Malaysia’s Domestic Political Turbulence Threatens to Derail its Foreign Policy

It has been a hectic month for Malaysia on multiple fronts. The long-awaited U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit concluded on May 13 with a joint statement that reiterated multiple commitments including Indo-Pacific security, regional economic initiatives, and maritime cooperation. During the summit, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob underscored his country’s stance on pressing issues, such as global supply chain security, the war in Ukraine, and the Israel-Palestine conflict, while foreseeing the expansion of foreign investment in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah continues to make his mark on ASEAN’s approach to the crisis in Myanmar, meeting with Zin Mar Aung from Myanmar’s National Unity Government on the sidelines of the summit in Washington, D.C. Undeterred by the lack of solid progress by ASEAN, the meeting was an audacious move that followed up on Malaysia’s proposals that ASEAN should engage with Myanmar’s shadow government in order to resolve the conflict and improve the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Nationally, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has successfully amended its constitution to delay its party election until after the country’s upcoming 15th General Election (GE15). This amendment was perhaps an attempt to call for the general election immediately. However, Ismail Sabri, who is also the party’s vice-president, still beat around the bush on the election date by emphasizing that this was a matter for his government to decide.

This is the first time that UMNO’s president has not also served as prime minister. The power tussle among UMNO’s top guns is an open secret, especially on the question of calling for an early election, and UMNO-Barisan Nasional’s landslide wins at state elections in Melaka and Johor have put additional pressure on Ismail Sabri to do so. While some prefer the election to be held soon given that the opposition is at its weakest, Ismail Sabri is reluctant to take such as step.

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Moves made by UMNO to expedite the election date are an attempt to regain its dominance after a devastating defeat in 2018. Despite a promising start by Mahathir Mohamad and the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, domestic turbulence and political in-fighting brought the PH government to a premature end. It lasted barely two years before the infamous “Sheraton Move” took place, through which a host of MPs changed their coalition to form the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government under Muhyiddin Yassin in March 2020.

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Under the banner of the Malay-Muslim coalition at front, it indicates the return of Malay-centric politics through the domination of MPs from UMNO, the Islamist party PAS, and Muhyiddin’s Bersatu in the cabinet. Despite UMNO being part of the PN coalition, it has not been comfortable with its secondary role and so the power struggle has continued. Finally, Ismail Sabri was sworn in as the ninth Malaysian prime minister in August 2021. He continued the blueprint laid by his predecessor through the appointment of cabinet members from the previous administration.

This unprecedented domestic political turbulence has been detrimental to Malaysia’s democracy and it demands an immediate response. A back-door negotiation by the MPs in seeking a new coalition rather than through a clear mandate from the people is rattling the country’s democratic reputation. Despite a ceasefire among MPs that has resulted from the bipartisan confidence and supply agreement brokered in September 2021, this has not stopped the power plays that must ultimately be remedied through an election.

Malaysia’s next government must be freshly elected by the people and the mandate must be bestowed upon the government by a genuinely democratic process, while rules are passed to discourage party-hopping by MPs. A strong, stable, and competent government, appointed through a fair election, will help Malaysia to fulfill its potential and capability on the regional and international front, and to contend with strategic uncertainties amid big power rivalry, to say nothing of the pressing domestic challenges.

Internally, the prolonged political imbroglio is a ticking bomb for Malaysia’s foreign policy if it remains unresolved. Foreign policy begins at home, as the saying goes, and Malaysia must get its own house in order to avoid a catastrophic situation in dealing with the growing regional uncertainty. A competent and stable government will ensure a seamless foreign policy strategy that can withstand external challenges related to maritime disputes, while managing emerging security alliances and cooperation in the region.

A government that is elected by the majority will also be able to rally the mass and unify the population on the most pressing issues of the day. The imperative of economic and security cooperation at the international level requires the support of the people or at least a popular mandate to initiate the move. Despite Malaysian foreign policy not necessarily needing approval from the people, the public plays an instrumental role in either impeding or aiding the country’s foreign policy orientation.

Externally, the U.S.-China rivalry has shaped the uncertainty in the region while the repercussions of China’s assertiveness are worrying due to the sequence of encroachments and incursions into Malaysian waters. Malaysia currently sits at a crossroads, attempting to maintain its sound bilateral relations with both the U.S. and China while keeping the rivalry at bay. Furthermore, now is a trying time for Malaysia to strengthen its position in staking its claim in the South China Sea by bolstering its maritime cooperation with major powers amid the emerging security cooperation embodied in partnerships like the Quad and AUKUS.

Economically and strategically, Malaysia is a close partner to the U.S. and China, boasting a comprehensive partnership with Washington and a comprehensive strategic partnership with Beijing. On trade, Malaysia is the U.S.’ second-largest trading partner in the region, and its third-largest Asian trading partner after China and Singapore, with bilateral trade in goods standing at $71.4 billion in 2021. However, these numbers are dwarfed by China’s enormous influence on Malaysia’s economy: the total trade volume between Malaysia and China reached $176.8 billion in 2021 and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, notably the East Coast Rail Link, showed no sign of slowing down, with the completion of 29 percent as of the project as of last month.

Nevertheless, Malaysia-China relations have been tainted by China’s assertiveness in Malaysian waters, including the West Capella standoff in early 2020. In May 2021, the Malaysian public and officials were furious with the incursion of 16 PLA flights into Malaysian airspace, an incident that forced the Malaysian government to reevaluate China’s capability and intention in harming smaller states despite pledging otherwise.

Despite the ambivalent relations between Malaysia and the big powers, the former will certainly seek to maintain its robust relations with China in the economic sphere despite an ongoing security risk posed by its assertive behavior. The hedging strategy by Malaysia in engaging big powers is pertinent to striking a balance between economic imperatives and security risk.

Regionally, Malaysia must observe its neighbors’ progress in rapidly developing their countries and maximizing economic potential, while keeping regional uncertainty in mind. Indonesia has shifted its capital from Jakarta to Borneo to drive its gigantic economy and has invited tech giants to set up operations in the country. The recent meeting between Jokowi and Elon Musk at the SpaceX site in Texas showcased Indonesia’s reputation and dedication to economic development.

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Meanwhile, Singapore has long gained its reputation as the hub for “unicorn” start-ups while maintaining its robust relations with the U.S. through Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to the White House on March 29. Meanwhile, Vietnam is on the strategic path to developing its own 5G network in close partnership with 5G’s major players, including Erickson and Qualcomm, while neglecting the Chinese 5G network amid the continuing dispute in the South China Sea. These are developments that show how swiftly the region is evolving toward a situation that simultaneously invites multilayered cooperation and competition. Even though China’s economic statecraft as embodied in the BRI is webbing the region while the U.S. remains a credible ally and partner in the security domain, Southeast Asian countries retain the ability to determine their national interest.

This combination of internal and external challenges demand that Malaysia gets it own house in order. Calling for an early general election is one of the mechanisms by which the government can gain a fresh mandate. The longer Malaysia waits to stabilize the country, the greater the negative impact on the country’s foreign policy, with repercussions that could last for years to come. Having a strong and stable government ensures the ability to implement a sound and vigorous foreign policy that can respond to the increasingly demanding external conditions. Malaysia cannot afford to contend with these uncertainties while facing unresolved domestic problems.