Government and governance, International relations | Australia, Southeast Asia

20 March 2018

Improved relations between Malaysia and Australia could help Prime Minister Najib Razak in his push for re-election, Mustafa Izzuddin writes.

In possibly one of his last foreign trips before the Malaysian Parliament is dissolved to pave way for the next general election, Prime Minister Najib Razak attended last weekend’s special ASEAN-Australia Summit.

Najib’s visit was aimed at reaffirming the strategic partnership that was signed between Australia and Malaysia during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s visit to Malaysia in November 2015.

This bilateral reaffirmation was particularly significant as the singular focus of Najib and Turnbull has been to enhance political trust so as to achieve greater bilateral cooperation which, in turn, could further advance the national interest of both countries.

The visit additionally underscored the importance Malaysia gives to ASEAN and the linkages the regional organisation builds with countries outside Southeast Asia, such as Australia.

As a founding member and staunch multilateralist, Malaysia has been a passionate advocate for a strong and united ASEAN. Malaysia perceives itself as a middle power, as outlined by Najib himself in February 2014. Relations between Malaysia and Australia have improved immeasurably under Najib, making Malaysia more supportive of Australia’s goal for a closer cooperative relationship with ASEAN as a strategic partner.

More on this: The true value of the ASEAN-Australia relationship

But while Malaysia is keen for Australia to be more engaged with ASEAN, it is unlikely to support Indonesia’s call for Australia to join ASEAN as a full member. This is because for Malaysia, as is the case with Turnbull’s Australia, “ASEAN matters are a matter for ASEAN.”

Najib’s visit also attested to how seriously Malaysia takes the issue of transnational terrorism. Najib was the selected ASEAN leader – and Malaysia the chosen ASEAN country – invited to deliver the closing remarks of the counter-terrorism conference, a central theme of the ASEAN-Australia Summit.

Najib spoke of how the example set by Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, shows that terrorism is antithetical to Islam. He also spoke of the willingness of Malaysia to share its successful de-radicalisation programme with other affected countries. It was thus not surprising when Turnbull declared that “Najib was among Australia’s best allies in the war against the scourge [of terrorism].”

The visit also highlighted Najib’s determined stance to prove his detractors wrong that Australian leaders would snub or shun him. One palpable critic was Najib’s arch-nemesis, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who gave an interview to Australia’s ABC News prior to Najib’s Sydney visit. In it, Mahathir called Najib a “monster” and urged Turnbull not to dignify him because in his words, “I think when you know a man is a thief, you should stay away from him.”

Mahathir’s motivation was to undercut Najib’s use of foreign policy to elevate his domestic status through recognition and acceptance on the world stage. But Mahathir’s attempt was ultimately futile as the Australian leadership rolled out the red carpet for Najib, including being seated next to Turnbull at dinner – a point specifically highlighted by Najib to the Malaysian media.

More on this: Najib’s fear campaign at home

The Turnbull government would no doubt remember Mahathir’s past diatribes against Australia when he was Prime Minister of Malaysia, and, importantly, are appreciative of the efforts taken by the Najib government to continually improve Malaysia’s relations with Australia.

Najib’s Australia visit also had a domestic element, in light of impending elections in Malaysia. Voters are due to go to the polls by August, but the election is likely to be held between mid-April and mid-May 2018.

This foreign trip, combined with many others Najib has made as one of the more active Asian jetsetters, had one important aim. It was to show the Malaysian people that Najib is respected on the world stage, that his leadership is pivotal in the conduct of a strong and sound foreign policy, and that, because of him, Malaysia is perceived internationally as a respected middle power with Islamic characteristics.

Put another way, Najib wanted to emphasise that his administration is the best-placed to protect and advance the national interest of Malaysia, including safeguarding the sovereignty of the country. This could be a good way of garnering votes if Najib’s ruling coalition is able to convince the electorate that foreign policy will only be in safe hands if Najib is returned to office. The selling point as it pertains to Malaysia’s foreign policy is that there will be clarity and certainty with Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition governing the country, but ambiguity and uncertainty with the Pakatan Harapan opposition helming the government. The hope from Najib’s camp is also that a focus on foreign policy could take some heat off the domestic challenges confronting the Prime Minister and his government.

More on this: Putting Malaysia back in pivot to Asia

The visit to Australia could prove to be important for Najib as Prime Minister during election time. In his election manifesto in 2013 there was a section on Najib’s meeting with foreign leaders, and the next election manifesto is also likely to highlight Malaysia’s foreign policy under Najib with a photograph of Najib with Turnbull. This is to underscore the point that Malaysia has good relations with many countries around the world due in no small part to the efforts of the Najib government.

When it comes to relations between Malaysia and Australia, confrontation has been replaced by cooperation and mistrust by trust. The personal chemistry between Najib and Turnbull could well be vital to maintaining this strategic partnership. The practice of quiet diplomacy by moving away from being entangled in the domestic politics of the other country, which Australia has been inclined to do in the past by criticising Malaysia’s human rights record, would need to continue to ensure the sustainability of a reinvigorated Malaysia-Australia relationship.

As Malaysia and Australia are in each other’s top ten trading partners, the economic imperative will remain a bilateral priority. Boosting the Malaysian economy is significant for the Najib government, as one key strand of its political legitimacy rests on the country’s economic performance.

Both sides are also committed to working together to preserve maritime security, as it is in the national interest of both countries for there to be freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific regional waters. One such collaborative mechanism is the multilateral Five Power Defence Arrangements, of which both Australia and Malaysia are members.

Although Indonesia remains the most important strategic partner for Australia in the ASEAN region, Australia could look to Malaysia as an additional gateway country to engaging ASEAN. This is likely to happen, but with one important caveat: Najib first has to be re-elected as Prime Minister after the coming elections.

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