Foreign Policy: Malaysia’s Look East Redux?–Dr. Mahathir Mohamad Meets Abe-san In Tokyo

June 6, 2018

Foreign Policy: Malaysia’s Look East Redux?–Dr. Mahathir Mohamad Meets Abe-san In Tokyo

by Phar Kim


Image result for prime minister mahathir mohamad


COMMENT | Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad will meet his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe on June 11, and both men share something in common.

Both are helming their countries for the second time – although Mahathir enjoyed a much longer first stint compared to Abe’s one year in office, from 2006-2007.

While Mahathir is the prototypical Asian strongman, outlasting the likes of the Ferdinand Marcos, Lee Kuan Yew and Suharto – and potentially even Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong if the latter does resign by the end of next year – Abe isn’t doing too bad either. He is now the third longest post-war Prime Minister in Japan, albeit one wracked by a land scandal involving him and his wife.

In this sense, Abe is a true, blue-blooded political survivor. He is the son of former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, and the grandson of politician Kan Abe.

Image result for Shinzo Abe and Mrs Abe

While issues like China, North Korea and the South China Sea will be important to both leaders – in that each of these issues can significantly alter the military balance in the Asia-Pacific, if these have not done so already – none is more urgent to Malaysian interests at the present moment than Mahathir’s Look East Policy.

When Mahathir first announced the policy in 1981, the goal was to encourage Malaysian students and managers to learn what came to be known as quintessentially Japanese ethics, discipline and life values, as well as a devotion to building a better future for the nation.

Naturally, the realms of such learning cascade into areas like science and technology, which remain the passion of Mahathir. It is also worth noting that his Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu has often praised the discipline of Japan – especially the precision of its railway systems – during their campaign trails together.

Image result for Anwar Ibrahim's Asian Renaissance

Thus, Mahathir Mohamad can be the anchor of the reinvigorated Look East policy. One must not ignore de facto PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim too, who wrote ‘The Asian Renaissance’, and has many strong connections with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo.

When Anwar was not around to beef up these connections, Nurul Izzah Anwar stepped in time and again to keep the Japanese-Malaysian relationship warm.

A different Japan

Image result for Modern Japan

But the Japan of 2018 is very different from 1981. First of all, the economic bubble in Japan has gone bust, first in 1989, then petering to a slow growth after 1997 when the government of Ryutaro Hashimoto prematurely raised the consumption tax.

Secondly, while Japan has enormous land and strategic assets abroad, its national debt is above 150 percent of the GDP, almost twice the size of the national debt of Malaysia. The Japanese government has little leeway to provide more overseas development aid or soft loans.

The Keidanren or the Japan Business Federation would have to step up massively to bring foreign direct investment into Malaysia, since Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan are pro-business.

Thirdly, Mahathir has been wary of taking loans denominated in yen, as he has learned from experience in the Plaza Accord of 1985 that the value of yen can potentially double in value, thus, doubling the cost of repayment too.

Fourthly, Japan is a greying society. While Mahathir may seem like the antithesis to aging, he is the exception to the rule.

Image result for Ruchir Sharma, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of Nations’,


Research by Ruchir Sharma (photo), author of ‘The Rise and Fall of Nations’, has shown that societies that begin to grey first will see a drop in economic growth and productivity, as its population will begin to sag.

Japan is not averse to this structural dynamic, with its population regeneration rate of 1.34 well below the 1.5 required by the UN to create at least one child from one couple to sustain a new generation.

A New Policy?

Be that as it may, there are three areas which Malaysia can learn from its past Look East policy. Between 1981-2003, only 16,000 students graduated from Japanese institutions of higher learning. This is too low.

If Japan wants to work closely with Malaysia, the number of Japanese graduates from Malaysia must either triple or quadruple. As things stand, the number of foreign students in Japan has reached 260,000, with a target of 300,000 set by Abe. Malaysia should work with Japan to send another 40,000 students to Japan by 2020.

Nor does Japan or Malaysia have to foot all their academic bills. NGOs like Chikyujin Japan, led by Dr Akinori Seki – who is acquainted with Mahathir – have specialised in placing Asian students in Japanese language schools and universities.

Image result for chikyujin japan

Chikyujin Japan also helps these students find jobs – that can pay about US$1,000 to US$1,500 a month – upon their arrival to the country. Such a measure will cut the burden of unemployed graduates in Malaysia, as well as allowing them to earn additional skills concurrent to their monthly salaries when they are in Japan.

