The return to ZOPFAN

Malaysia has always garnered considerable attention in the foreign media. To a large extent, this is to due to the status of Malaysia as an “Asian tiger,” or an emerging economy.

The vocal nature of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad, who often spoke candidly and openly about some of the most pressing issues of the time, also made Malaysia a key magnet of the international media.

The imprisoment of Anwar Ibrahim, leading to his subsequent freedom, due to a clear case of miscarriage of justice, has more often than not, lent an air of gravity to the very judicial integrity of the Malaysian legal system, which used to be one of the best in the British Commonwealth until 1998.


Not surprisingly, The Straits Times Singapore, South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, The Nation and The Bangkok Post in Thailand, in addition to the Nikkei Asian Review in Japan have all featured Malaysia rather prominently.

On a per capita basis, the wide coverage of Malaysia, is probably a reflection of its pivotal role in the strategic geography of Southeast Asia too.

Malaysia straddles between the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea. In fact, Malaysia is the only country that is divided by the South China Sea——with the peninsular on the West while the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah on the east.

Right in the midst of this maritime territory is the Natuna Island, which belongs to Indonesia too, whose North Natuna Sea now overlaps with one of the nine dash points of the South China Sea claimed by China.

Given the strategic proximity of Malaysia and Indonesia, invariably to each other, it is not difficult to imagine both countries as two of Southeast Asia’s most important countries too. Aside from Indonesia, Malaysia also has borders that over lap with Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines—-making Malaysia the one member state in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the most number of territories, land or at sea, that border with another.

The international media knows that all the Prime Ministers, including Prime Minister in Waiting Anwar Ibrahim, is savvy in English too. Almost all of them have had no difficulties in engaging the press in the English vernacular. By adopting a policy that is pro trade, while at the same time protective of its infant industries, especially the automobile sector, Malaysia has always been at the forefront of globalization, only to concurrently insist that any such processes must undergo the strictest of scrutiny.

Due to such paradoxes, it is not difficult to understand why Malaysia is an object of fascination to the rest of the world, especially the voracious print and electronic media, including social ones, that are at once enthralled by Malaysia as they are enmeshed with it, through stories which they have to tell, and re-tell, many times over, often over issues and terrains that are well covered but not properly developed.

Take Malaysia’s China policy, for instance. By suspending the East Coast Railway Link (ECRL) is Malaysia stalling for time to rebuild its financial situation, which has been ravaged by the kleptocracy of the administration of Datuk Seri Najib Razak, or, leveraging on its strategic geography to impel Beijing to take Malaysia more seriously ?

Malaysia, after all, is the core component of the “Belt and Road Iniative,” with which China has spent more than a trillion dollars across some 68 countries. The answer is likely to be a combination of the two.

Nevertheless, not all newspapers can get “Malaysia right”. Most, if not all, can analyse Malaysia only after the facts, and not before. In other words, almost no Western press can predict what is likely to happen in Malaysia until after it has happened.

No news paper predicted the Asian financial crisis twenty years ago. Nor did any news paper predicted the strength of the Reformasi campaign after 1998. Most recently, almost no one got the May 9th electoral upset right.

Thus, almost no English media in Asia and the West, including The Financial Times and The Economist, had foresaq the downfall of Barisan National and UMNO——-this despite their (kleptocratic) excesses.

When the media cannot get Malaysia right, it creates an incentive for some of them to be the first among the equals to attempt to make a break through. In other words, to assume that they know more than the rest; when perhaps none does.

With or without a strong source on the ground, many media tend to make strong claims. Yet, as time goes by, the media cannot back them up.

South China Morning Post, in Hong Kong, for example, claimed as early as mid May 2018, that none of the USD 134 billion Chinese investments would be affected by the electoral upset. Wrong.

Neither Malaysian leaders nor the press had known the extent of the damage until Tun Dr Mahathir had assumed his role as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Thus, Malaysia has had to disentangle itself from its macabre debt situation from China first, without which it would not be able to pare down its national debt of USD 687.9 billion.

Indeed, the banning of Chinese purchase of the properties in Country Gardens in Johor——a situation that is still being resolved—–is the clearest sign as yet that not all things are going well, especially for the HK listed Country Gardens Limited.

The latter has readied itself to be the anchor partner of the State government and Sultanate of Johor to the tune of USD 100 billion until 2050. Yet, Mahathir has said No to the project.

While Mahathir’s refusal is not the first in the region of ASEAN, granted that the military junta in Myanmar has banned the Myitsone Dam before in 2011 before, a project that would have made Myanmar vulnerable to Chinese economic pressure and its debt book diplomacy, it is the first in the heart of ASEAN.

Once again, the foreign media is enraptured with what Tun Dr Mahathir wants to do, invariably, how he helps Malaysia to take a strong stance against the Chinese government and business interest combined, when Tun Dr Mahathir’s own party is merely a minority on a coalition of four.

Will the Alliance of Hope or Pakatan Harapan continue to stay united on the issue, or, will the unity crack in due course, especially when China begins to entice other partners in the coalition to break its ranks from Tun Dr Mahathir ?

The truth is no one knows the unknown unknown other than Tun Dr Mahathir himself. After all, Tun Dr Mahathir has made two trips to Japan, and is about to make another to the United States in September.

The totality of these trips, if carefully and subtly managed, can lead to the politics of balancing China—-with the United States and Japan stringing along.

But this would be a dangerous high wire act, that Malaysia has always attempted anyway in the name of the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) since the 1972.

The international press may assume that the balancing has begun, when in fact Malaysia is merely returning to its old diplomatic playbook.

Come what may, the international press will always assume that Malaysia is more nifty than many gives it credit for.

In this sense, there will be two or more schools of thought on the crafty nature of the Malaysian foreign policy, running rings around China, and compelling Beijing to exhibit more patience.



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