Defining Malaysia’s foreign policy challenges


(Updated )

COMMENT | Malaysia is, first and foremost, a developing trading nation. Its foreign policy plays to our strengths as a robust and open economy, and capitalises on our strategic positioning in the region. Malaysia may lack the resources of great powers like China, but it can still shape international events to its own benefit.

In principle, our foreign policy is independent, principled and pragmatic. In reality, it is pragmatic, as Malaysia prioritises power and material interests over idealism and human rights; rationalist, as Malaysia is willing to participate in multilateral and international institutions as long as they do not infringe upon our sovereignty as an independent nation; and non-confrontational, as Malaysia prefers settling disputes behind closed doors as opposed to confronting its peers in public.

Our foreign policy should rightly play to our strengths and strategic interests, but we must avoid coming off as subservient or timid. We cannot hesitate to take a decisive stance on regional challenges, especially when these challenges involve our nearest and dearest dialogue partners like Asean, the US and China.

Malaysia and Asean: nothing personal, just business

The Malaysia-Asean relationship unfortunately remains strictly business. With the Asean digital economy set to be the next big regional project, it is clear that Asean states have put the most effort into boosting economic development. But what are we doing to solve issues like the Rohingya genocide and South China Sea disputes?

Asean’s efficacy as an instrument for regional governance has been tested repeatedly and we have only belatedly risen to the challenge. Asean tends to prioritise economic growth over inclusive human development and human rights. Boosting growth across the region will no doubt increase the standard of living for many, but economic development without human rights will fill more rich pockets than it will help the bottom 40 percent.

Where are the safeguards for the rights of indigenous peoples and foreign workers? Where are the provisions protecting against child labour and trafficking in persons? By leaving these loopholes open for exploitation, Asean is opening itself up as a haven for smugglers and traffickers, instead of solving issues of stateless peoples and illegal immigration. And we Malaysians will suffer the consequences of these loopholes.

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