AS Bangladesh celebrates its 50th year as an independent nation, one is also reminded of how Dhaka has remained an all-weather friend and ally to Kuala Lumpur for almost half a century.

Next year will mark 50 years of Malaysia-Bangladesh relations since Malaysia recognised Bangladesh as a sovereign nation in 1972.

In the 21st century, Bangladesh has evolved rapidly to become a force to be reckoned with — it is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and it is set to graduate from “least developed country” status to “developing country” by 2024.

The five decades of Malaysia-Bangladesh relations can be best described with one word: resilience. Throughout the years, there has been genuine effort and initiative to continuously enhance cooperation, be it through trade and investment, labour mobility and capacity building.

Ties with Dhaka are unique and indispensable, forged over years of “working at the relationship”, overcoming hurdles and hiccups along the way. Seeing how Bangladesh is making waves on the international stage only reiterates its commitment to collaboration, growth and prosperity, a shared vision for Malaysia in the new decade.

A challenge for both Kuala Lumpur and Dhaka during the pandemic was undoubtedly the issue of the Bangladeshi workforce in Malaysia. The situation was rife with uncertainties, particularly with regards to the undocumented workers, the return of workers with permits into Malaysia and also the difficulties that came with adapting to the new normal.

As Malaysian borders remain closed to foreigners due to the pandemic, this challenge may well be an opportunity in disguise to rework labour mobility policies and perhaps even develop a contingency model, in partnership with Bangladesh.

With close to one million Bangladeshi citizens in the country and Malaysia being the largest market for Bangladeshi workers in Southeast Asia, developing a working plan with Dhaka to prevent future untoward events would be mutually beneficial.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in March last year reaffirmed the camaraderie and goodwill that exists between Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur. She not only highlighted the common goals that both countries are striving for, but also the scope for greater cooperation and opportunities to deepen bilateral ties.

Malaysia and Bangladesh are also part of a number of multilateral mechanisms of cooperation, the D-8 being one of them. The goals of the D-8 resonate with enhanced trade relations between member states and more pro-active participation in decision-making at the international level.

Dhaka is set to host the 10th D8 Summit tomorrow, with Kuala Lumpur as the Secretary-General of the D-8 Secretariat. This is an excellent opportunity to work more closely together against the backdrop of the summit’s theme, “Partnership for a Transformative World: Harnessing the Power of Youth and Technology” — a timely post-pandemic topic.

The exponential growth of Bangladesh since 1971 stands testament to Dhaka’s perseverance and belief in playing to its strengths, i.e. a favourable manufacturing ecosystem, sustainable agrarian economy, people-centric policies which focus on poverty alleviation and equitable foreign policy.

In its enduring and somewhat stereotypical relationship with Dhaka, it is possible that Kuala Lumpur has not fully capitalised on various other vistas of cooperation. In Malaysia, labour mobility has dominated the discourse on relations with Bangladesh so much that the view of this South Asian neighbour may not reflect current realities.

Bangladesh’s growing prominence in the region presents an opportunity for Malaysia to diversify its relations with Dhaka and possibly facilitate its greater involvement with Asean.

Bangladesh’s unfolding success story is a fitting tribute to “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation. Spirits are high in Dhaka after the recent centenary birth celebrations of the remarkable Bangabandhu — a moniker for Rahman, meaning “Friend of Bengal”.

As the golden jubilee of Malaysia–Bangladesh ties approaches, the hope is that Kuala Lumpur truly internalises the importance of relations with Dhaka and manifest this into tangible, mutual benefits in the years to come. After all, Kuala Lumpur too, is a friend of Bengal.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 4 April 2021.

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