Malaysia’s historic change of government in May 2018 returned former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to office supported by an eclectic coalition of parties and interests under the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) banner. This raised questions about how the self-declared Malaysia Baharu (New Malaysia) would engage with the rest of the world.
After the election, it was generally assumed that Malaysia’s foreign policy would largely stay the course, with some minor adjustments. This trajectory was confirmed with the September 2019 release of the Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia: Change in Continuity, the country’s first major foreign policy restatement under the new government. Analysis of the Framework and other signals from Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan government confirms that while there may be some course-corrections in Malaysia’s foreign and security policy, it will not stray far from the approach of previous administrations.
Continuities will include Malaysia’s focus on neutrality; its non-aligned status and pragmatic dealings with the United States and China; ASEAN centrality and a disdain for great power hegemony; the development of Malaysia’s economy through its trading relationships; and the promotion of human rights issues — particularly those concerning Muslims. At the same time, the government is refreshing its earlier “Look East” policy, planning to upgrade its defence capabilities in the South China Sea, and taking a more consultative approach to foreign policy-making.
- The return of Mahathir Mohamad to the prime ministership of the country he had previously led for 22 years has raised questions about the direction Malaysia’s foreign and security policy might take.
- While there may be some course-corrections in foreign and security policy under Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan government, it will not stray far from the approach of previous administrations.
- Continuities will include its non-aligned status, its pragmatic dealings with both the United States and China, its focus on ASEAN centrality and Malaysia’s economic development through trade. Malaysia will revisit its earlier “Look East” policy; it has plans to upgrade its defence capabilities in the South China Sea; and it will take a more consultative approach to foreign policy-making.