Commentary: Malaysia’s new foreign policy outlook under Muhyiddin Yassin’s government – four predictions

Commentary: Malaysia’s new foreign policy outlook under Muhyiddin Yassin’s government – four predictions

Foreign policy will likely see more continuity than change, and hosting a good APEC will be top priority in the near term, says Ngeow Chow-Bing.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during his cabinet announcement in Putrajaya
FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during his cabinet announcement in Putrajaya, Malaysia March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

KUALA LUMPUR: As Muhyiddin Yassin was sworn in as the eighth prime minister of Malaysia last week, many Malaysians began to ask a flurry questions about the policy direction of this emerging Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition government – a coalition consisting of three predominantly Malay-based parties (Bersatu, UMNO, PAS), with the support of GPS, the ruling coalition of the state of Sarawak.

Will the PN coalition continue or reverse the reform agenda of its predecessor, Pakatan Harapan (PH)? How will it address the frail state of the economy? Can it protect Malaysians from the global coronavirus outbreak?

Will it pursue greater Islamisation of the country? And most importantly, after a traumatic turn of events that threw the country into a political crisis two weeks ago, will it last as a stable coalition beyond the short-term convergence of interests among parties?

I have four predictions for Malaysia’s foreign policy priorities.

FOREIGN POLICY IS NOT MUHYIDDIN’S PRIORITY

First, foreign policy issues will not be the immediate concern to most Malaysians, nor Muhyiddin.

However, Malaysia is situated at the heart of Indo-Pacific and has extensive ties to important parts of the world.

Rivalries between the US and China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, India and Pakistan, and the geostrategic uncertainties these rivalries between countries that Malaysia has close economic and bilateral ties will impact the country’s interests. Malaysia’s foreign policy will have to navigate carefully and be cautious about choosing sides.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a news conference in Putrajaya
Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during a news conference in Putrajaya, Malaysia March 11, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

Malaysia’s foreign policy has always been PM-centric, but Muhyiddin probably will take a back seat and delegate foreign policy to a more empowered Foreign Minister.

Apart from a brief stint as Minister of International Trade and Industry, Muhyiddin’s 20-odd year cabinet career was solidly built on domestic portfolios – including Agriculture, Education and Trade and Industry.

Analysts can find very little of his public views on international affairs. Nevertheless, given this record, his own health, the nature of how PN government came into being, and how nascent the PN coalition is, Muhyiddin is likely to spend more of his energy on domestic politics and policy.

READ: Commentary - Muhyiddin Yassin, the all-seasoned politician, who rose to Malaysia’s pinnacle of power

READ: Commentary - Muhyiddin Yassin’s interesting Cabinet line-up provides food for thought

BUT HOSTING A GOOD APEC WILL BE A TOP GOAL

Second, assuming that the PN coalition will survive the non-confidence vote expected to be initiated by the opposition once Parliament convenes in May, an immediate major event that the Malaysian government will have to prepare for is the APEC Summit in November, a gathering of 21 countries.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to time his attendance of APEC with an official visit to Malaysia. The US is due to hold its election mere days before the APEC summitry. A visit by the US President is therefore unclear but will be a huge coup that comes with immense logistical challenges.

APEC will therefore be the prime opportunity for Muhyiddin to project an image of international endorsement of his leadership to his domestic audience.

He will want to ensure not only that the summit is well-organised, with positive atmospherics, but also that Malaysia under his leadership is seen to be capable of shaping and directing the APEC agenda as the summit’s host.

However, Malaysia’s ability to deliver concrete outcomes will be challenged. APEC’s free trade agenda is easy to proclaim but difficult to follow through on, requiring consensus from this many countries at a time when trade and globalisation has seen strong pushback.

READ: Commentary: The brewing discontent with trade and one step to restoring faith in globalisation

China's President Xi Jinping was afforded a state visit for his trip to Papua New Guinea in
China's President Xi Jinping was afforded a state visit for his trip to Papua New Guinea in 2018 for APEC. (Photo: AFP/DAVID GRAY)

READ: Malaysia wants to resolve palm oil spat with India within a month, minister says

As the 2018 APEC meeting at Papua New Guinea demonstrated, reaching consensus on the Leaders’ Declaration will also require diplomatic gymnastics and cannot be taken for granted.

MALAYSIA’S FOREIGN POLICY WILL LIKELY SEE MORE CONTINUITY THAN CHANGE

Third, Malaysia’s foreign policy will likely see more continuity than change.

