Politics, Asia - Pacific

Anwar Ibrahim advocates ‘neutral’ Malaysia amid great power rivalry in Asia-Pacific

Malaysia’s top politician discusses issues of political legitimacy, US-China tensions and current problems in his country

Riyaz ul Khaliq  | 25.07.2022 - Update : 26.07.2022
Anwar Ibrahim advocates ‘neutral’ Malaysia amid great power rivalry in Asia-Pacific AA Photo by Mehmet Murat Onel


Malaysia represents a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality, said Anwar Ibrahim, the country’s top reformer and politician, strongly suggesting against taking any side in global bloc politics.

However, he added, his country cannot ignore China.

“To be very realistic…we believe in peace, in democratic values, but we are neutral in the sense that we are not part and parcel of the revision or revival of Cold War politics, which means essentially that we should engage with America and the West and Europe as trading partners, in education,” Ibrahim, the incumbent opposition leader in the Malaysian parliament, told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview.

Ibrahim, an academic-turned politician, was discussing the return of the so-called “great game” in the wider Asia-Pacific region, where the US is forging bilateral and multilateral alliances to counter the expanding economic and military influence of China.

“But we cannot ignore the importance of the rising China,” he said.

“China is an important neighbor, a great trading nation.

“Malaysia’s trade with China is now probably number one…It used to be that (way with) the United States, which means that relations with China must be further enhanced,” he said, adding Malaysia still has issues with Beijing, but “we can express (our grievances) because we are an independent country.”

Malaysia and China share maritime borders in the hotly contested South China Sea, where several nations are in conflict with Beijing over its vast claims over the mineral-rich waters

‘Learn diplomacy from President Erdogan’

For the wider Southeast Asian region, where 10 nations formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to strike a balance between Washington and Beijing, Ibrahim suggested learning from Türkiye.

“The region should learn diplomatic skills from President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan,” he said.

“On the one hand, (Türkiye) is a member of NATO, and on the other, it is still in contact with the Russians and can even trigger some sort of arrangement or food security with Ukraine, (and Türkiye) can still have major trade arrangements with Iran,” Ibrahim said, lauding Türkiye’s diplomatic triumphs, especially managing a quadrilateral grain export deal among the UN, Türkiye, Ukraine and Russia which was signed last week in Istanbul.

“We have to have the wisdom and the diplomatic skill to do so in a manner that will not be seen as being too provocative.”

Ibrahim said Malaysia “does not have a problem with China.”

“That is with the United States. Let them deal with it. We are not a super, great nation to try and resolve that,” he said, suggesting Asia-Pacific nations should continue trade relations with all big powers.

Stressing that trade and investments through good and friendly relations were of paramount importance for the survival of nations, Ibrahim said: “I don't have any inhibition about having good relations with China or Russia or Europe.”

In the case of Malaysia, he said the country relies to a large extent on Western technology, American experience in governance and education.

“But we also accept the fact that the scenario is changing, China is growing," he said, adding Malaysia cannot ignore its immediate neighbors including the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand besides India, Australia and Pakistan.

“So how do we then navigate our countries to protect the best interests of the people?… By just aligning yourself with one camp and ignoring the importance of bilateral and multilateral arrangements?

“Assume, as a leader of a country, I see my best interest is what is there to protect the interests of the people, of my people, Malaysians. That means being friendly to most countries, trade relations, investments and accepting the diversity, complexity that we have to deal with,” he said.

Palestine a case of dispossession, an issue of humanity

A fierce critic of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, Malaysia’s position is that Palestine “is about justice and humanity,” Ibrahim said, expressing regret that the “so-called great democrats, Christians” in the West "suddenly obliterate" the case of Palestinians.

“I fail to understand that some of my good friends, the so-called political elite in the West, are completely oblivious…People are being killed… children, women. The properties, the land is being confiscated continuously, for decades,” he said.

“This is baffling (and) runs contrary to the principles of humanity and justice,” he added.

Referring to some Middle Eastern countries normalizing ties with Israel, he said it was “for them to decide.”

“Palestinians are bullied and are in open prisons, partly because of the gross prejudice,” he said.

Ibrahim said nations can have engagement, but “my position is that I don’t want to be the enemy of any country but I have to present the case very clearly, that you cannot continue all these atrocities inflicted on a smaller, poorer country because of the threat to your own survival.”

