Malaysia's threat to Rudd's Asia Pacific Community

Mukhriz MahathirThis 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. The relationship returned to normal a year later when Hawke agreed to disassociate Australia from media reports that were offensive to Malaysia.

The normalcy did not last. In 1993, Prime Minister Keating called Mahathir 'recalcitrant' for not attending the Asia Pacific Economic Caucus (APEC) leaders meeting in Seattle. This led to Malaysia authorising Ministers to take measures against Australia as they saw proper.

Keating had failed to understand Mahathir's and, by extension, Malaysia's opposition to any regional trade arrangements that featured Western powers. Mahathir had been vigorously promoting the idea of an East Asian Economic Caucus/Group involving Southeast Asia and northeast Asia.

Even at troubled times, trade and investment relationships were not significantly affected. These commercial ties, beneficial to both nations, were further strengthened by educational ties; the number of Malaysians educated in Australia has grown substantially, which has also led to increased migration to Australia.

The animosity between Australia and Malaysia will not return. Malaysia's understanding of neutrality is now driven by the need to remain competitive in an increasingly integrated global economy. This has required that Malaysia take part in the plethora of regional trade arrangements, with Australia a key trading partner.

Malaysia's key principle of non-interference remains. That is why Rudd's idea of an Asia Pacific Community has not been well received by Malaysia, which is wary of any country that has a tendency to intervene. Australia's record in the Pacific and East Timor does not put it in good stead.

That said, since Keating, except for some aberration during the Howard years, Australia has been mindful of not being seen to intervene diplomatically in the domestic affairs of Southeast Asian nations.

Malaysia too has changed. Under Badawi and now Najib, diplomatic and trade relationship have been elevated, and crowned with a Free Trade Agreement. The Najib Administration is not as anti-westerners as Mahathir was. While the US treatment of Muslim nations under George W. Bush and the Palestinian issue continue to cause uproar in Malaysia, US-Malaysia diplomatic and trade relations have improved. This has benefited Australia too.

Most importantly, UMNO's ideology of Malay supremacy is increasingly being challenged by Malays themselves. Malay supremacy is now understood as a method for UMNO to aggrandise itself and its coterie of elites.

Furthermore, Mukhriz Mahathir has neither the stature nor the substance of his father to personalise foreign policy in the same way. It is widely acknowledged that the only reason he has this position is because Najib wants to placate Mahathir.

On all counts, Australia-Malaysia relations are set for greater heights.

Greg LopezGregore Lopez is a PhD student at the Crawford School of Economics and Government, at the Australian National University.

Topic tags: Mahatir Monammed, Mukhriz Mahathir, Stephen Smith, Malaysia, Kevin Rudd



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