Mahathir Mohamad’s return as Malaysia’s prime minister has brought important shifts in foreign policy priorities and partnerships from that of his predecessor Najib Tun Razak. Framed through a nationalist lens and by Mahathir’s earlier tenure as premier from 1981 to 2003, these changes are predominantly coloured by the past and do not fully reflect an appreciation of the new global environment and a calculated positioning of Malaysia for future regional uncertainties.

The most touted break from the Najib era has been Mahathir’s approach to China. Najib had moved the country closer to the rising global hegemon by expanding investment ties and dampening down responses to China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Malaysia became a critical country in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative due to its advantageous geopolitical location within Southeast Asia and its importance in the Obama administration’s Asia pivot policy. Najib’s government on its part had recognised China as the main driver of the region’s economy post the 2008 financial crisis. After the 2015 revelation of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandals, involving USD$4.5 billion tied to kleptocracy associated with the Najib government, China became a needed source of revenue for the debt incurred through the scandal and critical for Najib’s own political survival.

In the May election, Najib’s relationship with China became a campaign issue as multiple infrastructure investments were seen to be too costly and inadequately providing trickle-down to the domestic economy. After assuming office, Mahathir threatened to cancel the Chinese-funded USD$20 billion East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project and a USD$2.5 billion natural gas pipeline project in Sabah. While Mahathir’s August visit to China softened the blow and engagement with China remains strong, this initial distancing was couched in nationalist terms as reducing the country’s debt burden. At its core, Mahathir returned to his practice of protecting national sovereignty.

Mahathir also took a more nationalistic approach towards Singapore. Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) government had similarly allied closely to Najib and, despite prosecutions of bankers associated with 1MDB, Singapore remains embroiled in the scandal as a financial centre. The close support for Najib drew attention to Singapore and reignited old antagonisms over territory. Mahathir baited Singapore in speeches and Singaporean officials in turn reacted defensively, as they were caught by surprise by Mahathir’s return. By year’s end, the bilateral relationship had deteriorated due to spats over air space and land reclamation, as greater suspicion and competitiveness had set in between neighbours.

To address Malaysia’s debt problem, Mahathir reached out to Japan, arguably his closest ally from the 1980s. Mahathir had introduced the Japan-centred Look East policy in 1982 and was one of the few countries in the region that appreciated Japan’s investment and commitment to Southeast Asia. By July, Mahathir was able to secure a guarantee of Y200 billion ($1.83 billion) of Samurai bonds, strengthening Malaysia’s financial position. During his three visits to Japan, Mahathir announced a third national car and began negotiations for a soft loan to restructure national debt. Japan served to not only offset the distancing from China, but emerged as Malaysia’s regional anchor, especially given the perceived decline of the United States in Asia.

Coming to power with the promise of political reform ironically placed Mahathir in the position of engaging his old foes in the West from a different angle. Mahathir has long been demonised for his authoritarianism and attacks on the West for its role in Palestine and unfair treatment of developing countries. While unwilling to echo Najib’s warm embrace of the Trump administration, Mahathir put aside old criticisms and encouraged his administration to work with the United States in the 1MDB investigations and reaffirmed strong security ties. Malaysia’s national interest came before his personal reservations and reflected his traditional approach in maintaining cordial bilateral working relations even in the face of differences.

Mahathir however was not able to overcome different views of the treatment of the Rohingyas in Myanmar, opting to openly criticise the ASEAN member that he advocated be brought into the organisation in the 1990s in the meeting in November. Mahathir reembraced his role as a spokesperson for the Muslim world, even at the expense of an ASEAN member, reflecting the continuing erosion of the non-interference principle within the regional organisation.

Mahathir’s long-standing resistance to trade also shaped his response to Malaysia’s entry into the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the new US-less Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. While it is expected that Malaysia will join the agreement in 2019, Malaysia was not among the initial 11 signatures, in contrast to Najib’s position as an advocate for the trade agreement.

Where both men agreed however is in their position on the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Initially part of the election manifesto and advocated by Malaysian’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, Mahathir has announced that

his government would sign the agreement at the United Nations General Assembly in September. By November, Mahathir had reversed his position, returning to a Malay nationalist framework that allows for systematic racial discrimination domestically to “protect” the majority Malay community. He returned to his ideological roots with long-standing Malay chauvinist views, despite the overwhelming non-Malay support that had put him back into office.

While many in Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan government are touting reform, most notably the Foreign Minister Saifuddin, and there are indeed different forms of engagement, with civil society in particular, Mahathir continues to dominate Malaysia’s foreign policy direction. This is despite concerted efforts to promote a more liberal and people-centred foreign policy framework within his government. There is a disconnect between Mahathir’s foreign policy and the more democratic ideals of his government’s political base.

The further challenge is that Mahathir’s responses do not conform to new realities. Alienating China, goading Singapore, embracing Japan, feeding into ASEAN fragmentation, returning to the role of an anti-globalisation advocate and sticking with positions tied to race do not necessarily position Malaysia for new vulnerabilities. Old allies are important, but inadequate for the risks of today’s era of unpredictability. Mahathir is losing the opportunity to rebrand Malaysia on the international stage and to forge needed relations to promote the country’s needed economic and social transformation. Rather than prepare Malaysia for a more multipolar world, less favourable economic conditions in a region on the frontline of trade wars and greater regional competition and division, the choice has been to return to the past – potentially undercutting Malaysia’s future potential.

Bridget Welsh is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Asian Outreach at John Cabot University, Italy

This article first appeared in the ISIS Focus 1/2019 No. 9

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