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Malaysia's Foreign Policy under Anwar Ibrahim: Continuities and Prospects

After years of being the prime minister-designate, Anwar Ibrahim finally became the Prime Minister of Malaysia after the 15th general election held in November 2022. Malaysia’s current Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim is no ordinary figure in the political scene in Malaysia. He began his political career as a founding leader of an Islamic Youth Organisation known as ABIM.

Anwar was subsequently co-opted by former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad to the political party of UMNO. During his years with the UMNO-led government in the 1990s, he served as a Finance Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia until his fallout with Mahathir during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Anwar was subsequently dismissed as Deputy Prime Minister, charged and jailed for corruption and sodomy. His dismissal and subsequent incarceration triggered the opposition movement, also known as the Reformasi movement.

The Reformasi movement sowed the seeds of an alternative political movement in Malaysia and led to the formation of the Social Justice Party. After years of ups and downs, the Anwar-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition won the 2022 election and ushered in a new beginning for the country.

In the international scene, Anwar’s tumultuous political career earned him some sympathizers if not ardent supporters. He is often viewed as a center-left-leaning political figure. Without compromising his Islamic religious credentials, he also embraced the progressive values of democracy and human rights. In sum, his credentials sealed him as a progressive Muslim leader.

Expect Continuities

As Malaysia opens a new chapter under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim, this new chapter also allows the country to redefine its stance on foreign policy. In his maiden press conference, Anwar highlighted the importance of China and called for enhanced bilateral relations with this regional power. At the same time, Anwar also did not leave out other key partners such as the United States, Europe, India as well as ASEAN and emphasized that relations with these countries are equally crucial.  Such statements are most likely deliberate as Anwar has to signal to his foreign partners Malaysia’s stance on foreign policy. That he would not upset the status quo.

The main reason for highlighting these few countries is simply because Malaysia could not ignore the importance of these key partners. China, in particular, is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. Investment from China has generated tens of thousands of working opportunities and has deepened the ties between these two countries. Naturally, Malaysia would only want to continue such economic ties with China. Besides economic ties, Malaysia simply could not disregard the growing influence of China in the region.

But it is also because it would be natural for Malaysia to be wary of China’s growing influence. Despite China’s official stance of advocating for peaceful negotiations and co-existence with other countries, China has demonstrated its assertive foreign policy stance if not to Malaysia but to other countries such as Australia. At present, apart from the ongoing South China Sea dispute, Malaysia does not have an immediate reason that would put the bilateral relations between the two countries to the test.  However, given how China outweighs Malaysia in terms of economic and political power, it is only prudent for Malaysia to maintain a cordial relationship with this regional power.

At the same time, by underscoring the importance of other key power such as the United States and regional partners such as India and ASEAN, Anwar suggests that Malaysia is pursuing a policy of balancing.

Although it may take some time for Anwar and his team to crystalize Malaysia’s foreign policy, some continuities should be expected. Specifically, non-alignment and inclusive cooperation would continue to guide Malaysia’s foreign policy.  Malaysia would most likely not choose a side between the two great powers, namely China and the U.S., maintain cordial relations with existing partners, and played a key role within ASEAN.

Malaysia and the Indo-Pacific Region

Although continuity should be expected, Anwar also could not ignore the emerging importance of the regional construct of the Indo-Pacific. Conceived in 2007 by Japan, Indo-Pacific seeks constructive amalgamation of the wider Asia Pacific region and the Indian Ocean. The term has since been widely accepted.

Under previous Prime Ministers, Malaysia has been rather silent when it comes to this emerging reality of the Indo-Pacific. Apart from the domestic instability, the vigilance against great power competition are reasons that explain Malaysia’s relative silence in the past two years. With the domestic political instability coupled with the ongoing pandemic, Malaysia’s two former Prime Ministers may not see the need to prioritize responding to the Indo-Pacific construct. Furthermore, a high-profile position could entrap the country in big power competition. Malaysia, a founding member of ASEAN also needs to consider that the Indo-Pacific construct would not replace ASEAN’s centrality.

However, unlike the previous two Prime Ministers whose political mandate is void of an electoral mandate, Anwar has another five years that he could utilize to charter Malaysia’s position in the Indo-Pacific region. One that does not contradict Malaysia or ASEAN’s non-alignment approach.

As argued cogently by Kwek, Malaysia could leverage its geographical centrality for wider connectivity-building in response to the Indo-Pacific construct. Anwar could take the lead and work with partners in ASEAN to operationalize the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), one which envisages ASEAN Centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.  

The AOIP is currently strong on aspiration but weak on the operational direction. Anwar who is adept in foreign policy should realize that putting structures and championing AOIP could help seal Malaysia as an important key player in the Indo-Pacific region. This may help strengthen Malaysia’s consistent approach to inclusivity and non-alignment. In doing so, Malaysia could simultaneously underscore ASEAN’s centrality, played an important role in setting the agenda of the Indo-Pacific, and hedge against uncertainties down the line.

While the lack of collective will from regional partners would present its own challenges, the mere attempt should be explored. Should Anwar seek to elevate Malaysia’s status in the Indo-Pacific region, he may be able to help defend ASEAN’s centrality and position Malaysia as an aspiring middle power in the wider Indo-Pacific region.



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