Sunday, 8 May 2011


Foreign policy is not static. Its formulation is essentially a dynamic process. Hence, over the years, our foreign policy has evolved, taking account of the change in leadership as well as developments in the ever-changing global political and economic landscapes. Moreover, the advent of globalisation and the transformation of interstate relations brought about by new and rapid changes in information technologies, necessarily means that our foreign policy has to be adjusted and fine tuned to meet new challenges in a globalised world.

The style and approaches in enunciating Malaysia's foreign policy may differ in keeping with the personality of each past and present prime minister of Malaysia. A critical examination of Malaysia's foreign policy since 1957 would show its steady evolution characterised by notable changes in emphasis, which took place with the change in Malaysia's political stewardship. Briefly;

a) In the period 1957-1969, our country has just gained its independence. During this post independence period, under our first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, our foreign policy was geared towards the survival of our newly independent nation. Our foreign policy then was markedly anti-Communist and pro-western in posture with close links to the Commonwealth. We were also a strong opponent of apartheid. Our posture towards regional cooperation also began to take root with the birth of ASA (1960), MAPHILINDO (1963) and ASEAN (1967).

b) In the period 1970 -1976, under Tun Abdul Razak, as a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Malaysia began to identify itself as a "Muslim nation." The search for new friends substantially increased the importance of NAM to Malaysia. We became markedly non-aligned and postured towards neutrality, peaceful co-existence and independence. We also began to distance ourselves from major powers, put strong emphasis on regionalism and developed contacts and diplomatic relations with communist countries. Investments from other than British sources began to be also welcomed.

c) A period of consolidation ensued under Tun Hussein Onn (1976-1981) with ASEAN becoming the cornerstone of Malaysia's foreign policy following the collapse of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975, the withdrawal of the US military presence from Southeast Asia and the invasion of Kampuchea (now Cambodia) by Vietnam. The First ASEAN Summit was held and Malaysia signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Bali in 1976. Further emphasis on independence, non-alignment and equidistance from the major powers was also made.

d) A more dramatic shift in emphasis occurred when Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad took over as the fourth Prime Minister in 1981. Malaysia's foreign policy stance began to take a much greater economic orientation than ever before, coupled with a strong and nationalistic defence of the rights, interests and aspirations of developing countries and the advocacy of south-south co-operation. Tun Dr. Mahathir's premiership saw the pursuit of numerous new initiatives such as:

  • Antarctica as the Common Heritage of Mankind.
  • The Look East Policy (LEP).
  • Championing of the cause of developing countries on major social issues like environment, human rights and democracy.
  • With the advent of globalization, Malaysians identified both the beneficial and adverse impact of globalization to the developing countries.
  • Pro-active and passionate approach on Apartheid and Palestinian issues.
  • Islamic Unity - Chairmanship and hosting of the 10th OIC Summit, hosting of 1st Expo OIC, formation of D-8.
  • International peace and security - Malaysia’s membership in UNSC, peacekeeping role in a number of countries such as Cambodia, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Namibia and East Timor. Malaysia also actively championed against selectivity, double standards and pre-emptive action outside the ambit of the UN.

  • Terrorism - Malaysia forged strong regional and international cooperation in combating terrorism, strongly advocated against profiling by religion or ethnicity, proposed multifaceted approach in combating terrorism including identifying and eliminating the root causes, hosted OIC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Terrorism in 2002, established SEARCCT to primarily focus on training and capacity building.
Opening of New Frontiers:
  • Active bilateral engagements with African, Latin American and Eastern Europe countries, particularly in trade, investment and transfer technology in the spirit of South-South Cooperation. Includes opening of Diplomatic Missions and extension of Malaysian Technical Cooperation Program (MTCP) in these countries.
Economic Orientation:
  • East Asia Economic Cooperation (from EAEG to EAEC to ASEAN +3).
  • Regional Development Cooperation - Growth Triangle concept such as IMTGT, IMSGT, BIMP-EAGA.
  • Group of 15 (G15) - first advocated by Malaysia.
  • Economic diplomacy - reverse investment's ‘prosper thy neighbor's, South-South cooperation, MIGHT, Langkawi International Dialogue (LID), South Africa International Dialogue (SAID).
e) In the period 2003  and onwards, under the leadership of Dato’ Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, foreign policy initiatives were further refined and fine- tuned to project:
  • Pragmatic response in meeting the current geopolitical and economic challenges.
  • More sophisticated articulation of Malaysia’s views.
  • Substance as a dynamic extension to existing policies.
  • Influential leadership role as Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and ASEAN; and
  • Malaysia as a leading example of a tolerant and progressive Islamic Nation – Islam Hadhari
The evolution of the country's foreign policy under successive prime ministers reflects a pragmatic response to the geopolitical and economic changes of their times. To be continually relevant to the country's needs, foreign policy cannot remain static.

