Unshakeable links between both nations should be impetus for greater economic, strategic ties

By Veena Sikri

ANNIVERSARIES are special occasions. The 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Malaysia provides a valuable opportunity to assess the achievements of our bilateral relationship and discuss the future.  

In 1957, the year of Malaysia’s independence, the leaders of both nations had a clear vision about the importance of India-Malaysia relations. In December 1958, president Rajendra Prasad was the first foreign head of state to visit the newly independent Malaya. Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman welcomed Rajendra with the words that for countless years “the soul of India radiated through the history of Malaya”. 

Prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was no less lavish in acknowledging Malaya’s close links with India. In his welcome speech, Tunku said the people of Malaya were “proud to acknowledge the debt which we and all other freedom-loving people of Asia owe to your great leadership of India”. 

Three years later, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Syed Putra went on an India state visit. This was the first visit to India by a head of state of Malaya. Speaking at the banquet held in his honour, Tuanku Syed Putra said “the ties that link your country and mine are both old and new. The old ties stretch so far back in time and history that it is impossible to say with any precision when the first contacts were made… more than a thousand years ago… India and Malaya are like two arms embracing the same ocean.  

But setting aside the undoubted evidence of history, and the questions of commerce and custom, or the presence of many words of Indian origin in the Malayan languages, or the still-living spirit of the Ramayana in our songs and stories, there are in modern times even stronger relations and personal ties between our two lands”. With such auspicious beginnings, the bilateral relationship between the two countries has grown by leaps and bounds. This was reflected through the joint decision announced during the visit to Malaysia by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2015, elevating India-Malaysia relations to enhanced strategic partnership.  

Solid foundations 

High-level exchanges were significant contributors to developing bilateral relations. Over the last 65 years, at the level of head of state and government, there have been 18 visits from Malaysia to India, and 15 vice versa. Bolstering the summit-level exchanges have been the even more frequent exchanges at the cabinet level, including foreign, defence, higher education, commerce and agriculture ministers. Over the years, valuable bilateral institutional mechanisms have been established to nurture the relationship and bring the focus to implementation of decisions taken at higher levels. These include the joint commission, foreign office consultations, MIDCOM (Malaysia-India Defence Cooperation Meeting), parliamentary friendship group, CEOs’ forum and joint working groups.   

The economic partnership between Malaysia and India is developing rapidly, building upon a solid foundation of trade and two-way investments. Bilateral trade was US$19.41 billion (RM87.5 billion) in 2021-2022, an impressive growth of almost 35% over the previous year.  

Malaysian construction companies are strongly invested in India, their largest presence outside their home country, with a particular focus on roads and highways, railways, and upgrades of ports and airports. Malaysian companies have completed almost 100 highway and road projects in India, worth close to US$5 billion.  

More than 150 Indian companies, including 61 joint ventures and three public-sector undertakings are currently operating in Malaysia, invested in around 250 manufacturing projects worth US$2.62 billion. These include prominent Indian companies like Biocon India, which has set up its first overseas manufacturing and research facility in Johor Bahru. The Melaka Manipal Medical College is the single largest contributor of doctors to the Malaysian healthcare system. Ircon International Limited, meanwhile, spearheaded the Seremban-Gemas electrified double-track project worth US$1 billion.  

Building on historical legacy 

Defence cooperation has been an important bulwark in the growing multi-sectoral ties between India and Malaysia. The MoU on defence cooperation signed in 1993 has greatly facilitated this cooperation. Since then, the defence secretaries have chaired 11 rounds of MIDCOM. The ministers held talks, albeit virtually, as recently as June 2022.  

Regular staff talks between the Malaysian and Indian army, navy and air force are held at the apex level while Malaysian defence officers are enrolled in senior management courses in India, including at the National Defence College (New Delhi), Defence Services Staff College (Wellington), and Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. It is a matter of pride and great honour for India that the present Sultan of Kedah and Johor crown prince are alumni of the IMA (Indian Military Academy).   

Malaysia has the world’s second largest community of Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) after the United States. There are 2.77 million PIOs in Malaysia, around 90% from Tamil Nadu, with good representation also from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Punjab, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Gujarat. They are active and loyal Malaysians. India visualises their role as a bridge of friendship, further strengthening the dynamic relationship between the two countries. In 1946, the Indian Scholarships and Trust Fund (ISTF) was created to benefit and assist Indian-Malaysian students through scholarships. Today, ISTF continues its mandate with an injection of RM3 million which Modi announced during his visit to Kuala Lumpur in 2015.   

Malaysia holds a special place in India’s foreign policy for several important reasons. Malaysia is a founding member of Asean and continues to play a key role in policy formation and the activities of this regional grouping. Today, India’s Act East Policy, a principal driver in its foreign policy, seamlessly intermeshes the strengthening of bilateral relations with individual members with the continuous growth and development of the institutional framework for the regional India-Asean relationship.  

India recognises and accords the highest importance to the Asean centrality in the evolving regional architecture. The year 2022 marked 30 years of Asean-India relations. Over these three decades, the strategic partnership has grown from strength to strength. Marking this milestone, the co-chairs’ statement on the special Asean-India foreign ministers’ meeting held in New Delhi in June 2022 detailed the work ahead to transform the relationship into a comprehensive strategic partnership. Malaysia and India should work together to achieve this. 

Malaysia and India both belong to the recently formed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), launched by US President Biden in Tokyo in May 2022. This opens up avenues of cooperation between the two countries, focusing on trade, supply chains and clean energy. Maritime cooperation, including security, connectivity and the Blue Economy are key areas of cooperation in the Asean-India partnership. Malaysia and India should collaborate to develop initiatives in this sector.  

Malaysia and India have built a strong and sustainable foundation for future growth in bilateral relations, incorporating in its fold the relevant aspects of the Asean-India partnership. The synergies, the win-win outcomes for both nations are increasingly evident, especially in trade, investment and economic cooperation, defence and security collaboration, and education and health. Yet the full potential in these sectors has not been realised.   

On the sapphire anniversary of our diplomatic relations, let us rededicate ourselves with fresh vigour to achieving and surpassing the set targets, so that we may fulfil the prescience of Tuanku Syed Putra when he said in 1961 that “India and Malaya are like two arms embracing the same ocean”.  

Prof Veena Sikri is currently based at Jamia Millia Islamia and former high commissioner to Malaysia 

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