Hishammuddin Hussein, the new foreign affairs minister, who is also Najib Razak’s cousin and an UMNO stalwart, is an old face. He has extensive Cabinet experience helming the Defence, Home Affairs, and Education portfolios.

READ: From opposition to Cabinet: PAS politicians pledge to prove mettle in Muhyiddin administration, call for racial unity

READ: Muhyiddin announces new economic council for COVID-19 and falling oil prices; will consider reinstating GST

His stint as Defence Minister has given him extensive experience in dealing with major powers on strategic issues. Under his watch, Malaysia also developed closer defence relations with both China and Saudi Arabia. His past record suggests Malaysia may tilt towards China and Saudi Arabia.  

However, Malaysia’s geostrategic realities suggest the PN government will not likely stray from the overall foreign policy direction already in place.

This outlook is determined by the geographical and development imperatives of the country. Even after the new PH coalition took over in 2018, experts have assumed Malaysia’s foreign policy outlook will generally stay its course, save for specific corrections, fuelled by a longstanding foreign policy traditions of multilateralism, pragmatism and neutrality.

Hishammuddin Hussein
Mr Hishammuddin Hussein during the 16th Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue Summit in Singapore on Jun 3, 2017. (Roslan RAHMAN/AFP)

This was confirmed with the September 2019 release of the Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia: Change in Continuity under the PH.

As a relatively small country operating in in a challenging geopolitical environment, Malaysia finds comfort in multilateral platforms, most of all a cohesive ASEAN.

Her heavy reliance on trade and investment also makes it necessary to separate politics and economics in foreign policy, in order to maximise access to international markets and secure capital and technology transfer.

Hence, a policy of being as friendly to as many countries as possible, and to stay neutral between adversaries has served and will continue to serve Malaysia well. 

Different leaders may have different approaches and emphases over the years, and the right balance is not always easy to calibrate, but these broad traditions have been more or less maintained.

READ: Commentary: A change of heart? Under Mahathir, Malaysia makes bold move to embrace China

READ: Commentary: Why Mahathir leaving may not solve Malaysia’s problems

Viewed from these lenses, Muhyiddin is likely to stay on the course set by the previous administration amid the greatest strategic rivalry underway – between the US and China. Malaysia will welcome the US in maintaining a robust regional presence, but will stay away from giving any impression that she intends to help contain China.

While Malaysia is concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea, the PN government will likely retain the policy posture of keeping a low profile, being non-confrontational but firm in protecting the country’s interests, and relying on the ASEAN platform to manage the dispute.

MALAYSIA MAY WANT A BIGGER SAY ON MUSLIM WORLD AFFAIRS

Fourth, as the PN coalition now includes the Islamist Party PAS, and PAS members have been appointed to Cabinet, it is interesting to observe how their influence will bear out in Malaysia’s foreign policy.

READ: Commentary: Three underlying forces fuelled Malaysia's recent political crisis

Malaysia Cabinet swearing in 3
This handout photograph taken and released on May 21, 2018 by Malaysia's Department of Information shows Malaysia's King Muhammad V (C) posing for a group photo with Malaysia's new cabinet at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: AFP / MASZUANDI ADNAN / DEPARTMENT OF INFORMATION)

Although PAS did not occupy key ministerial positions related to foreign affairs, the foreign policy must also at least be deemed acceptable to the ideology of the party.

Under the PH government, attempts were made to distance Malaysia from the complex world of the Middle East, though this was not entirely successful. Given that many PAS leaders maintain strong ties and networks in the Middle East, Malaysia will likely see greater involvement in that part of the world again.

Relations with China and India may be affected. PAS has also been a vocal critic of China’s policies in Xinjiang and India’s policies in Kashmir. As a member of the ruling coalition, it may have to moderate its position somewhat, but will inject more pressure on the government to take public stances on these issues.

Likewise, the PN government will continue to keep a distance from the US because of the US’s strong, supportive stance towards Israel, Israel’s claims to Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It may pressure the Malaysian government to take a more assertive stance on such issues to maintain its Islamic support base.

Overall, the PN government is the most explicit Malay-centered coalition to emerge in Malaysia’s political history. Much of its ramifications will be in the domestic political arena.

On foreign policy, Muhyiddin and the PN government will likely remain conservative, in the sense that there is unlikely to be significant departure from the past, although it may take a more assertive stance on affairs affecting the Muslim world.

Dr Ngeow Chow-Bing is the Director of Institute of China Studies at University of Malaya.

Source: CNA/sl

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