Malaysia still on global headlines, but now for the right reasons

The govt wants to be an active voice on international platforms to ensure peace, prosperity and development across the SE Asian region


After several years of bad publicity for Malaysia, no thanks to multinational corruption and financial mismanagements involving billions of ringgit by people connected with the former government, the country is back in the eyes of the world — for all the right reasons.

Having concluded the negotiations on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) with China, Malaysia is now seen as “the ultimate winner”, being able to convince and renegotiate mega deals with the second-largest economy in the world — with massive construction cost savings achieved in several projects involving the republic’s contractors.

Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is also fast becoming one of the most sought-after leaders on international forums, owing to its vast knowledge and intellect on matters pertaining to regional and global affairs.

According to Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (picture), Malaysia should capitalise on this phenomenon, by being an effective partner on international platforms to ensure peace, shared prosperity and development across the South-East Asian region.

Speaking to The Malaysian Reserve in an exclusive interview in his office at Wisma Putra, Saifuddin said the current government wants to be an active voice on international platforms such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), although the country is no longer the permanent member of the highly placed council.

“What normally happened in the past is that we only become actively involved in making decisions at the international level when we are a member of a decision-making platform, for instance, the UNSC.

“So now what we are saying, regardless whether Malaysia is a member of the UNSC, we want to be active. We have like-minded countries who are members of UNSC, a good example today would be Indonesia, who is also a member of Asean and we share many things together in terms of international and foreign policies,” he said.

Having this as the backdrop, Pakatan Harapan will be busy hosting the 32nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting next year.

The last time Malaysia hosted the high profile summit was in 1998, during Dr Mahathir’s first stint as PM, when he delivered an iconic speech entitled “Restoring confidence, regenerating growth and managing globalisation better”.

Goals to be Set in APEC 2020

During the 1998 summit, APEC member countries then agreed on the Blueprint for Action on Electronic Commerce, including a commitment to paperless trading by 2005 in developed economies and by 2010 in developing economies.

In the 2020 APEC, Malaysia will be drafting a new framework to chart the group’s approach moving forward, said Saifuddin.

“Coincidentally, next year is the deadline for Bogor Goals, a collective aspiration on long-term goal of free and open trade and investment in Asia Pacific.

“So people are looking at Malaysia for leadership, as to what will be the new framework,” he added.

According to Saifuddin, the new framework to be proposed at the APEC 2020 will have special focus on democracy, freedom, human rights, rule of law and shared prosperity.

“A lot of focus is going to be on sustainable development…sustainability will play a key role in determining all our decisions,” he said.

In 1994, APEC leaders met in a small cosmopolitan of Bogor in Indonesia, after which they adopted “the long-term goal of free and open trade and investment in Asia Pacific” and set a deadline no later than 2020. The collective aspiration has been called the Bogor Goals ever since.

“Although we are still trapped with a middle-income status, we are steadily climbing the ladder.

“At the same time, this is a new government and people are expecting more from us,” Saifuddin said.

The idea of APEC was first mooted in January 1989 by former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke during a speech in South Korea. Later in the same year, 12 Asia-Pacific economies met in Canberra, Australia, to establish APEC.

The founding members were: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and the US.

Some two years after, China, Hong Kong, and Chinese Taipei joined the group followed by Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Peru, Russia, and Vietnam.

Foreign Policy Framework of New Malaysia

The government will soon unveil a renewed foreign policy framework, which will stick to fundamental principles of the existing policy, only to shift its focus to the East and African regions.

Both the East and African regions received undivided attention by Dr Mahathir during his first term in office, including the Langkawi International Dialogue (LID) which served as an important platform for African leaders.

“The theme of the framework is change in continuity. That means the fundamental principles of foreign policies remain the same: Non-interference, non-alignment, focus on Asean,” said Saifuddin.

Although the Look East policy will make a comeback since 2003, the current government has given a new dimension to its approach.

“The revived policy will now focus on culture and discipline. Now, we are asking students to not just go and study in Japan but when they return, bring back the culture and values.

“This will be the focus but with some innovative elements, such as the establishment of a Japanese University in Malaysia. This has never been done before,” he said.

Japanese girls wearing Yukata. The revived Look East policy will now focus on cultures and discipline (Pic: Bloomberg)

On Africa, Saifuddin said the government is not keen on organising the LID due to high cost and current financial constraints.

