Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Malaysia: middle or middling power?


Dennis Ignatius


~ Provoking discussion, dissent & debate on politics, diplomacy, human rights & civil society.

Malaysia: middle or middling power?


1. Is it the absence of leadership that causes us to keep pivoting from one controversy to another? Having gone through weeks of polemics over socks, high-heel shoes, and prayer mats, we are now in a kerfuffle about the remarks of a rather controversial academic with a penchant for courting publicity by making outrageous claims. Clearly, the organisers didn’t do their homework when they invited him.

2. Professor Gilley’s characterisation of Malaysia’s position on Palestine as tantamount to calling for a “second holocaust” is, of course, asinine, and not even worthy of a response. His claims that his safety had been compromised are also self-serving.

3. But his comments, as outrageous as they are, have provoked a timely discussion about our foreign policy and how we are being perceived abroad, particularly in the light of our support for Palestine.

4. Malaysia’s strong support for the people of Palestine has been a mainstay of our foreign policy since independence and is well-known. It is a position that many other countries – and increasingly millions of people across the globe – also share. We certainly don’t need to be apologetic about it.

5. The prime minister’s over-the-top support for Hamas, however, has taken Malaysia into uncharted territory. Harshly condemning Israel’s horrific genocide against Palestinians and providing whatever humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza is one thing; actively giving moral and other support to a group like Hamas is quite another.

6. Such a controversial stance is bound to elicit strong responses. Many Malaysians themselves are uncomfortable with it. If we are going to find common cause with the likes of Hamas, we had better get used to acerbic comments being thrown at us. We can’t expect to hold on to our so-called “moderate Islamic country” montage if we embrace the likes of Hamas.

7. Furthermore, it may be argued that the prime minister’s embrace of Hamas hinders rather than advances our ability to help the Palestinian people. Any country that wishes to truly help the Palestinian people must, out of necessity, work with other countries to gain access to supply corridors for humanitarian assistance, help shape responses, and be heard. Embracing Hamas does nothing to advance those objectives given that many countries in the Middle East are themselves very wary of Hamas.

8. Of late, foreign policy decisions are being made in a vacuum without the benefit of the kind of vigorous internal debate and discussion that attended major policy initiatives in the past. Increasingly, decisions are made on the fly, often to score cheap points domestically.

9. The agreement to set up the King Salman Centre to Combat Terror, the decision to join the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen, and now the open support for Hamas are cases in point.

10. There was a time when Malaysia led the region in ideas and initiatives, but we have long since conceded that role to countries like Indonesia and Singapore. Now we are so wrapped up in ourselves, so focused on our internal squabbles and on issues of race and religion, that we are less capable of thoughtful foreign policy initiatives.

11. If we aspire to a bigger role on the world stage – the theme of the University of Malaya forum at which Professor Gilley spoke – we had better start thinking and acting more strategically. If we don’t, the only future that awaits us is that of a mediocre, middling power.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | April 30 2024]


  1. Malaysia is in danger of becoming a country whose best days were in the past, and headed towards Pakistan , Iran and even Afghanistan direction.
    The current Malaysian government policies and actions certainly favour decline.

  2. The apt description is PIDDLING