to Surabaya, a documentary critical of logging in Sarawak.

In 1987, 105 Australian parliamentarians sent an open letter criticising Mahathir after he used the dreaded Internal Security Act against 106 people, including opposition leaders and social activists, to head off mounting problems within his party, the United Malays National Organisation. Mahathir responded by denouncing Australian intervention in Malaysia's internal affairs and criticising Australia for its treatment of Aboriginals.

In 1990, Malaysia downgraded relations with Australia, freezing bilateral projects and official visits, after it took exception to the ABC TV program Embassy, seen as critical of Malaysia.