“I do not condone any act of violence or atrocities inflicted against anybody, but you cannot equate this. You dispossess people from their land, their homes, their property, and you say, ‘Can we negotiate?’ ‘Can we stop them from throwing stones?’ And when they throw stones, you shoot at them!”

Ibrahim said it was “the center of the problem.”

He added that Palestine was “not a Muslim issue, nor Islamic.”

“It is dispossession…It is a humanitarian issue. I pray, Insha’ Allah, that we get more sanity and objectivity!”

Legitimacy comes from people

Pointing to the political instability in Pakistan triggered by the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in April, Ibrahim said the fundamental principle of democracy or democratic values “is that the people have to decide for themselves.”

“It is not up to the orchestration of some foreign powers… The period of imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism should be over and done with,” he said.

Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, who was ousted on April 10 through a vote of no confidence, alleges that the parliament vote to oust him was done at the behest of Washington. The US has denied the claim, while his successor’s regime had brought up issues of rising inflation and oil prices against him ahead of the crucial vote.

Ibrahim said Khan has made a “compelling case and argument he put forward to prove his allegations against the intervention or interference of a foreign power.”

“Many countries in Latin America and Africa have seen this,” he said regarding alleged regime change operations.

In recent interviews, former US officials have acknowledged that Washington was involved in plotting government ousters in foreign countries.

“I don't think it is something that we accept or condone,” Ibrahim noted, adding people in Pakistan, like in other smaller and struggling democratic countries, “want to decide for themselves who should rule them and what system they adopt.”

“It is not the rich conglomerates; it is not the superpowers or foreign powers that should decide the future,” he added.

“It is for the Malaysians to decide for themselves… Even then, we take a position where we should be friendly to all countries,” he said.

Pakistan, he added, was formed to “ensure there is democracy, a Muslim democracy (as) envisaged by (its founder) Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah.”

“We should not allow any foreign power to interfere in the internal affairs of the country,” said Ibrahim.

He said the legitimacy of a government comes from its people.

“If you are a legitimate government representing the voice and the conscience of the majority, you will have the courage to secure its independence,” said Ibrahim, who earlier served as deputy prime minister of the country.

“If you form a government at the behest of a foreign power, you will be of course beholden to them.

“Muslim countries, when we're talking about democracy and democratic values, should make sure they have the support of the majority of the people and to navigate the country according to what is best for their countries,” he said.

Having said that, Ibrahim added, the US is “still an important country for us.”

“They have managed to set up strong institutions of governance, one that even (former President Donald) Trump failed to hijack with the attack on Capitol Hill. But there are excesses unfortunately, and people are getting more disillusioned because of the blatant disregard for the rule of law and justice when it applies to other countries, other people,” he said.

Ibrahim said Muslim nations should maintain relations with the West “but disagreeing with unilateral decisions.”

He said the Western nations have to accept that in dealing with the complexities of multicultural and international relations, “it cannot be a unipolar world anymore.”

“And we cannot be forced to enter into this sort of alliance without regard to the complexities that we face,” he added.

ASEAN governments should take stronger position on Rohingya

Ibrahim said ASEAN has taken a position “more positive than what I witnessed since the 1990s” with regard to the fate of the Rohingya community.

“Things changed a little after the Europeans took the lead,” he said, regarding the response of ASEAN to Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya.

Calling for a change in this behavior, Ibrahim said: "We're dealing with our own neighbors. Yes, as a matter of principle, you should not interfere.”

“But the people are being killed. When their houses are being burnt, you can't keep quiet.

“It is about humanity, about basic justice, and is affecting our country. Thousands are coming in and you say ‘No, no, we can't interfere'.”

He said it was nonsensical to remain silent in such a situation.

"Our position is for the governments to move forward and take a strong position -- stronger than the way it is now,” he added.

On the policy of non-interference in internal matters, Ibrahim said credit must be given to ASEAN “because ASEAN is a relative success because of its policy of non-interference that you can work and build together as a region.”

“But we should draw the line."

Referring to “non-interference,” Ibrahim said it means “completely cutting oneself off from the notion of humanity and justice.”

Relations with Türkiye

Lauding bilateral relations with Türkiye dating back to the times of the Ottoman state, Ibrahim said relations then between “our region and the Ottoman empire were more than just normal diplomatic or trade relations but also cultural and educational” ties.

