Malaysia and Israel– A strange relationship

October 12, 2015

Malaysia and Israel– A strange relationship

COMMENT: When my wife, Dr Kamsiah  and I landed at JFK International Airport, New York in din-merican-and-dr-kamsiah1 some time in June 2013, the Immigration officer at the counter looked at me as if I was an alien carrying a Malaysian passport.

He asked me pointedly why I was not allowed to go to Israel when I could come to the United States whose citizens in general support their Government’s policy towards the Jewish state since 1948 when President Harry S. Truman recognised the state of Israel.

The Immigration Officer was amused when I said that Malaysia was an exceptional nation, because unlike his country, Malaysian politicians in government did strange things for the gallery while they talked and wrote to Israel leaders behind our backs. We also did business with Israelis, albiet through proxies. The potential for mutually beneficial commercial relations between our two countries remain untapped.

It is time we stop saying that “Malaysia would consider beginning relations with Israel only when a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people is successfully concluded.” Let us be pragmatic and practical, and end this ban imposed on us by our government.

I had many good Israeli and Jewish classmates when I was studying in the United States and admired them for their academic brilliance, hard work and dedication. We studied, had meals  and attended fraternity parties together. We can learn a lot from Israel because it is a nation of knowledge entrepreneurs, outstanding scientists and researchers, and technologists.

Israel Start-Up NationBy having diplomatic relations, we are not abandoning our Palestinian brothers. In stead, we can help the peace process between Palestine and Israel along. Right now, we cannot do so because we are seen to be taking sides.

Let us move forward and accept the reality that Israel is not going to disappear from the face of the earth. Like the Palestinians they have the right to exist as a viable nation. War is not an option. Let us end this culture of violence. Peace is the way forward. I am in favour of establishing our Embassy in Tel Aviv so that we can begin a new era in relations between Israel and ourselves. –Din Merican

On Israel: A new foreign policy direction?

by Azrul Mohd Khalib

Every Malaysian who has ever owned a passport would have noticed a line of text printed at the very front of the travel document: “This passport is valid for all countries except Israel.” Malaysia is the only country in the world whose passports contain such an exclusion. The official anti-Israel position is very clear.

The Malaysian Government’s existing foreign policy does not recognise the state of Israel, has no diplomatic ties and prohibits any access or travel by Malaysians to the country. This prohibition also covers any sort of economic ties with the Jewish state.

A statement on Wisma Putra’s website states that “Malaysia would consider beginning relations with Israel only when a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people is successfully concluded.”

Najib and Israeli PMTherefore it was interesting to note the call for a “dawn of a much needed revised relationship between Muslims and Jews” in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent speech to the UN General Assembly. This coming soon after an increase in violence and tensions in recent weeks over the al-Aqsa mosque and confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinian youths.

Such a tenor is a significant deviation from the usual script used by Arab leaders, OIC member states and even the Prime Minister himself when responding to the ongoing cycle of unrest and violence of the Palestine-Israel conflict.

It was significant enough that the speech was picked up and remarked upon by The Times of Israel, a web based English language newspaper which declares itself independent and not attached or affiliated with any political party. The paper stated that “it was notable for a Malaysian leader to speak positively about Judaism and to recognise Israel as a legitimate interlocutor.”

Just a few years ago, Malaysia had called for Israel to be taken to the International Criminal Court over the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid. There are a number of Malaysian NGOs which receive direct and indirect public funding from the government such as Viva Palestina Malaysia, Aman Palestin, and Aqsa Syarif which are very active in advocating the Palestinian cause to the Malaysian public with extensive awareness campaigns on the alleged injustices and atrocities of the Israeli government.

A large number of Muslim NGOs continue to feature Palestinian suffering to cultivate public sympathy and fundraising for humanitarian assistance. Often the language used in these campaigns is anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.

Anti-Jewish statements regularly feature during Friday sermons. Just last week, more than 1,000 people gathered in front of the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to protest against Israel over the recent Al-Aqsa mosque violence.

The demonising of politicians as being pro-Israel and Jewish-friendly has also been used by both the Government and Opposition time and again to discredit and smear their foes politically.

There has been so much ado about the photograph of the Prime Minister bumping into Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in the corridors of the UN HQ, you would have thought that Najib had high-fived Satan himself. Maybe some even felt that he had to be purified (samak) somehow. Let’s take a deep breath and relax.

It is interesting to note that while all the above is true, the reality could be significantly different. We have short and selective memories when it comes to Israel. Ideology, rhetoric and our only human reaction that we have to the seemingly never-ending violence and suffering of the Palestinian people continue to colour our perception of the Jewish state and its people.

Not many realise that Israel had actually voted in favour of Malaya’s membership into the United Nations back in 1957. There had been direct communication with both David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir by past Malaysian leaders.

On a number of occasions, the Malaysian government seriously considered establishing formal diplomatic relations, particularly after Oslo. The current positioning vis-à-vis Israel stems from the sense of Islamic solidarity with the Arab countries and being a part of the Muslim ummah.

To this day though, formal diplomatic ties have not been established and there exists a ban on direct commerce with Israel since 1974. There is, nevertheless, an increasing flow of import and export trade between Malaysia and Israel worth hundreds of millions annually. Though conducted discreetly and often transacted through intermediate countries such as Thailand and Singapore, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics records show that in 2013, the total trade between Malaysia and Israel reached US$1.529 billion, almost double from the previous year.

