‘Prime Minister of Malaysia actively advocated the idea of creating an alternative currency to the dollar’
Expert — about the rapidly developing country that can become a promising partner of Russia in Southeast Asia
Malaysia's neutral policy makes it attractive to Russia against the background of worsening relations with the West. This state can become one of our promising, major economic partners among the ASEAN member countries, says Karim Gaynullin, an expert at the Centre for Islamic World Studies. The columnist for Realnoe Vremya in his next article for our publication talks about the prospects of such cooperation. Malaysia, according to him, is also interested in increasing the volume of imports of raw materials, aviation from Russia and exports of its products. There is also potential in the field of religious cooperation, Russian Muslims are ready to cooperate with the Malaysians.
In the confrontation between China and America, Malaysia wants to be a neutral country
Malaysia is a country in Southeast Asia, located on the Malacca Peninsula and the northern part of the island of Kalimantan and adjacent islands. Malaysia, in its institutional structure, is a monarchical federation divided into 13 internal states, nine of which are headed by their own sultans. Little is known about this state, which belongs to the list of rapidly developing countries in our country.
The priority of Malaysia's foreign policy is illustrated by the following statement made by Mahathir in Tokyo in June 2018: “Despite that our government has changed, our policy towards other countries has remained the same. We wish friendship with all countries of the world, regardless of ideology, and guarantee that we will continue to trade and participate in all markets of the world.” This speech illustrates that Malaysia does not intend to take a specific side in the upcoming confrontation between China and America, but wants to be a neutral country, like the “Non-Aligned Movement”. It is unlikely that this position will change with the departure of 94-year-old Mahathir Mohamad from the post of prime minister.
Malaysia is both a new and an ancient state, while antiquity is not limited to one national myth, but is directly embodied in its political structure. In ancient times, the Austronesian population of Malaysia was strongly influenced by Indian culture and Indian religions, such as Shaivism and Buddhism. The name Melayu itself probably has roots from Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. Until now, for example, the ruler of the state of Perlis bears the Indian title of Raja, despite the Muslim faith. Buddhism is practiced by about 20% of the population, and Hindu cults by about 6% — however, these are mostly Indian migrants, because all ethnic Malays, according to the constitution, are Muslims.
Malaysia is a member of many international organisations, including: the Commonwealth of Nations, Non-Aligned Movement, Group-15, Group-77, International Criminal Police Organisation, International Olympic Committee, Mutual Investment Guarantee Agency, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, World Confederation of Labour.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which Malaysia plays a key role, is especially important for Malaysia. Thus, Malaysia was not just at the origins of the founding of this organisation in 1967, but was also a member of its predecessor, the 1961 Association.
Malaysia and security
Malaysia's security priority is the fight against international terrorism represented by Al-Qaeda** and Daesh***. Since 2001, the police have arrested more than 1,000 people in the fight against terrorism. The development of networked, unrelated terrorism, and attacks by individuals cause a great threat to the Muslim power. In addition to Islamist groups, Malaysia supports the fight against separatists in the region — such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil and Eelam.
From this, it can be concluded that Malaysia will be actively involved in anti-terrorist activities both within the framework of the regional ASEAN or confessional OIC, and in larger international organisations.
Territorial issues include disputes in the South China Sea: the maritime border north of Borneo, as well as the maritime and land area around Sabah Island. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Vietnam are included in the debate. This is the only regional conflict in which the country is included.
Malaysia and the Muslim world
Islam began to penetrate the territory of Malaysia from the 13th century through the mediation of Muslim merchants, and since then it has become especially entrenched along with nationalisation, when it became an important part of the Malay identity. In matters of law, most Malays adhere to the Shafi'i madhhab.
Malaysia is actively involved in international Islamic politics. In one of his speeches, the former prime minister of Malaysia said: “There was once a great Islamic civilisation. Today, unfortunately, we cannot claim to be a great civilisation. We are all oppressed. And many of our countries cannot even establish governments for themselves. We must understand where the turning point of this decline of Islamic civilisation was. If we can understand what the reason was, maybe we can figure out how to restore a great Islamic civilisation that will one day surprise the whole world.”
Religious affiliation and state religion bring Malaysia closer to Muslim countries and makes it an important participant in the organisation such as the World Islamic Congress. Malaysia is actively involved in the development of Islamic banking, is a member of the Islamic Development Bank organisation, at one time the prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, actively advocated the idea of creating a gold dinar, an international currency alternative to the dollar. Malaysia actively supports Palestine, Mahathir regularly raised this issue at the UN General Assembly in 2003, 2018, 2019. In 2015, Israeli athletes were denied a visit to Malaysia. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry reacted harshly to the recognition by the States of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2019. It is unlikely that their position on Palestine will change.
Another problem related to Islam, but much closer to Malaysia, is the issue of the Burmese Rohingya people who were persecuted in their native country. Malaysia received about 100 thousand refugees and raised this issue within the framework of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and ASEAN. The situation with the Rohingya is aggravating relations between Myanmar and Malaysia, despite that the latter supported Myanmar's accession to ASEAN back in 1997.