“In those days, we organised the LID. However, we cannot do that again as it is very costly, hence we are looking at trade, for example, with a lot of focus on Africa here on.”

The first LID was held in 1995, which brought together many African leaders to Pulau Langkawi. Malaysia hosted the ninth and last LID in June 2011 in Putrajaya, the first time the dialogue was held outside of the northern island.

Besides refurbishing old approaches, Saifuddin highlighted that the framework will also have a set of new approaches, which include “economic diplomacy”.

“Economic diplomacy is something our diplomats have been doing in the past, but now, we are making it as a policy. To realise this, Wisma Putra has asked our diplomats to closely work with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI),” he highlighted.

With enhanced cooperation between Wisma Putra and MITI’s officials abroad, economic diplomacy can be applied on crucial issues revolving Malaysia namely the long-standing anti-palm oil pressure in the West.

Besides that, Saifuddin said efforts will be intensified to promote Malaysia’s capability to host more services within the “Islamic” spectrum — in which the country is already a leader in sukuk market, Islamic finance and education.

“There are other things that we can offer to the Muslim world, in fact to the world at large. For example, we can promote this approach called ‘Maqasid Syariah’, which means looking at the higher objective of the Shariah,” he said, adding that Malaysia should work on being an example of Muslim democracy.

Malaysia and the US

Malaysia, particularly with Dr Mahathir’s courage in criticising the US, is globally recognised — in contrast to other developing economies where the US is seen as a global economic heavyweight.

Under the current administration, Saifuddin said Malaysia wants to be “friendly” to all nations, including the US but remain critical on several moves by the country particularly those concerning the Muslim community.

“But we will be critical on issues… as I don’t think we can ever agree on the US’ position on Israel and we will continue to speak up about it.

“If you ask me whether we want to trade with them, yes. But we will also tell them that Malaysia does not approve the way they are treating some other countries, and that we are concerned on their trade war,” said Saifuddin, citing US’ unilateral sanction with Iran as an example.

To recap, US President Donald Trump had reactivated sanctions against Iran that could trigger the collapse of the multilateral Iran nuclear deal.

“We want to trade with Iran, but that sanction is not allowing us to exploit the opportunity,” Saifuddin added.

On Malaysia being placed under the ‘K’ indicator in US State Department’s travel advisory on concerns of kidnapping in East Malaysia, Saifuddin said the government has done their best to address the matter, including seeking an explanation from US ambassador in Malaysia Kamala Shirin Lakhdir.

“We asked her if she can write and convince Washington DC to retract Malaysia from the advisory, so we shall wait,” he added.

According to the US Department of State website, the “K” is a new risk indicator to its public travel advisories in order to communicate more clearly to US citizens the risks of kidnapping and hostage-taking by criminals and terrorist actors around the world.

Besides Malaysia, 34 countries are listed under the “K” indicator, among all: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen.

Reviving Interest in China-Malaysia Industrial Parks

The recent revival of the ECRL and warm reception granted to Dr Mahathir during his visit to Beijing last month have proven that all is well in bilateral ties between Malaysia and China.

According to Saifuddin, the sentiment has boosted investment queries from Chinese firms, and vice-versa.

“The moment we settled ECRL, and later complemented by Bandar Malaysia, the mood is now lifted, it is a renewed spirit and with that, people are coming back to invest,” he said.

Riding on the positive sentiment, Saifuddin said both governments are now working to attract investments into joint industrial parks namely the China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park (CMQIP) and the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP).

MCKIP is the 1st Malaysia National Industrial Park jointly developed by both Malaysia and China — a sister park of CMQIP (

Saifuddin said the MCKIP, which sits in his Indera Mahkota constituency, will be hosting more quality projects from China, to realise the objectives of the joint industrial

MCKIP is the first Malaysia National Industrial Park jointly developed by both Malaysia and China — a sister park of CMQIP and an initiative under “Two Countries Twin Parks” government-to-government arrangement.

MCKIP is strategically located in the East Coast Economic Region, facing the South China Sea, a gateway access to tremendous growth potential of the Asean and Asia-Pacific markets, and worldwide markets.

To date, Alliance Steel (M) Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Chinese firm Guangxi Beibu Gulf Iron and Steel Co Ltd, has invested RM4.2 billion to build a modern integrated plant on a 710-acre (287ha) site in the MCKIP.  The plant produces high carbon steel and H-shaped steel with an annual production capacity of 3.5 million tonnes.