June 11, 2004

Malaysia agrees to friendlier relations

By Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia has agreed to a substantial upgrading of ties with Australia in a move officials hope will bring an end to decades of friction between the two countries.
Agreement was reached yesterday to hold formal annual talks between the two foreign ministers and separate regular consultations between senior security officials.
The Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, has also agreed to pay a state visit to Australia, possibly before the end of this year, the first by a Malaysian leader in more than 20 years.
The moves point to a sea change in relations after years of political upheaval fuelled largely by personal animosity between former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and successive Australian leaders. Malaysia's Foreign Minister, Syed Hamid Albar, confirmed yesterday that Mr Abdullah, who took over after Dr Mahathir retired last October, was directing efforts to rebuild the relationship.
"The intention of our Prime Minister is to see that we continue a very strong relationship with Australia and we look at other dimensions where we can improve further," he said.
The Malaysian Government - which for years blackballed closer ties between Australia and the Association of South-East Asian Nations - also recently supported a decision for Australia and New Zealand to attend the annual ASEAN leaders' summit, in Laos in November, to discuss closer economic co-operation.
The plan for the annual meetings of foreign ministers and security officials was announced after talks in Kuala Lumpur yesterday between Mr Syed Hamid and the Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer.
Asked whether Dr Mahathir's departure had paved the way for closer ties, Mr Downer said: "I wouldn't always try to reduce things to personalities. I think in the end foreign policy is driven by a lot of things.
"One of the things that drives our two countries, obviously, is our national interests and how we can get the best out of each other in our respective interests."
The relationship, sour through most of the 22 years of Dr Mahathir's leadership, nose-dived after the 1986 executions of convicted Australian drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers - a sentence the then prime minister Bob Hawke denounced as "barbaric".
Mr Hawke's successor, Paul Keating, enraged Dr Mahathir by describing him as "recalcitrant" for boycotting the inaugural summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum in 1993.
More recently Dr Mahathir savaged the Howard Government for its treatment of Aborigines and asylum seekers, and its endorsement of the Bush Administration's foreign policy. He spurned repeated invitations from Mr Howard to visit Australia.
Mr Syed Hamid, a sometime strident critic of Australia in the past, said Malaysia wanted to build on the strong co-operation between the two countries in defence and education.
"We don't expect to agree on every issue," he said. "There will be disagreements but I think we have to learn to manage those differences."
Mr Downer said he hoped Mr Abdullah's visit would take place before the end of the year, depending on the timing of the federal election.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"