On the other hand, Malaysia is more courteous in the context of the Uyghur problem, preferring not to openly express its position. Despite this, Malaysia released 11 detained Uyghur refugees and transported them to Turkey, ignoring Beijing's requests to hand them over .
Relations with China
The importance of the Malay identity is connected with the demographic component of Malaysia, which is key to understanding political and state processes within the country. The Malays are the state-forming population, do not have an absolute majority in their own country. In total, Malays make up about 60% of the inhabitants. Moreover, historically, since the time of British colonisation, the main financial flows have belonged to local Han Chinese who occupy local bureaucratic positions and conduct economic activities in the empire, and, less so, to Indians who held less prestigious jobs. The Malay majority during the period of colonialism, being mostly peasant, was little involved in political life. Therefore, when Great Britain granted independence to the Malay Federation, the indigenous people — those who belong to the category of “bumiputera”, consisting of the Malays themselves and the indigenous Orang Asli — received a special status that gave them an advantage over the “non-indigenous” Chinese and Indians.
However, the disproportionality persists to this day and even worsens. For example, there is not a single ethnic Malay in the list of Malaysian millionaires. The share ownership of Chinese businesses in the country has only grown. In essence, the country's economy is run by ethnic Chinese.
This partly complicates the relationship between Malaysia, which seeks to strengthen the role of the indigenous population in the country, and China. During the reign of Mao Zedong, who pursued a policy of supporting communist militants in Asia, China actively supported the Malay Communist Party, mostly consisting of Chinese. As a result, relations between the countries were established only in 1974.
At the present stage, it is possible to indicate a noticeable improvement in relations between the two countries. Both states are partners within the framework of ASEAN. Officials of the countries often meet and consult on bilateral interests. Among the achievements of diplomacy, the formation of the Qinzhou and Kuantan industrial parks can be noted. Malaysia is China's third largest trading partner. China invests in major projects across the country.
Malaysia and the US
For the government of Mahathir Mohamad, criticism of the unipolar world and the orientation of the “look to the east”, rejection of Western imperialism were characteristic throughout his reign.
As already noted, Malaysia has traditionally been a big critic of the West on the issue of Israel. Mahathir accused the United States of aggravating relations with Iran, saying that miscalculations could provoke a war. It seems that publicly Malaysia does not take a Western policy, at least in the context of the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the United States remains the main investors in the Malaysian economy, accounting for about 20% in 2018. The US-Malaysia bilateral defense agreements and Malaysia's support for the US Maritime Security Initiative are not cancelled either. On the issue of security, the goals of the United States and the Malaysians coincide, which will worsen if China strengthens in the South China Sea area.
In general, despite the rhetoric, it will be characteristic of Malaysia to adopt neutrality in economic confrontations both historically and in the future.
Malaysia and Russia
According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Malaysia is one of the promising partners of the Russian Federation among the ASEAN member countries”.
Relations between Malaysia and the USSR were established in 1967, before neighbouring China. Vladimir Putin made official visits to Malaysia several times. Separately, it is worth mentioning Russia's cooperation with Malaysia within the framework of ASEAN, where Russia is an official dialogue partner. A number of agreements were concluded, such as the Agreement on Cooperation between Russia and ASEAN in the Field of Economy and Development and the Treaty on Friendship and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (the Bali Treaty of 1976).
Among the ASEAN countries, Malaysia is the largest partner of Russia in the field of economics, the cooperation of Russian raw materials corporations with Malaysian Petronas in the energy sector is important. In 2014, the trade turnover amounted to 3296,9 million US dollars, where Russia's exports amounted to 1,838 million US dollars, and imports — 1458,8 million US dollars. Malaysia is also interested in increasing the volume of imports of raw materials, aviation from Russia and exports of its products. Malaysia's neutral policy and its unwillingness to become a participant in any sides of the confrontation may look attractive to Russia against the background of the aggravation of relations with the West.
It was with the mediation of Russia that the flight of the first Malaysian cosmonaut Sheikh Muzafar Shukor to the ISS was carried out on October 10-21, 2007. There is potential for further support of cooperation in scientific fields. There is a request for the purchase of Russian aviation. Back in 2010, the Malaysians purchased 50 Russian short- and medium-haul MS-21 airliners for a total amount of more than 3 billion US dollars.
Besides, there is potential in the field of religious cooperation between Russian and Malaysian Muslims within the framework of bilateral Russian-Malaysian relations. In particular, the North Caucasian Muslims receive religious education in Malaysia due to the proximity of religious traditions. Russian Muslims are open and want their country's cooperation with the Malaysians. In January 2013, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov visited Malaysia, and in 2015 the Malaysian delegation was received in Kazan. Mahathir Mohamad visited the Chechen Republic in 2014.
On March 8, 2022, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would not impose sanctions against Russia unilaterally. This once again shows the neutral nature of the Malay state.
 Mahathir, “Keeping Asia Open”
*Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.
**Daesh is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia.
The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.