The prime minister usually puts his mark and stamp of authority on foreign policy – which should be part of the overall policy to serve a country’s national interests and needs.
I consulted ChatGPT to get some clues about the sort of foreign policy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim would implement.
It responded that Anwar had in the past advocated for a balanced and pragmatic foreign policy approach for Malaysia. This included the need for the country to play an active role in tackling global challenges, such as climate change and human rights. The country could also be expected to take “a more assertive stance on issues related to human rights and democracy, both domestically and internationally”.
Not too bad, but not good enough for our purposes! Compare the above to a realtime discussion on 28 March about the PM’s foreign policy, which I chaired.
The panel members touched on many issues and alluded to Anwar’s persona as a democrat, reformer, eloquent speaker, cerebral leader and thinker, and how all of this would impinge on Malaysia’s foreign policy.
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An interesting question arose. Was the PM’s Malaysia Madani (Civil Malaysia) slogan different from former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s Islam Hadhari (Civilisational Islam) and how might this former affect Malaysia’s current foreign policy?
The six principles of Malaysia Madani are sustainability, prosperity, innovation, respect, trust and compassion.
Islam Hadhari’s 10 principles are faith and piety, just and trustworthy government, freedom and independence, mastery of knowledge, balanced and comprehensive economic development, quality of life, protection of the rights of minority groups and women, cultural and moral integrity, protection of the environment, and a strong defence policy.
The panel members agreed that Malaysia Madani was an important factor and provided a few clues on how Anwar would proceed as a ‘moderate’ Muslim leader based on its generic principles. One speaker said it was basically a way to attract attention.
Thus, in foreign policy terms, both Anwar and Abdullah are advocates of moderate Islam in international relations, using the values of Islam to promote a more harmonious world.
Indeed, this has been a strain and feature of Malaysia’s foreign policy since the days of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.
In terms of actual policies, each subsequent prime minister and foreign minister has continued this tradition of Malaysia’s moderate policies.
Expediency vs principles
Lofty principles such as those enunciated in Malaysia Madani and Islam Hadhari tend to succumb or fall prey to political expediency.
For example, Abdullah Badawi had to confront several scandals during his tenure, including the handling of the murder trial of Alatantuya Shaariibuu, which implicated his defence minister Najib Razak, and the sale of nuclear components to Libya by Scomi, a company headed by Abdullah’s son.
In Anwar’s case, no major scandal has surfaced so far in his still short stint as PM. But the recent alleged barring of a visit by former Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy is a major embarrassment.
Whether or not the government actually packed off Rainsy on the urgings of the Hun Sen government, the incident shows how easily the madani principle of compassion can be contravened. The episode was even more embarrassing as Rainsy has been a long-time champion of anti-corruption in his country and Anwar is currently trying to stamp out corruption in Malaysia.
Damage control was conducted by Wong Chen, who had met and entertained Rainsy. The PKR MP explained that the Cambodian opposition figure was in Malaysia for a “private visit“.
Another embarrassment – although this has nothing to do with the madani principles – was the foreign policy gaffe by Anwar when he arrived in Saudi Arabia for an official visit and was not received by the Saudi King as was expected.
No significant initiatives
The supposedly major foreign policy move was Anwar’s official visit in April to China, where the PM was very well received with much fanfare.
Anwar had made the obligatory statements about China-US rivalry prior to the visit – that Asean should remain neutral and independent with regard to the two superpowers.
The PM returned home after signing 19 Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs). Prior to his trip, Anwar had said there would be a big investment from China. But no such big-ticket item has materialised so far, and there have been precious few details about the 19 MoUs.
These are trying and dangerous times. Many expect Anwar, the eloquent thought leader and reformer, to be playing a more important role regionally and globally through new foreign policy initiatives.
However, one must surmise, he has been a major disappointment in this respect. At the most, I would give him a “B minus” grade on foreign policy.
‘Carve out Myanmar for now’ policy
Let’s turn to the Myanmar issue, which is symbolic of his current ‘do nothing’ approach in foreign policy.
Since the coup of February 2021, the Myanmar military has perpetrated a genocide on the Rohingya, inflicted untold misery on its people, detained and executed opponents of the state and carried out air strikes on its ethnic minorities.
Myanmar is not just the ‘sick man’ of Asean, it is emblematic of the region’s unresolved conflicts.
The Anwar government has announced a policy, which is essentially a ‘do- nothing’ policy on Myanmar, as Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir indicated in an official statement:
By stating “We should carve Myanmar out for now”, the Honourable Prime Minister made a solid point that the rest of ASEAN Member States nevertheless should not allow the Myanmar issue to distract us from continuing to pursue a much stronger collaboration to promote peace, security and prosperity for ASEAN and its people as envisioned for the ASEAN Community. – Ministry of Foreign Affairs website
This is in sharp contrast to the policy of Malaysia’s previous government. The former foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, showed initiative in engaging with the Myanmarese opposition, the National Unity Government (NUG) and other groups.
Ironically, Anwar’s national “unity government” has done nothing of this sort with his Myanmar counterpart.
Asean’s current five-point consensus policy calls for an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all parties concerned to seek a peaceful solution, a special envoy of the Asean chair to facilitate mediation of the dialogue process, humanitarian assistance, and an Asean special envoy and its delegation to meet with all parties.
But this policy has met with failure.
Malaysia could be much more proactive in developing some modalities in advancing a peace process in Myanmar.
The Anwar government’s current stance is a far cry from the days when Anwar himself in 1997 critiqued the passivity of Asean’s “constructive engagement” with Myanmar and when he himself called for a policy of “constructive intervention”.
For Asean member states, which have a deep stake and interest in Myanmar, a multi-stage and multi-track foreign policy is imperative to tackle the current crisis and civil war in the ‘sick man’ of Asean.
The Anwar government must provide some leadership in this direction.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
10 June 2023