The upcoming Malaysian GE14 on May 9, 2018, has been dubbed as the most unpredictable and competitive general election in the history of the nation. The Barisan Nasional (BN) government, helmed by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who is facing strong challenges to his political legitimacy and survival, is doing all it can to stay in power. Najib’s key opponent is none other than former mentor and premier of Malaysia Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, as he leads a spirited but fragile Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.
Similar to previous elections, the battle lines of GE14 will be drawn mainly on domestic issues rather foreign affairs. In fact, there is a dearth of scholarly literature examining the precise relation between Malaysia’s foreign policy and general elections. Yet, one cannot ignore the fact that foreign policy issues, including Southeast Asian affairs, have been featured in Malaysia’s general elections, albeit in a low-key manner. And GE14 is no exception.
Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia: PH vs BN
Comparing the GE14 manifestos of the BN government and PH coalition, some observations could be made. The PH manifesto, Buku Harapan, devotes about three pages to Malaysia’s foreign affairs on the global stage and in Southeast Asia as well (see pages 153 to 155). This is unlike the GE13 manifesto of PH’s predecessor, Pakatan Rakyat, which had almost no reference to foreign policy matters.
With regard to Southeast Asia, the PH coalition intends to raise Malaysia’s prominence in ASEAN. For example, Malaysia would play a more active role in international organizations such as the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA), which works closely with the ASEAN Secretariat and research institutes from East Asia to provide intellectual and analytical research and policy recommendations; as well as building up the economic, political, security, and sociocultural aspects of the ASEAN community. More resources would be directed to Wisma Putra (Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs) so as to strengthen the country’s representation at the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). The PH manifesto also advocated support for the Rohingya. The manifesto even indicated that Malaysia will be positioned as a Middle Power.
In contrast, the BN manifesto, Bersama BN Hebatkan Negara, has grouped foreign policy issues under the section on safeguarding national sovereignty and security of the people. While it does not explicitly mention Malaysia’s role in ASEAN, it briefly states some policy goals in the context of Southeast Asia. For instance, it highlights continuing efforts to resolve regional conflicts in southern Thailand, southern Mindanao in the Philippines, and Rakhine state in Myanmar; and expanding regional defense diplomacy with countries that share borders with Malaysia (see page 90).
Indeed, Malaysia’s mediation and humanitarian efforts in regional conflicts within Southeast Asia have been a highly symbolic means of demonstrating the country’s leadership and influence within ASEAN. One could expect the BN government to maintain these endeavors without much disruption if it is returned to power after GE14.
It is not far-fetched to suggest these endeavors would continue even if the PH coalition wins the election. PH’s foreign policy objectives regarding Southeast Asia and ASEAN, as outlined in its manifesto, share fundamental similarities with existing and well-established features of Malaysia’s foreign policy thrust, namely that ASEAN is a cornerstone of Malaysia’s foreign affairs.
Yet without details on how to achieve these objectives, it is unclear how a PH government could outperform the BN government in foreign policy ventures, let alone match Mahathir’s foreign policy achievement in propelling Malaysia to global prominence as a champion of the Islamic world and developing countries, and ASEAN multilateralism.
Southeast Asia: An Arena for Malaysia’s GE14
Right from the start of his tenure, Najib has sought to enhance Malaysia’s global standing, including its influential standing in ASEAN. Success in foreign policy is important for Najib, as it would contribute to boosting the image and legitimacy for the BN government back home. The reason for this is apparent. The Najib regime has had to contend with a strong domestic political opposition, which made significant strides in the 2008 elections. The BN government’s GE13 electoral setback in 2013, and mounting political, economic, and societal challenges in recent years, have further weakened Najib’s leadership considerably.
At this point, one might even question whether foreign policy achievements are politically expedient at all during elections, especially since Najib’s penchant for foreign policy ventures and highlighting successes in this arena did not seem to have worked in his favor during GE13. Yet one cannot deny that since 2013, the BN government has tried to ensure, or at least give the appearance, that its foreign policy follows closely to what was outlined in its GE13 manifesto. For example, Malaysia, as ASEAN chair in 2015, helped in the realization of the ASEAN economic community in that year. Malaysia has also continued to engage in humanitarian efforts in conflict zones, such as Mindanao, southern Thailand, and more recently, Rahkine state.
Malaysia’s humanitarian support for the Rohingya Muslim minority is not only aimed at demonstrating leadership in ASEAN affairs. Since the 2013 electoral setback, the Najib government has resorted to conservative Islamization in Malaysia in an effort to shore up the regime’s Islamic credentials and secure the support of the Malay-Muslim community. Thus, the BN government’s concerns for the plight of the Muslim Rohingya is mostly likely a politically shrewd tactic, as it feeds into the religious rhetoric that is being projected by the country’s ruling elites.
However, the single most important foreign policy issue for GE14, which has stolen the limelight, is Malaysia’s ties with China. It is not surprising that the BN government has been establishing stronger ties with China so as to improve economic performance and political legitimacy. One of the most visible sign of this is Malaysia’s deep entrenchment in China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Najib’s attempt to draw closer to China has incurred strong criticisms from the PH coalition over perceived negative economic, political, and social outcomes for Malaysia. Yet Sino-Malaysia relations are not merely a domestic political controversy, as it has strategic implications for Southeast Asia as well.
Najib’s foreign policy has sought to build up Malaysia’s position as a key conduit through which China-ASEAN relations can improve significantly. Likewise, China’s political elites recognize that Sino-Malaysia relations are at the forefront of China’s ties with ASEAN. For China, building stronger relations with Malaysia is a significant means to expand China’s economic interests, prominence, and influence throughout Southeast Asia.
To be sure, Malaysia is unlikely to become another Cambodia, through which China could exert undue pressure to alter regional affairs in its favor. Malaysia has consistently sought to pursue an independent, nonaligned, and neutral foreign policy. Malaysia has also been striving to hedge between China and the United States, ostensibly through economic relations with the former and security arrangements with the latter to offset potential risks associated with the rise of China.
Nevertheless, it is uncertain how Malaysia could continue to maintain this delicate balance in the future, given Malaysia’s increasing economic dependence on a rising and increasingly assertive China. Gradually, Malaysia’s leaders may find themselves having less room for maneuver to stave off China’s political and economic pressure to augment Malaysia’s posture in the region. If Malaysia’s foreign policy autonomy erodes because of China’s pressure, Malaysia’s claims to be a credible leader to galvanize ASEAN to engage China through rules-based interactions is at risk.
At this stage, it is still too early to gauge the actual impact of the aforementioned developments on the upcoming elections, let alone the outcome of GE14 on Southeast Asia affairs. It is quite certain, however, that foreign policy issues will be played up by both sides of the political divide to maximize gains for this elections.
In the event that the PH coalition wins the elections (though this is unlikely), it would be the first time in Malaysia’s history that a non-BN government steers the nation’s foreign policy. It would also usher in a new era and new dimension to the evolution of Malaysian diplomacy.
Of course, should the BN government retain power, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels, and assume that it can carry on its foreign policy conduct away from the close scrutiny of political opposition and public opinion in Malaysia. The events leading right up to GE14 show that future analysis of post-GE14 elections must reckon with the realities of growing domestic contestation over foreign policy.
This article is part of a series of commentaries by RSIS on the 14th Malaysian General Election.
David Han Guo Xiong is a Senior Analyst with the Malaysia Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.