Malaysia-India relations at a crossroads

Strategic engagement, ethnic politics

Mustafa Izzuddin

Government and governance, International relations | Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

11 April 2018

The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is courting India and Indians in the lead up to the general election, writes Mustafa Izzuddin.

Earlier this year, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak concluded an official visit to India to attend the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit. While the trip was also undoubtedly geared toward shoring up support for Najib in the upcoming elections, it is true that his strategic engagement with the Narendra Modi government is designed to advance Malaysia’s national interests.

First, the domestic politics. Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition sees engagement with India as an important way to win over Malaysian Indians, who make up 7 per cent of the country’s population of 32 million people. As the coming election is going to be closely fought between Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), the Najib camp recognises that every vote matters.

Barisan Nasional is relying heavily on the Malay vote to win the upcoming election, not least because the bulk of the Chinese vote is likely to remain with Pakatan Harapan. This means the Indian vote is increasingly being viewed by the party coalition as insurance to supplement the Malay vote. This will be even more the case if there are three-cornered electoral contests, particularly where the Malay vote is split two or more ways among different Malay-centric parties, the most dominant being the ruling United Malays National Organisation.

More on this: India’s pivot to Southeast Asia

Najib’s India engagement is domestically intertwined with Indians in Malaysia. During his visit, Najib recognised the pivotal role played by Malaysian Indians to bring Malaysia and India closer together, saying they “constitute a special reason why it is so natural for our two countries to forge even closer and friendlier relations.”

Najib astutely chose not to limit his interaction to Modi and New Delhi, as they are mainly associated with northern India and the Hindi language. As Indians in Malaysia hail mostly from southern India and speak the Tamil language, Najib engaged the state of Tamil Nadu in particular, and also elsewhere such as the surrounding states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and further afield, Telangana.

Ostensibly, Najib’s courtship of southern India was centred on the economy. His strategy was to meet and cultivate good relations with the Chief Ministers of the southern states. In those meetings, Najib made sure to include business leaders and politicians from the Indian community in Malaysia. This made for good political optics to augment support from Indians back home.

Engaging southern India also comprised a cultural element, namely Tamil cinema or ‘Kollywood’. Lavishly hosting the renowned Tamil actor Rajinikanth during his January visit to Malaysia was intended to endear Najib to the local Tamil community.

Economic engagement is a cornerstone of Malaysia’s relations with India. This is facilitated by Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy, which seeks to encourage Asian countries to look to India as open for business. Economic relations between the two sides have been enhanced with the signing of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement in 2010 and the Joint Statement on Enhanced Malaysia-India Strategic Partnership in 2015.

More on this: Najib’s China legacy

India has also risen to become Malaysia’s 10th largest trading partner and 20th largest investor: bilateral trade expanded to US$13.1 billion in 2017. During Najib’s India trip in 2017, Malaysian business leaders signed one of the country’s largest bilateral trade deals valued up to US$36 billion.

Economic gains derived from trade with India could boost Malaysia’s domestic economy, which in turn would benefit the Malaysian people, including the Indian population. This then helps to augment the political legitimacy of the Najib government based on its economic performance.

Engaging India could also prove beneficial for Najib as his government has been criticised for being too close to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). For the Malay majority, looking to India for investments might be more palatable than China, which is presently the largest investor in the country. This is largely because of the longstanding distrust of the local Chinese by Malays, and in particular questions about where their loyalties lie.

Despite the obvious domestic reasons for Najib to highlight the Malaysia-India relationship right now, there are also strategic regional factors at play.

Both Malaysia and India are also wary of the PRC’s encroachment into maritime waters and its creeping monopolisation of trade routes through the Belt and Road Initiative. The two countries, therefore, have an incentive to work together on preserving sovereignty and freedom of navigation.

Although Malaysia sees the US as a useful geopolitical counterweight to Chinese influence, India could prove to be a viable alternative. Malaysia could simultaneously hedge between China and the US on the one hand, and China and India potentially on the other.

More on this: India’s challenge to China

Najib’s India engagement illustrates the political mileage that can be gained in garnering support from the Indian community in Malaysia, especially during election time. But despite Malaysia-India relations improving immensely, the sustainability of the friendship is far from certain.

The rise of Hindu nationalism following the election of Modi as Prime Minister could discomfit the majority Malay-Muslim population in Malaysia. If Indian Muslims continue to be the primary victims of Hindu nationalism, this could hinder Malaysia-India relations.

A change in political leadership could derail Malaysia’s relations with India. If the opposition wins Malaysia’s upcoming elections, the new leadership will likely make domestic issues their top priority, possibly at the expense of international affairs.

Najib’s engagement of India could also result in the loyalty of Malaysian Indians to the country being questioned. Najib’s government would need to ensure that all those who hold Malaysian passports are seen to be loyal to Malaysia, rather than splitting their loyalties with other countries.

Where Malaysia sees India as a gateway to the Indian subcontinent, India sees Malaysia as a gateway to Southeast Asia through ASEAN. So long as Najib and Modi remain leaders of their respective countries, Malaysia-India relations will keep progressing, as both countries see the value of bilateral cooperation.

However, the real litmus test for Najib’s India strategy is whether it translates to voter support from Malaysian Indians at the ballot box. Even then, it may well be localised ‘bread and butter’ issues that ultimately determine the direction of the Indian vote – whether toward Barisan or Pakatan or split between the two – in the coming Malaysian general election.

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