On February 2, Malaysia revived a decades-old dispute with neighboring Singapore over the islet of Pedra Branca/Batu Puteh, complicating a historically rocky bilateral relationship that has been stable of late. Though Malaysia claimed that the application to revise the 2008 International Court of Justice (ICJ) judgement that was in Singapore’s favor is grounded in its discovery of newly unearthed documents, some dismissed the move as posturing by the government led by Prime Minister Najib Razak ahead of Malaysia’s upcoming elections.
While Malaysian officials have rejected claims that the decision was politically motivated, the truth matters less than the doubts being raised. The reemergence of the dispute is just the latest example the reveals a more fundamental problem: that the perception Najib is acting in his own personal interest rather than the national interest is increasingly undermining the execution of Malaysia’s foreign policy. Though this perceived “Najibization” of Malaysia’s foreign policy may benefit certain groups, it also poses greater dangers for the country.
During his first few years in office, Najib found himself subject to criticisms about the glaring contradictions between his domestic and foreign policy. Particularly since the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), recorded its worst-ever performance in the country’s history in the May 2013 elections, the gulf between the leader that was touting a Global Movement for Moderates and signing on to the high-standard Trans-Pacific Partnership abroad while promoting an exclusivist Islamist agenda and expanding affirmative action privileges for ethnic Malays at home was growing increasingly wider (See: “Getting to Full Bloom in US-Malaysia Relations”).
Since Najib has been mired in the high-profile 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal which deepened in July 2015, however, the greater danger has been not the contradictions between domestic and foreign policy, but their confluence (See: “After the Scandal: What’s Next for Malaysia?”). More specifically, Najib’s personal quest for survival domestically amid that deepening scandal, which has already crippled Malaysia’s economy, polarized its politics, and upset Malaysia’s fragile multi-ethnic fabric, has been read to be subsuming the country’s foreign policy (See: “Malaysia in 2015: Crises of Confidence”). What we are witnessing is not merely another wave of nationalism, but what one might call the Najibization of Malaysian foreign policy as the country approaches its next general election which is likely to occur sometime this year.
Examples abound. Najib’s sudden championing of the Rohingya cause late last year was cynically dismissed as currying favor with the Malaysia’s majority Malay-Muslim population as opposed to standing up for an oppressed minority. The string of economic deals Malaysia inked with China in late 2015, including two tied to 1MDB were read not as a way to promote the country’s prosperity, but to bail the prime minister out (See: “Malaysia is Not Pivoting to China With Najib’s Visit”). And the revival of the Pedra Branca/Batu Puteh case this month was read by skeptics as nothing more than chest-thumping to desperately secure votes, especially in Johor, rather than simply an exercise of Malaysia’s right to pursue the any outstanding legal claims it might have.
The prime minister’s advisers have unsurprisingly vehemently denied that Najib is acting based on his personal interest rather than the national interest. And, to be fair, some of the accusations against him are laced with sloppy reasoning and conspiracy theories that undermine the valid concerns that undergird them. More broadly, a nation’s foreign policy is very rarely the result of one person or factor, but rather the interaction of structural and agential factors that have domestic and foreign influences, with some mattering more than others.
But irrespective of intentions or causes, the outcome is the same: the perception of Najibization of Malaysian foreign policy is undermining the country’s real foreign policy decisions. Regardless of what the Najib government intended, Malaysia is simply not being seen as a guardian of the oppressed, a model for managing ties with major powers, or a principled upholder of international law. Rather, it is being viewed as a country whose foreign policy is directed at securing the narrow personal interests of its embattled premier.
That perceived Najibization of Malaysian foreign policy matters because perceptions often create their own dangerous realities. They can sow doubt and cynicism in the minds of Malaysian citizens, making it even more difficult to marshal domestic support for foreign policy decisions. They may also become further ammunition for Najib’s already well-armed critics, who do not believe that politics ought to stop at the water’s edge. And they can also spark alarm among Malaysia’s neighbors, complicating important and already complex bilateral relationships and generating troubling ripple effects.
Perceived Najibization may also affect the substance of foreign policy. Opportunities for Malaysia to demonstrate its leadership can be undermined, as was the case with its championing of the Rohingya issue which was dogged by cynicism about Najib’s motives expressed even by the Myanmar government. They can also create challenges for Malaysia’s relationships with major powers like China (See: “Is China Now Malaysia’s Largest Foreign Investor?”). If every deal is perceived to be merely enriching Najib instead of benefiting Malaysia, that could get in the way of actual gains that the country could realize.
Some may argue that this perceived Najibization is only a temporary problem that will be resolved once Malaysia holds its next general election (See: “When Will Malaysia Hold Its Next Election?”). But even if Najib and UMNO do secure another win in those polls, it does not necessary follow that the disturbing pattern of a moderate, reform-minded, and worldly premier struggling to chart a coherent foreign policy course for Malaysia while fighting for his survival domestically, and the (mis)perceptions that follow from it, will end. Indeed, it is far more likely that the debate over whether Najib’s personal quest for survival is exacting too high a price for Malaysia’s national interests is likely to continue and perhaps even deepen while he remains in power.
In the meantime, while individual Malaysian foreign policy decisions will continue to generate sporadic hype among the chattering classes as the country approaches its next election, it is worth remembering that it is this more general dynamic of perceived Najibization that merits closer attention, rather than the specifics of each episode.