With the labour shortage in Japan, Malaysian students can study and work to instil the same discipline that is otherwise ingrained in the work culture of Japan. This is Look East based on the ‘school of hard knocks’ in Japan. Chikyujin Japan can, and will, help. That’s what it does.

Image result for saitama university japan

Malaysia could also work with the City of Tsukuba to create a centre of robotic research, indeed, to collaborate with the likes of Saitama University that has been a leader in precision sciences, robotic research and 3D printing.

Other universities in Japan offer the same depth and opportunities to Malaysian students. The University of Tsukuba, for instance, has one of the world’s best political economy programmes, paid for by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

Government servants can also be trained at Graduate School of International Policy Studies (Grips) and Waseda University’s Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, all in English, or, if the students prefer, in Japanese.

It is certainly not an alien concept, as Mukhriz Mahathir, for example, graduated from Sophia University that teaches almost all its courses in English.

Should cost still be a factor, the likes of Albukhary International University in Alor Setar, or other campuses in Malaysia, can be converted into centres of excellence, consistent with what Japan has done when each of their universities has tried to specialise in their respective fields.

Retired Japanese academics can teach in Japan either on a pro bono or highly subsidised basis. The key is the provision of decent housing for their academic stays. The Japanese Ministry of Education would support these centres to incubate them into proper seats and centres of learning in Japan. Malaysia could attempt the same, and link with Japanese centres as well.

Looking beyond

It would be good if Mahathir can look beyond Japan to understand how Japan has gained handsomely from its anti-corruption pledge signed with the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

While the Look East policy deserves a serious try, Japan has in the past implemented its own Look West policy, to little detriment. Malaysia has to understand what Japan learned from the West in order to become the country it is today.

By Looking East, the second phase of the Look East policy should also insist on Japan living up to its standards as a thought leader of Asia. It cannot be total containment of an emergent power of China or a rogue state like North Korea only. That would be too limiting a mission.

A middle way has to be found, as Malaysia is a trading state in need of investments from everywhere, especially the United States and European Union – not unlike Japan.

Indeed, it is worth mentioning that when Mahathir offered Japan to be the key representative of Asia in the Group of Seven through East Asian Economic Group (EAEG) in the early 1990s, Japan was lukewarm to the idea.That led Mahathir to suggest the importance of EAEG to China’s Prime Minister Li Peng instead.

In time, the importance of EAEG was morphed into East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) in 1991, which led to ASEAN Plus 3 and the East Asian Summits in 1997 and 2005 respectively.

Mahathir is capable of seeing things ahead of his time. The question is, can Japan up the ante and follow suit, without being totally obsessed – as justified as that may be – with the threats posed by North Korea and China?

The latter is what Mahathir wants to achieve: geopolitical and geoeconomic parity; with Malaysia convincing China, South Korea and Japan that they are not unlike the member states of ASEAN.

Come what may, Mahathir is bound to be the star attraction at the Nikkei Asia Conference on June 11, perhaps only to be eclipsed by the on-again, off-again June 12 summit of US President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

Pakatan Harapan should be ready for a proactive, pro-trade and pro-peace Look East policy, as should the opinion makers and leaders in Japan.

PHAR KIM BENG is a Harvard/Cambridge Commonwealth Fellow, a former Monbusho scholar at University of Tokyo and visiting scholar at Waseda University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

10 thoughts on “Foreign Policy: Malaysia’s Look East Redux?–Dr. Mahathir Mohamad Meets Abe-san In Tokyo

    • I agree. I got a group of students to join me in the states around 1980 and they’re all, every single one of them, successful businesspeople. Those who’re not in business are also accomplished in academia and other salaried professions. Of all closest students, i.e., in my sports team, eight out of ten became millionaires. Their teacher, however, remains a pauper (so ashamed, sob! sob!).

    • The younger set is lucky, having a new promising government to return to. Old timers like me are already quite useless even if we return, unless it’s to teach in some schools or colleges (I already did that for a while, when I returned nearly two decades ago). My younger cousin did return last year as an external examiner in a local university (he used to lead Australian national delegations for international scientific conferences) – one of the bright sparks who couldn’t take what UMNO dished out decades ago. There was also a young man I liked very much, now probably in his late 50s, who is in a field still not yet set up in Malaysia. He was asked to give up his Malaysian citizenship even before his PhD graduation ceremony. That’s how the West value talents.

