The election of Mahathir Mohamad and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition he helped lead last month in Malaysia was a new day for voters who have been governed by the same party since independence. For Australia, however, it also raised the prospect of the days prior to Najib Razak’s leadership of the Southeast Asian state, which were characterized by periods of tension and at times antagonism. How both sides handle the continued management of a headline-grabbing murder case could factor in to the wider relationship.
Comments made by successor-to-be Anwar Ibrahim in the weeks since the election win shows that building a robust relationship will take more than a simple generational shift in Kuala Lumpur. Speaking on Australia’s popular Radio National Breakfast program, Anwar accused Australia of “complicity” in the widescale corruption of the Najib government. He said Australian foreign policy and “extremely supportive” statements have created a view that Australia has, over successive governments, leaned heavily toward the ousted Barisan Nasional coalition and ignored evidence of corruption and abuses of power.
While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have congratulated the PH government and committed to working closely with Malaysia to ensure stability in the region, Anwar’s point is a much broader one regarding the wider relationship. As if to illustrate this point, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, infamous domestically for his perceived inability to read a room, took to Twitter immediately after the poll result to mourn the loss of Najib’s leadership and praise his “good friendship.”
But the issue in fact dates back much further in the history of ties between the two countries. Mahathir’s first time at the hilt was also marked by testy relationships with Australian leaders, leading to the once-and-future Malaysian leader being famously dubbed “recalcitrant” by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating. He’s held on to some of these old grudges, calling Australia an outpost of Europe and raising the specter of the White Australia policy in a pre-election interview. From his early rhetoric, Mahathir is clearly more interested in improving Malaysia’s lot, while keeping any engagement outside the country aligned with Malaysia’s interests and identity.
How exactly the relationship will play out remains to be seen. But one issue that has already been a test for ties is Australia’s cooperation with Malaysia as the Southeast Asian state deals with accountability for previous scandals. In an interview with daily broadsheet The Australian shortly after his release from prison last month, Anwar said he hoped an extradition of former bodyguard Sirul Azhar Umar from Australia would be on the cards. In doing so, Anwar was referring to a case that has dragged on in Malaysia for years where the former bodyguard is accused of murdering Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu while being employed under Najib Razak.
While the case is still shrouded in mystery, one interpretation has been that Altantuya was engaged in an affair with Abdul Razak Baginda, a friend of Najib, at the time, and had attempted to blackmail him over an alleged corruption case relating to the purchase of submarines. It is widely believed more people were involved with her death and the savage nature of her murder – she was kidnapped and taken to a remote area, shot and then her body strapped with explosives which were detonated – has ensured the case has captivated the country ever since. Finding justice for Altantuya would be a huge political win for the opposition, which has made seeking accountability for past scandals a part of its agenda.
Sirul fled to Australia during the appeal process in 2015 after being threatened with the death sentence. He has since apparently been housed in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Center after he was caught overstaying a tourist visa. Reopening an investigation into the case, widely seen to have involved a conspiracy far larger than just Sirul, is a priority for the new government, which is keen to have Sirul returned to face charges.
Though the case seemed to present a strong opportunity for the Australian government to build cooperation with Malaysia, indications were that challenges had to be overcome if it was to actually be realized. With Sirul facing the death penalty, Australian law requires a guarantee from Malaysian authorities that he will not be executed before the extradition process can begin. Mahathir has already indicated the death penalty may be dropped in favor of life imprisonment, but it remains a process to be worked out on the Australian end.
As of now, there have been no confirmed public indications that an extradition request to the Department of Justice has been lodged. Advocates for Sirul have also told local media he believes his life is in danger if he were to return to Malaysia. A report from the Guardian has suggested Sirul could return to Malaysia as early as the end of the month, but Australian authorities have since clarified the complexity of the process and denied receiving a request from Malaysia.
The details remain murky for now. But based on how things have progressed so far, it is likely that the case will move far slower than some hope. While the new government in Malaysia might relish getting credit for realizing its quest for accountability, the follow through on that front, and how that affects broader ties between Kuala Lumpur and Canberra, remains to be seen.