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The study of geopolitics concerns the way in which nations interact with one another, the nature of the policies instituted that govern these interactions, and how the motivations that underlie these policies can be reasoned to in light of a country’s individual interest.
Malaysian perspectives on foreign policy, since its independence in 1957, has almost always—as highlighted by Sharifah Munirah of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia—revolved around “regime legitimization”. Having transitioned from colonial rule into independent governance, Malaysia’s primary aspiration it wished to realise for itself—with regard to its foreign policy objectives—was to progressively transform into a reputable geopolitical power in the eyes of the international community, one that is efficient, self-sufficient and capable of forging diplomatic alliances indiscriminately in order to both facilitate and expedite economic growth for the purpose of domestic empowerment.
Neutrality, therefore, characterises Malaysia’s geopolitical consciousness as it is intrinsically related to the nation’s preservation. Malaysia has a stake in the branding of its international image, given that it remains to be an emerging economy with restricted influence, as the country relies upon foreign direct investment, diplomatic arrangements in the area of trade and friendly relations with foreign powers. This ensures that the country evades the threat of being ensnared by diplomatic controversies which could serve to undermine and hinder national development.
Malaysian soft power diplomacy or geopolitical neutrality—that is through the use of persuasion, strategic discourse, peaceful advocacy and the avoidance of outright partisan politics; instead opting for reservation—in the face of a metastasizing disaster wreaking havoc against global order would be akin to a bystander staring down helplessly and silently at the slow, agonising death of a terminally-ill sufferer from his apartment balcony with the hope that he recovers—amounting to injustice as it indirectly legitimises the malicious actions of hostile actors, some argue.
Critics of Malaysia’s foreign policy often then go on to emphasise its subsequent deeply embedded logical inconsistencies—that the country has in some cases, particularly in the area of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its diplomatic spat with North Korea, adopted stricter foreign policy stances in order to assume the moral high ground. This appears to significantly contradict Malaysia’s historically strongly held position of non-interference and maintaining friendly relations.
This contentious issue has recently revived in significance as a result of the conflict in Myanmar instigated by the military junta’s coup that overthrew the country’s democratically-elected government. Western powers have been adamant in their repulsion of the Burmese Tatmadaw, swiftly imposing sanctions. This has placed greater international pressure on the primary stakeholders of the conflict—the nations of ASEAN—given their close proximity to Myanmar. Fears over escalating conflict, refugee spillovers into neighbouring territories, and humanitarian disasters prompting them, Malaysia included, to finalise their diplomatic stance.
The dire situation destabilising Myanmar as a result of the military junta’s coup invokes questions of Malaysia’s obligations to its ASEAN countrymen—questioning the nation’s moral boundaries as to where the line between proactive intervention and hostile aggravation is drawn. The question of its moral philosophy has to be examined in order that one may be charitable to all conceivable nuances.
Answering this requires questioning two underlying assumptions in those criticisms:
- What acting more proactively would entail?
- The efficaciousness of hard interventionism?
Acting More Proactively
It’s important to note that maintaining neutrality is simply not the same as reserving your voice entirely. Malaysia, as well as other ASEAN member states, has advocated for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Myanmar. Malaysia and its ASEAN counterparts have engaged strategically to present the “5-point consensus”—a policy resolution designed to restore democracy and stability in Myanmar. While this has yet to be agreed upon by the military junta, there have been strategic engagements between Burma and Malaysian officials.
Malaysia has also not shied away from condemning human rights violations in Myanmar as it has repeatedly voiced its concern over the impeachment of democratic principles that underpin ASEAN—institutionally threatened by the junta with its assassination of Myanmar leaders. A case may even be made that Malaysia has been at the forefront of this advocacy as it has been the one the most vocal about the situation in Myanmar among ASEAN member states given the danger it poses to regional security. Recently, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim had even advocated for the expulsion of Myanmar from ASEAN.
The Efficaciousness of Hard Interventionism
Malaysia has condemned attempts to supply military artillery to the Burmese Tatmadaw and has always stood implacably opposed to the deployment of weaponry and direct military aggravation. The country has recognized the danger in the spurring of conflict leading to collateral damage—in the context of economic, social and political catastrophe—therefore the question as to how it ought to act “more” proactively, lest it be accused of moral bystanderism, must be squared in light of the precarious position the country is in. Malaysia’s strategic placement in trade waterways, its relationship with ideologically diverse nations and domestic stability—which it rightfully sees a larger moral concern—when taken into account, negates the utility of hard interventionism.
Malaysian neutrality has to be strictly contextualised, while the country avoids taking sides on most issues it simultaneously is firm in its position on the preservation of democratic values. The country’s foreign policy is highly nuanced in nature as it must account for all the complexities of a regional environment that is deeply affected by economic and political whirlwinds. Malaysia also ensures that it exhausts all international channels of assistance. It is clear that the Malaysian authorities wish to the greatest degree practicable secure peaceful resolutions and avoid aggressive advances as the unforeseen defects of a misguided foreign policy—the outright souring of diplomatic relations, military spillovers in neighbouring countries, refugee displacement—would be an indelible stain on its national conscience.
This diplomatic balancing act is integral to Malaysia’s national security. A nation that is both firm on neutrality while simultaneously recognizing the need to be vocal on important issues ensures that it is in a trusted position to broker peace deals and engage in dialogue with nations in conflict. This may be best facilitated through peaceful means—that is by avoiding any means of military intervention and liaising with international authorities to establish channels of humanitarian and diplomatic assistance.
Malaysia may not interfere in a way that jeopardises the sovereignty of other countries but it does take an interest in the welfare of other nations. As the conflict is ongoing, Malaysia keeps a watchful but proactive eye, ensuring that it remains committed to the realisation of its foreign policy goals.
Name: Mr. Pravin Periasamy
Written by: Pravin Periasamy