Is Malaysia still the darling of the developing world?

SINCE the time of the ancient Kingdom of Srivijaya and the Malacca Sultanate, the rulers of the Malay Peninsula and the greater Malay Archipelago have always maintained cordial relationships with its neighbours, particularly India and China.

In fact, these ancient Malay kingdoms prospered not only because of trade but also due to outstanding diplomatic skills of its rulers.

This is the legacy that one could observe through the leadership of our father of independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who negotiated independence with the British without bloodshed.

Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second prime minister, was the first to engage diplomatic relations with China in 1974, when the rest of the world refused to do so.

During Dr Mahathir’s tenure as the fourth prime minister, Malaysia participated actively in promoting the protection of human rights and became the voice of the developing world. 

Malaysia is also among the few nations that managed to successfully balance its relationship with the two superpowers of the modern world, the United States of America and China. As such, Malaysia was able to prosper and became one of the most developed nations of the non-aligned bloc.

Malaysians possess the eighth strongest passport in the world, ranked by Passport Index in 2020. Malaysians have visa-free/visa upon arrival access to 164 nations the world over. This superior ranking demonstrates Malaysia’s good reputation in the eyes of many nations in the world.

Malaysia’s good global reputation in diplomacy has made it possible for the country to be one of the most peaceful nations on Earth. In 2019, Malaysia is at the 16th place in the Global Peace Index, outdoing Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Belgium.

Malaysia is the only developing nation on the top 20 list. As a result, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia is now one of the most visited cities in the world, ranked at the ninth place in a recent report published by CNN on December 4, 2019. 

This has been the policy of the nation since independence, that is, to maintain good and cordial relationships with other nations without interfering domestic affairs of others.

Nevertheless, Malaysia has been back in the limelight for the wrong reasons, particularly in its foreign policy. For example, India, Malaysia’s 10th largest trading partner, is reportedly considering banning palm oil imports from Malaysia in response to a comment made by Dr Mahathir on Jammu and Kashmir.

Prior to this, the Indian government has summoned Malaysia’s top diplomat in New Delhi over remarks made by him about the Indian Citizenship Amendment Act. Such remarks were regarded by India as neither in keeping with accepted diplomatic practice of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, nor with the state of the bilateral relations between the two nations.

The KL Summit held in Kuala Lumpur last year was only attended by three leaders of the Muslim world out of 52, namely Turkey, Qatar and Iran. It was not attended by the leaders of other Muslim nations, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Malaysia’s former foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah was also criticised for his statement on twitter that may jeopardise cordial relationships between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

In another note, China has also protested against the submission of the continental shelf claim made by Malaysia at the UN in the northern portion of the South China Sea, as the claim undermines the sovereignty and sovereign rights of China. For the record, Malaysia has neither recognised China’s nine-dashed line claim in the South China Sea nor regard itself as an immediate neighbour to China.

However, the statement made by the then defence minister Mohamad Sabu in June 2019 in a forum in Singapore that “Malaysia shares its borders with China” will complicate Putrajaya’s position to assert its maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Any Malaysian leader should be wary of statements to be made in public to ensure that interests of the nation will not be jeopardised.


Malaysia is a well-respected country with considerable global reputation. There are a lot of good things about Malaysia as this country is built together by all Malaysians, older and younger generations alike. Indeed, Malaysians are great achievers.

Malaysia did not become a success story overnight. It took years of hard work, perseverance and persistence to achieve where we are today since independence.

Malaysia should always engage and continue its friendly relationships with other nations so that we could prosper even more. As such, Malaysia’s good reputation must be preserved so that we could remain as the darling of the developing world. – March 8, 2020.

* Lt Com (R) associate professor Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli and Fareed Mohd Hassan are senior lecturers at the Faculty of Shariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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