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Pragmatism and national interests determine Malaysia’s foreign policy towards Palestine

October 2, 2023 at 5:30 pm

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim attends the 18th East Asia Summit as part of the 43rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta on September 7, 2023 [YASUYOSHI CHIBA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

Malaysia’s foreign policy and all prime ministers from the late Tunku Abdul Rahman until the incumbent Dato’ Sri Anwar Ibrahim have been committed to achieving lasting peace for Palestine. The policy remains vested on pragmatism and national interest. The former is a foreign policy approach of dealing with problems in a practical rather than an ideal way; it demands good understanding of the international order and the system. Malaysia realises its structural limitations in pursuing its goals, with aspirations towards Palestine that are achievable with the close cooperation of the international community and the support of international institutions.

The ministry of foreign affairs in Kuala Lumpur states that Malaysia continues to pursue an independent, principled and pragmatic foreign policy founded on the values of peace, humanity, justice and equality. The ministry also realises the complexity of global affairs. Malaysia’s conduct is thus guided by the principles of respect, independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference, peaceful settlement of disputes, peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit in relations. Based on the above framework, it supports the existence of Palestine, protests against Israel’s violations of international law, and condemns all atrocities against Palestinians in the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Four fundamental principles guide Malaysia’s foreign policy towards Palestine. For a start, Islam is the religion of the Malay people which emphasises the concept of “Ummah” and “brotherhood”; it plays a vital role in shaping Malaysia’s approach. Then there is the idiosyncratic Malaysian leadership that shapes the policy. This was especially very prominent during the time of Tun Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamad, who has always been vocal in criticising Israel. Moreover, the issue of Palestine touches the principles of humanity and justice. There is also the lack of support among major powers in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an unbiased position. Israeli apartheid, the delay in the peaceful resolution of disputes and the obvious double standards of the major powers push Malaysia to seek justice for Palestine with like-minded nations.

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Tunku Abdul Rahman was the first Prime Minister of Malaysia and a prominent leader before independence. He was from a pro-western, aristocratic family. The British connection was strong during his time and shaped his perception about Israel. He was positive about establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1956, when he was approached by Israeli leaders. However, Tunku’s perception towards Israel changed after Malaya got independence. Pro-Islamic activism got stronger in Malaya with the emergence of Pan-Arabism in the Middle East. The role of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Naseer was the major factor. Pan Arabism was linked with Palestine’s liberation, which touched the sentiments of Malay Muslims. Cordial relations with the Arab nations were considered to be more important than any with Israel in terms of national interests.

Tunku’s era was characterised by the formation of Malaysia and the confrontation with Indonesia, perceived of the idea of Malaysia as a neo-colonialist nation in South-East Asia. Malaysia needed the support of Afro-Arab nations in international forums over its creation. When Malaysia was created in 1963, Singapore was part of it, but it left Malaysia in 1965. By 1966, Tunku’s policy toward Israel was not favourable. He criticised Singapore for having Israeli advisors. Shipments of goods were banned from Malaysia’s ports. Slowly, the trade connection between Malaysia and Israel was discontinued. This was a pragmatic policy based on Malaysia’s national interests rather than anti-Israel sentiments.

From Tun Razak to Tun Hussein Onn (1970-1981), pro-Palestine policy and “No” to Israel continued as part of Malaysia’s foreign policy. Tun Mahathir’s premiership was significant for Palestine. As prime minister, he sent out a strong image as a staunch supporter of Palestine. He courted controversy by being vocal against the major powers and the UN. He was accused of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and defined Palestinian resistance as self-defence, not terrorism. He legalised the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas during his time in office, before the US and Israel recognised the PLO in 1993. In 1983, Tun hosted a UN-sponsored Palestine Conference in Kuala Lumpur and invited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to visit Malaysia. Tun’s contributions brought international awareness about the plight of the Palestinians. He placed Zionism at the centre of discussion in all forums he attended. In 1988, Tun declared his recognition of Palestine as an independent nation; Malaysia was the first country in South-East Asia to recognise Palestine. It also supported the establishment of an office in Malaysia for the Fatah movement.

Tun Mahathir was succeeded by Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2003. His time in office witnessed the continuation of Mahathir’s policy towards Palestine. Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib visited Gaza in 2013, signifying the beginning of Malaysia’s official relationship with Hamas. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Al-Aqsa University for his support for the Palestinian cause. Najib affirmed Jerusalem as the capital city of Palestine in a 2017 meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. As one of the first to declare a “One Palestine” policy, Malaysia regards all Palestinians as one entity, regardless of their place of origin or residence in Gaza, Jerusalem or the West Bank. This is an example of the pragmatism of Malaysia’s foreign policy to strengthen its solidarity with the Palestinians.

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When Tun Mahathir came back as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia, Palestine became a vital component in Kuala Lumpur’s foreign policy. He organised the 2019 Summit in the Malaysian capital attended by leaders of Iran, Qatar, Turkey and Hamas to address political, social and economic issues in the Muslim world. The head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Malaysia in 2020 and met Tun in his office in Putrajaya, praising him for his support for Palestinians.

With uncertain political turmoil from 2020 to 2022, Malaysia changed prime ministers from Tan Sri Muhyiddin to Dato’ Seri Ismail Sabri. It was last year that Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim became the country’s tenth prime minister. Anwar is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, although his activism is currently overshadowed by economic issues. Nevertheless, at the recent 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, he condemned Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and suppression of the Palestinian people. He never fails to reaffirm Malaysia’s commitment and solidarity with the struggle of Palestinians in all international forums.

According to Thomas W. Robinson, national interest is, “The general long term and continuing purpose which the state, the nation, and government all see themselves as serving.” He classified it into six categories: primary interests, secondary interests, permanent interests, variable interests, general interests and specific interests. The issue of Palestine comes under permanent interests and variable interests, influenced by domestic politics, international politics and leaders’ perceptions. “Primary” interests include the preservation of physical, political and cultural identity of the state against encroachments by outside powers, survival and the continued existence of the state.

Malaysia aspires to see justice prevail for Palestinians through a peaceful resolution of conflict. Until then, it will continue to treat Palestine as an issue of national interest through the lens of pragmatism.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.