But whilst changes in emphasis have become a general feature of Malaysian foreign policy, continuity has also been evident. Both the change and continuity mark a higher level of confidence and maturing of the country in the conduct of its international affairs. Indeed, in many ways Malaysia's leadership role has been recognised on several issues of deep interest to the developing world.

As a trading nation, we are very much dependent on a peaceful international environment for our well being. Naturally, our foreign policy has to be oriented to allow for a greater focus on economic diplomacy. In the past, when we were producing mainly raw materials for the world, Malaysia had to compete with only a handful of countries.

But now, when we have become an industrialized trading nation, we have no choice but to work harder, to compete better and to find new markets for our goods and services. We must find better ways to do business with the outside world. We need to find niches in which we have a competitive edge.

Towards this end, Malaysia has implemented a number of policies that have a strong foreign policy component that will contribute to the creation of a strong, dynamic and resilient economy. These policies include amongst others:
• Look East Policy
• Reverse Investment – Prosper Thy Neighbour
• Malaysia Incorporated
• South-South Cooperation
• Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme (MTCP)
• Langkawi International Dialogue


At the sub-regional level, increased efforts were made towards realising the benefits of the growth triangle concept such as the BIMP-EAGA. Such efforts would no doubt allow for prosperity to spread to the less developed areas, thereby, bringing meaning to the "prosper-thy-neighbour-policy".
At the regional level, Malaysia will continue to push for the strengthening of ASEAN as a regional grouping. This includes support for a whole range of functional co-operation on a sub-regional basis (like the ASEAN Mekong Development Co-operation) or on an ASEAN-wide basis, the phasing in of AFTA and the implementation of the ASEAN investment area.

In Malaysia's foreign policy, regional cooperation has always been its major preoccupation. ASEAN remains our cornerstone. In this respect, Malaysia attaches vital importance to relationship with countries in our own Southeast Asian region. ASEAN will continue to be the cornerstone of our foreign policy and the predominant forum for maintaining regional peace and stability through dialogue and cooperation. The peace, prosperity and stability that Malaysia enjoys today are to a large extent, due to ASEAN's role as an organisation that fosters trust and confidence amongst its member states.

Consistent with Bali Concord I and II, our efforts would focus on creating an ASEAN Community by 2020 comprising three pillars namely the ASEAN Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. We would continue to concentrate on enhancing the ASEAN mechanisms, the ASEAN+3, the ARF, bridging of the technological and developmental gap between the newer and older ASEAN members and settlement of disputes in the South China Sea through diplomacy and dialogue.

Since its establishment, ASEAN has developed and refined various mechanisms and arrangements to promote trade, investment and other collaborative activities. Much of ASEAN's attractiveness to the outside world is built on the economic success of its member states and their potential for greater growth. As ASEAN confronted the various challenges such as international terrorism, economic slowdown, in the face of current economic and financial crises, it is ASEAN's common effort that accounted for our success.
Further, in the post - cold war situation which sees the emergence of competing regional economic groupings and uncertainty in the regional security environment, Malaysia believes that a strong and successful ASEAN is not only an economic necessity but also a strategic imperative. A prosperous, consolidated and stable ASEAN at peace with itself and with its immediate neighbours provide the best guarantee for the security of the entire Southeast Asia and East Asia region.

The expansion of the original ASEAN to include other South East Asian countries, have make an even bigger contribution to developing national resilience, promoting economic growth, enhancing regional co-operation and ensuring regional peace and security.

Malaysia believes that the existence of ASEAN has encouraged patterns of behaviour that reduce risks to security by enhancing bilateral relations as well as fostering habits of open dialogue on political and security matters including establishing confidence building measures. The dialogue through the ASEAN PMC process and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), in which ASEAN functions as the core group, adequately serves the purpose.
Malaysia hopes that the early realisation of the Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) including the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANFWFZ) will help to further enhance regional security.