    • Dear lcrenoir

      Dual citizenship for ex-Malaysians ? This will be controversial, e.g.
      significant number of Singaporeans are ex-Malaysians. Including some of my close relatives — a former high-ranking civil servant in Singapore, and a professor in Singapore.

      Anyway, in this globalised world, citizenship does not mean as much as it used to be. Talented non-citizens working in Malaysia (including ex-Malaysians) will boost our country. Also, non-citizens who invest their money productively here.

      P.S. Do not under-estimate the power of the pen (ideas) and teachers (especially at the university level) in changing society.
      One of my former political science students is an influential politician in PH, for example.

    • The govt has nothing to lose but only to gain by amending the outdated citizenship law to allow Malaysians to hold another citizenship.
      The Malaysian diaspora left Malaysia to seek a better life and future. Although many had to give up their Malaysian citizenship status reluctantly due to extenuating circumstances, they never severe ties as their hearts and roots still remain in Malaysia as evident in their enormous interests and support generated in the recent GE 14.
      In allowing ex Malaysians to retain their citizenship status allows them to vote and have a say, which will in turn strengthen and enhance their commitment and ties for a better Malaysia.

  1. Looking to Japan is the last thing TDM should do so soon , unless he is signalling the trip is to support US foreign policy through Japan as its proxy in this part of the region.

    We should look and reflect on ourselves first, wrt the big mess the previous BN / Umnob administrations / leaderships had left behind.
    Besides, a full cabinet is yet to be formed.

    We had look East once before. It did not really work that well.. Otherwise the country would not have left with hundreds of thousands of unemployable, undiscipllined graduates,……

    There are more urgent matters , polilcy reforms ,…to attend to and required urgent attention and action at home.

    • Yes, agreed – shouldn’t look to Japan. If you recall, the first time Mahathir looked East was due to the fact the British newspaper accused him of being corrupt. He boycotted the UK by instituting the Buy British Last campaign and the Look East policy.

      What can Malaysia learn from Japan? Money politics and cronyism? Amakudari? How to keep the Japanese race pure and not allow foreigners to be citizens, no matter how many generations they live there?

      There are places nearer to home where Malaysia can learn. But then it would not afford the opportunity for junkets in far away places. Maybe can learn from Botswana or Zimbabwe?

  2. Hi Dr Pua,

    Some random thoughts:

    Quite a lot of Asia’s past leaders were formerly from teacher-training institutions, e.g., the Vietnamese military hero Nguyen Giap, Mao Zedong from Changsa, Hunan, our local Malay leaders in the early struggle for independence (many from SITC, Tanjong Malim), etc.etc.

    The early revolutionaries could really write in an era when good writing was prized almost as much for form as for content. Today’s lay audience, however, tend to ignore articles more than a couple of pages long, and live for short, sometimes incomprehensible postings in Whatsapp and other online forums. Voltaire or Rousseau wouldn’t find much of an encouragement under the modern environment.

    I did graduate work and taught college kids only after decades of high school teaching, and I really miss the latter experience. It was easier to mold young children than when they became adults, though that’s also possible. And the reward was great, after seeing them succeed in life.

    On a personal level, I once described in my biweekly column for a newspaper how just by teaching and doing it as best as we can, we we could be rewarded with gratitude, warmth and affection seldom experienced in other professions. But that was decades ago, when school teachers seldom focus on giving private tuition than do what they’re paid for.

    On the matter of influencing people with our writing, college professors/lecturers need to adjust their writing style which often isn’t as easy as commonly assumed. Public writing is really a different genre. So far, however, Malaysian writers are ok and, I think, on a par with their Western counterparts.

  3. Forgot about Phua’s comment on dual citizenship: the US accepts it whereas Malaysia does not. In a sense Malaysia is right as it has to be certain that citizens do not owe dual allegiances. The US seems more confident but many have criticised citizens with dual citizenship, especially with Israel. The charge was that these citizens, e.g. the Jews, have used their influence (in the mass media and other areas) to influence US foreign policy to accomodate Israel’s wishes. Pat Buchanan once called the White House “Israeli-occupied territory.” Earlier, Gore Vidal, I think, had a highly stimulating argument in the American publication, The Nation, with a well-known Neo-con called Norman Podhoretz. When Podhoretz said Vidal didn’t love or care much for his country, Vidal retorted (not verbotim) “Of course I do. That’s why I about the US, not Israel, which is YOUR country.”

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