PM Najib spoke of the need for forward-thinking leaders to put their people’s interests first and seems to have extended an olive leaf to the Israel government in his speech. Is Malaysia interested in playing a role in addressing and ending the violence and aggression in the Palestinian territories? In 2013, Najib visited the Gaza Strip and met with representatives of the Hamas government.  Does Najib see himself as a possible honest broker to bring in this new dawn between Muslims and the Jewish people?

Will we see Malaysia embracing pragmatic diplomacy in its dealings with Israel as part of this gambit and foray into the quagmire that is the Palestine–Israel conflict?

Malaysia: China’s Intervention is MCA’s Impotence and Najib’s Incompetence

September 30, 2015

Malaysia: China’s Intervention is MCA’s Impotence and Najib’s Incompetence

by Asiasentinel Correspondent

The implications of a September. 25 visit by Huang Huikang, China’s Ambassador, to the epicenter of the Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur to cool off rising racial tensions are spreading and manifold, with what observers regard as troubling international overtones.

Domestically, the affair has demonstrated the impotence of the Malaysian Chinese Association, the biggest ethnic Chinese party in the ruling national coalition and showcased government fumbling as well.

According to some observers, it is also a demonstration to the region that China, a rising and restless superpower, will not hesitate to act to protect the interests of ethnic Chinese, wherever they happen to be – nationals or not. China is Malaysia’s second-largest trading partner and could be its biggest if goods transshipped through Singapore are counted.

Huang told local reporters that “with regard to the infringement on China’s national interests, violations of legal rights and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses which may damage the friendly relationship between China and the host country, we will not sit by idly.” 

Beijing Says It’s Fine with Us

While that might be regarded as a freelance, impulsive action by an envoy worried about the welfare of members of his race, he was later backed up with a statement from Beijing, an indication that the step was hardly impulsive.

While China has long practiced – officially at least – the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” consisting of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence,” those principles are increasingly strained in the South China Sea with Beijing’s island-building campaign which is intruding on the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam and potentially Indonesia.

Huang’s action, although relatively mild and minor, is being regarded by critics as a disturbing example of the new assertiveness that was demonstrated on a larger scale and a larger stage on Sept. 24 in New York, when President Xi Jinping told the United Nations that China will contribute 8,000 troops for a UN peacekeeping standby force, giving it a dramatic new role as one of the largest forces in UN peacekeeping efforts.

berthelsen huang 092915

Just a week ago, China joined Malaysia for the first Association of Southeast Asian Nations joint military exercise, sending 1,000 Chinese troops. There has also been a rising Chinese economic presence, with the Guangdong provincial government announcing recently that it intended to develop Melaka, now a sleepy coastal town, into a seaport to rival Singapore and build a series of industrial parks.

Malaysian Government Waffles, Fumbles

wisma_putraWisma Putra

The upshot of Huang’s trip also left  the Malaysian government looking rudderless and confused in the face of what many considered an unwarranted interference in domestic politics by the ambassador. First, the foreign ministry announced it had summoned the envoy. Then Huang said he hadn’t heard from anybody. 

Then it turned out that Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Minister Hamzah Zainudin, serving as deputy foreign minister to Anifah Aman, who is traveling with Najib in New York, didn’t have the authority under rules of protocol, to summon an ambassador. Eventually Huang did go to the foreign ministry but the results of the meeting remained a mystery.

Anifah eventually issued a statement calling attention to what he termed “meddling”—not by the Chinese, but by several other Malaysian cabinet ministers who “had “taken action and made statements to the press” without consulting him. The handling of the issue has left the government – with its Prime Minister absent to take charge – without the opportunity to make a clear statement about its sovereignty.

“There was a bit of confusion there, they talk about protocol not being followed. But there is always confusion when you summon a big power like China,” said Zaid Ibrahim, a prominent Malay lawyer-turned-politician and independent voice.  “They could have handled it better. But on a country like China, you can’t blame them for that. They are probably unsure of what to do, to handle confusing signals.” 

Asked if the Malaysians were intimidated by China, he responded: “Everybody’s intimidated by China.”

Race Tension Drew Ambassador

Tan-Sri-Mohd Ali RastamRed Shirt Racism

Racial tension, always a factor in the Malaysian political discourse, had been in Malaysia spiraling upwards since a Sept. 16 rally by ethnic Malays bused in from the countryside and who, it later transpired, were paid to be there, possibly by forces close to the embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been fighting to keep his job in the face of multiple scandals.

So-called Red Shirt thugs began increasing the pressure on Chinese merchants and hawkers on Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur’s most densely-packed Chinese area. An UMNO division chief named Jamal Md Yunos threatened a march into Petaling Street, ostensibly to root out fake goods, but was clearly aimed at intimidating the Chinese. At that point, Huang appeared for a stroll along the street, passing out mooncakes in honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Najib at 58th MCA GAMCA failed to act

The subsequent events may well have driven the final nail into the coffin of the flailing Malaysian Chinese Association, the ethnic Chinese component of the race-based national ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organization. According to a source with ties to the community, the hawkers and traders in the area repeatedly appealed to the MCA to take action to stop the threats of violence, to be met with confusion on the part of party leaders.  Some argued that it was time for the MCA to cut ties with the Barisan Nasional and Najib because of his financial and political support of the Red Shirts.

Faced with paralysis on the part of the party, the source said, the traders went to the Chinese embassy to ask for help, which resulted in Huang’s controversial walk through the area. Although subsequently Malay supremacists have threatened additional marches, there has been no action.  But the dithering by the MCA, long the traditional political home of the Chinese petty merchant community, is expected to cause continuing erosion towards the more assertive Democratic Action Party.