Notwithstanding criticisms made against ASEAN, it is clear that co¬operation within ASEAN is now firmly entrenched. ASEAN is not about to lose its dynamism, viability and relevance with the inclusion of new member states. On the contrary, increasing interest towards ASEAN and requests made for sectoral dialogue partnership by a number of Asian, African, and Latin American countries, reflect the high esteem accorded by them to ASEAN as a regional organisation.

Bilateral Relations

Developing close bilateral relations with our neighbours remains a high priority. A constructive approach had been taken to resolve outstanding problems including those related to overlapping claims and the determination of land and maritime boundaries. Every diplomatic effort is made to ensure that bilateral relations do not become adversely affected on account of such problems with all our neighbours concerned. Agreeing to refer to the ICJ, the overlapping territorial claims that Malaysia has with Indonesia and Singapore, indicates the extent to which we are prepared to go in achieving solutions to bilateral problems.

The establishment of separate joint commissions between Malaysia and Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam has also provided a useful framework to develop wide-ranging bilateral co-operation in all fields of mutual interest.
Whilst Malaysia's main focus with the outside world is geared towards countries within ASEAN, its relations with other countries and regions are no less important. The nation’s first diplomatic missions were set up in London, Washington, Canberra, New York, New Delhi, Jakarta and Bangkok. By 1963, Malaysia has established 14 Diplomatic Missions overseas. The number grew steadily to 21 in 1966. Today, Malaysia had a network of 105 diplomatic missions spanning the globe - a proud testament on how far Malaysia’s bilateral relations has progressed over the years, in tandem with the nation’s progress.

In this regard, Malaysia places equal importance to ties with the other Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, and Latin American countries and will continue to strengthen and enhance the already strong ties with the regions. Bilateral relations with other Asian, African, Middle-Eastern, and Latin American countries would continue to be pursued without neglecting our traditional economic partners in Europe and America. Japan, the European Union, the US, and Australia and the Republic of Korea, would remain Malaysia's major trading partners as well as the source of investment and technology.

The only exception is Israel. Like other countries, Malaysia is also concerned with continued tension and conflict in the Middle East, such as the Palestinian - Israel conflict, which remain unresolved. [In showing its concern, Malaysia would consider beginning relations with Israel only when a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people is successfully concluded.
Similarly, Malaysia does not intend to lessen its traditional ties with the West. There is no contradiction between Malaysia's justifiable criticisms of the west on certain issues and our continued acceptance of western countries as a market for our products and as a source for investment in our country.
The expanded Europe will not only be the focus for increased contact for Malaysia, but it would also be the case in term of ASEAN's relations with its counterpart in Europe through the ASEM or similarly ASEAN’s relations to the American continent through APEC.

Besides ASEAN, Malaysia places great emphasis on our relations with countries in North East Asia. As a strong proponent of regional cooperation, China has always been a staunch friend of ASEAN. It was China's unflinching support that helped the region overcome the financial and economic crisis of 1997. China is expected to play a significant and positive role in strengthening ties between ASEAN and North East Asia. Our bilateral ties with Japan and the Republic of Korea are equally important. We look forward to the eventual integration of these two regions. Similarly also, our adoption of the "One China Policy", whilst pursuing close economic relations with Taiwan, bears no paradox but reflects our pragmatism in the face of certain realities

Malaysia's clear foreign policy goals in respect of defence and security, development and trade, international co-operation and diplomacy determine the pattern of relations that we have established with our neighbours as well as with other countries within the framework of ASEAN, ARF, APEC, ASEM, South-South Co-operation, the OIC, the Commonwealth, NAM, the UN and other regional and international organisations.

These are the organisations which seek to safeguard the interest of developing countries. Admittedly their achievements at best are mixed, but clearly developing countries have many common problems and do need to work together to face the new challenges of globalisation. We will also continue to make our presence felt in such international foras.

At the multilateral level, Malaysia has always defended the position of developing countries on major issues such as terrorism, human rights, democracy and the environment, notwithstanding facing strong pressure, in the process. Malaysia will continue to adopt a proactive role at the international level.

Malaysia has and will continue to be active in the OIC, Commonwealth, NAM and the UN. Such fora are useful in promoting co­operation between member states, in finding solutions to global problems and in establishing common ground rules that will guide the peaceful conduct of international relations.

