Monday, June 05, 2006

Towards Understanding Malaysia

Malaysia is one of Australia’s closest geographical neighbours. Both countries have had an open and frank relationship, with leaders of both countries frequently eschewing the usual diplomatic niceties.

During the Prime Ministership of Paul Keating and Dr Mahathir Mohamed, the exchange was especially colourful. At the time, Mr Keating was pushing for the formation (or was it upgrading? It was all too long ago to remember) of a new regional forum known as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which would include Australia and the United States.

Dr Mahathir wasn’t exactly a huge fan of the APEC idea, and made some fairly caustic remarks questioning Australia’s commitment to Asia. Mr Keating responded by using the term “recalcitrant” to describe Dr Mahathir’s attitude toward APEC.

Both Dr Mahathir and Mr Keating have moved on. Malaysia’s new PM, Mr Abdullah Badawi, is certainly more diplomatic than his predecessor. That increased diplomacy, one would hope, would be met by increased sensitivity from the Australian side.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has tirelessly worked to continue Australia’s strong and productive relationship with Malaysia and our other Asian neighbours. His efforts have on occasion been compromised by some comments of the Prime Minister John Howard, particularly Mr Howard’s remarks about the possibility of pre-emptive strikes against neighbouring states where terrorists are suspected of living.

But Mr Howard’s remarks represent the exception, not the rule, when it comes to relations between Australia and Malaysia. In April 2005, the two countries launched discussions toward the establishment of a bilateral free trade agreement (known as “MAFTA”).

Malaysia’s strong economy makes it a key country in the region. Though its GDP is around one fifth that of Australia’s, Malaysia’s two-way trade in goods and services is bigger than that of Australia and represents 200% of its GDP. Malaysia is ranked 18th in the world as an exporter and importer of goods.

In recent times, Malaysian armed forces have joined Australian forces seeking to restore order to East Timor. Malaysia is also a close ally of Australia in fighting terrorism in the region.

A few months back, Mr Downer launched the Australia Malaysia Institute. Among the Institute’s roles is to arrange cultural and leadership exchange programs between delegations from the two countries. In late June, the first delegation will be visiting Malaysia. I’m fortunate enough to have been selected to participate in that delegation.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006