Mahathir vs Australia Redux

Najib Razak may be Malaysian prime minister, but as far as ties with Australia go, he’s showing flashes of Mahathirism.

By Natalie Sambhi for
Mahathir vs Australia Redux
Credit: Samul Said

The infamously direct style and strident anti-Westernism of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad seems to be living on through current leader Najib Razak.

During his visit to Australia earlier this month, Najib's rebuff of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's proposal for an offshore asylum-seeker processing centre in East Timor showed hints of the former leader's ambivalence towards Australia and its approach to the region.

During his 22 years at Malaysia's helm, Mahathir made Australia his 'whipping boy'. He rebuked Canberra for its colonial heritage and role as the United States’ deputy sheriff, stroking Malaysian pride and scoring strategic points in the process.

While the overall bilateral relationship was steady, in the background, Mahathir never shied away from publicly undermining Australian initiatives, often straining relations in the process. His notorious snubbing of the 1993 APEC summit, for example, led then-Prime Minister Paul Keating to label him 'recalcitrant'.

Two Malaysian leaders later, Najib invokes Mahathir's tradition of public posturing in relation to Australia, albeit in a more muted tone. In response to questions about the East Timor processing centre, the Malaysian prime minister was lukewarm, at best. He explained that his country needed more time to consider the proposal and was firm that further discussion on the matter take place at the Bali summit on people smuggling, held this week.

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In what could have been a proud moment celebrating Australian resourcefulness in promoting a regional solution, Australia found itself in the awkward situation of Malaysia basking in having called the shots.

In practical terms, Najib was right to ask for more time. For one, it seems costs have not been provided. Also, it’s now clear that Gillard didn’t circulate the idea before its announcement; the mixed reception from regional partners is telling in this regard. East Timor was briefed six months after Gillard launched the processing centre idea, in her Lowy Institute speech. This incident should be a wake-up call to Australia to manage regional issues more carefully.

Moreover, Australia's dithering on its processing centre plans has allowed Malaysia to manoeuvre into a more favourable bargaining position. During his visit, Najib talked up Malaysia's contribution to combating people smuggling via increased naval interdictions of SIEV suspected of heading to Australian shores.

He then proposed that Australia provide more resources to 'frontline countries like Malaysia' to disrupt people smugglers. 'Perhaps giving us more equipment, for example, more sophisticated equipment could help us increase our capacity', Najib added. Add to the mix speculation of an election this year in Malaysia, and the effect is pronounced: Najib is scoring points using old tricks.

Natalie Sambhi is a graduate of the Asia–Pacific College of Diplomacy and Graduate Studies in International Affairs at the Australian National University.

(This article is an edited version of an entry that appeared in the Lowy Institute's Interpreter that can be found here.)