Malaysia will continue to use these platforms to speak on global issues like human rights and democracy, the environment, international terrorism and transnational crimes, refugees, disarmament and the reform of the UN Security Council. Of late, Malaysia has been in the front line in voicing concern and the need to combat the menace of international piracy.

We believe that the UN should continue to be effective in dealing with global developmental issues, peace and security, humanitarian activities, international crisis and cases of violations of the UN charter and principles of international law in a fair and equitable manner.

Malaysia has always been a strong advocate of multilateralism and we oppose any and all forms of unilateralism. We do not believe that unilateralism is the way forward to resolve international problems.

Malaysia strongly believes that only the United Nations can provide legitimacy to international order. As a small developing country player in the international arena, Malaysia needs to firmly uphold the principles of the UN charter as a defence of last resort


Certain fundamental principles governing interstate relations would continue to guide Malaysia's relations with other countries. These refer to sovereign equality and mutual respect for territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non­-interference in each other's internal affairs, peaceful settlement of disputes as well as mutual benefit in relations and peaceful co-existence.

Malaysia has repeatedly stressed the importance of adhering to the especially important principle of non-interference in internal affairs, particularly in the context of regional relations.

The so-called "constructive intervention" policy advocated by some, involving loud criticism, adversarial posturing and grand standing would only bring more harm than good to the promotion of neighbourly relations.

We do make exceptions to the policy of non-interference in certain extreme situations. The bloody cruelty, genocide and atrocities perpetrated by some struck our conscience. Such peculiar situation calls for pragmatism on our part in the interest of humanity whilst recognising the central role of the UN in resolving the problems.


One significant phenomenon that will impact strongly on Malaysia's foreign policy as we move forward is globalisation. Our greatest challenge would be to extract the best from the process of globalisation and to give our best to the system. And in return to contribute towards making the world a much more peaceful and equitable place to live in, to provide leadership within our region and to demonstrate exemplary and responsible membership of the international community.

On the political front, we see the end of the cold war. Yet the world today is no safer than we had been led to believe. The so-called friendly global village has not come about. Old conflicts either refuse to die or simply have a way of coming out of their graves to haunt us. In the meantime, new conflicts, at times much bloodier and brutal than the old ones, continue to emerge and rage or remain unresolved. Added to this, two other issues of great concern also remain, namely:

   - Terrorism which continue to threaten the lives and property of innocent victims; and
    -The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction which brings fourth the prospect of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare.

It is important; therefore, that our foreign policy be geared towards ensuring that more and more nations sign and ratify the relevant international conventions such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Convention on Land Mines (CLM)

The economic dimension of globalisation has been even more disappointing. The financial crisis that descended upon East Asia in 1997 brought about not only social misery and economic disaster but political instability as well. Massive Unemployment, negative growth, stock market crashes and severe currency devaluation have pulled down millions of people below the poverty lines. And now, we are anxiously watching the effects of the possible economic meltdown following the global financial crisis.

The severity of the situation calls for the whole business of economic globalisation and financial and trade liberalisation to be seriously addressed. This is another biggest foreign policy challenge for Malaysia. Malaysia will continue to press for the reforming the international financial architecture that is so prone to speculative manipulations and frequently excessive fluctuations,

Malaysia's activism at the international front has of course attracted attention and reaction from various quarters. Until recently, Malaysia had been the target for criticism for being "too vocal". But this is something that we need to take in our own stride if Malaysia is to be proactive at the global level.
Our foreign policy principles have stood the test of time. Indeed, our steadfast adherence to these principles, supported by a consistent foreign policy, has established for Malaysia certain credibility in the eyes of the international community.

    -Malaysia's initiatives at various regional and international fora have put the country on the world map.
   - Increased economic prosperity and political stability has in fact enabled Malaysia to carve its own niche in the international scene.
    -Making its presence felt has allowed Malaysia to exercise some influence in setting the international agenda.
    -Being less dependent on foreign aid and assistance, Malaysia has been able to speak up on issues that other developing countries feel constrained to voice for fear of retribution by the major, particularly western, powers.

The years ahead therefore would see our foreign policy specially oriented towards not only ensuring Malaysia's domestic success but also internationally, as a geopolitical and economic player at the global level.



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