“The current relations need to be furthered explored,” he said.

While acknowledging that the bilateral trade target of $5 billion between Malaysia and Türkiye is “something significant,” he said “when you look at the strength of the economy of Türkiye and the potential in Malaysia, it is still small, which means we have to undertake more effective measures to promote this.”

“There's actually absolutely no reason whatsoever that the friendly countries of Malaysia and Türkiye cannot expand bilateral relations.”

He said even being the opposition leader in parliament, “I've been very supportive and encouraging the government to welcome and see avenues of enhancing the relationship” with Türkiye.

“But I always say that it should go beyond trade. Trade is still fundamental, very important. Investments, education...In the 80s and the 90s, we encouraged students from Türkiye to go to Malaysia. Quite a number of them became professors and students,” he recalled.

“Now things have changed. Malaysia, unfortunately is left stagnated, but Türkiye has expanded and educational institutions have been further enhanced,” he noted.

Ibrahim said the two countries should also focus on joint research and technology initiatives “because Turkish technology, including defense technology, far surpasses many other countries, particularly Muslim countries.”

For example, there is “your success in drones and helicopters, which we as friendly countries look at and review with an open mind, not to be captivated by the old outlook of looking at the West or some other rich countries,” he added.

“The potential is enormous. I know the strength and potential of trade between these two countries.”

Message to Malaysians

As the general elections are expected anytime now in Malaysia, Ibrahim called on citizens to “choose what is best for the country.”

“The economy is virtually in the doldrums. The integrity of the leadership is in question. There is endemic corruption,” he alleged.

“It is for the people to decide. This is the best time to change the course of our history. We cannot be held at ransom in the old, obsolete system with draconian measures, threats,” said Ibrahim.

He said the young people, those in their 20s and 30s, “are exposed to social media (and) who understand better than the elders now because of the exposure to social media.”

“It is not necessarily all right, but then there is that opportunity to have access to different views.”

Ibrahim said the issue was “not just matter of changing prime ministers.”

“Nothing has changed. The system remains…The cronyism, the corruption is there. And it is not small,” he alleged.

Since the 2018 general elections, at least three prime ministers have held power.

“People deserve something better. It is tough work with rising inflation, with the rising cost of living. People need some assurance.

“This is for our own children. The welfare and health of our parents. Only corruption has advanced,” he added.

Ibrahim said Malaysia was “too democratic that everyone can choose to become prime minister, however mediocre one is.”

“This fragility in the democratic outfit is due to endemic corruption and people devoid of any principles or values,” he said.

He said there was “growing cynicism” among the people against political players “because of the endemic corruption of people selling their parliamentary seats.”

But he said his party has “negotiated with the incumbent prime minister and insisted in tabling an anti-hopping bill, which will happen on July 27.

It is to stop people from selling their seats, he said.

“Otherwise, a member of parliament has a price, which is a blatant insult to the intelligence of a political leader and the common man,” he added.

He said his party has also agreed to support the government to pass the budget “on the condition that it supports the COVID-19 health improvement programs, gives extra funds to the very poor people.”

Recalling his heydays during the 1990s, when “people would look up to Malaysia as a striking example of medium investments, progress and a vibrant economy,” Ibrahim said “now, we are looking up to Türkiye.”

“What is the problem? It is not the people, not the professionals, not the technicians, not the bureaucrats. It is the failure of the political class,” he said.

“So, Insha’ Allah, we’ll have to be optimistic for change so that there is clear stability when we face the next general elections,” he added.

Ibrahim said endemic corruption breeds poverty and then “people resort to the so-called nationalistic appeals. Racism, religious bigotry are the last refuge for scoundrels because they have nothing else to do to.”

“So we will have to battle this,” he said.

Lauding the founders of Malaysia state for “navigating and negotiating” the multiracial and ethnic composure of the country, Ibrahim said: “in the party I represent, we have Christians, Hindus, Buddhists. This is a stark reality.”

“We are not a monolithic party representing one race or one religion. But our position in Islam is very clear. We object to this prejudice, Islamophobia,” he added.

“But at the same time, we also recognize there are religious bigots in our midst and Alhamdulillah, the vast majority of Malaysians are still in the position and the belief that to survive as a country, we must reject either extreme religious bigotry or extreme Islamophobic tendencies,” he said.

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