Thursday August 19, 2004

Malaysia's foreign policy remains the same under the new PM but his soft approach is attracting positive attention

Abdullah's quiet diplomacy wins friends

By Leslie Lau

KUALA LUMPUR - After years of his predecessor's sound and fury drawing international attention as well as disdain for Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's refreshingly quiet diplomacy is getting noticed and making some friends for the country.
The message from the two Malaysian leaders is essentially the same - after all, Datuk Seri Abdullah was the foreign minister in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's government.
Malaysia under Datuk Seri Abdullah still opposes the US-led war on Iraq. It also wants an international force to go to Iraq to make peace there and in the Palestinian Authority and is urging the West to understand the root causes of terrorism.
The difference between the predecessor and the successor is that Datuk Seri Abdullah's softer approach is getting more positive attention.
'His is the Asian way, which is not to shout, not to be confrontational. It is far more effective than the previous approach,' said Mr Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre, an independent think-tank with close ties to the government.
According to Mr Abdul Razak, the soft approach is being reciprocated and is better than the forceful foreign policy which was ineffective.
'We used to point out the contradictions in US policy. We used to make snide remarks. So we lost the bridging role that we could have played,' he said.
This week, Datuk Seri Abdullah takes his softly softly message to Seoul, after his whirlwind tour last month of the United States, Britain and France.
His message to Seoul, a fierce US ally, will be the same as the one he took to the US and Britain: Malaysia, which is among the most Westernised and moderate Muslim countries, can and should be used as a bridge to the Islamic world.
'Things in the world must be calmer. Malaysia can help the US and its allies understand the Muslim world's feelings better,' a Foreign Ministry official told The Straits Times.
South Korea, on its part, is likely to seek Malaysia's support for Seoul's decision to send 3,000 troops to Iraq, the third-largest contingent after the US and Britain.
Malaysia, which is the current chairman of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement, is seen as an important bridge for Western countries to the developing world.
Western diplomats here privately acknowledge a preference for Datuk Seri Abdullah's foreign policy approach, especially when it is compared to the one used by his predecessor.
'His message of moderation and his extension of the hand of friendship since taking over as Prime Minister is definitely getting heard, even if it does not necessarily make the headlines,' a senior foreign diplomat said.
One example of this approach was seen last week when Datuk Seri Abdullah described Australia as a friend, a word Tun Dr Mahathir was not likely to use, considering his administration's testy ties with a succession of Australian governments.
Datuk Seri Abdullah's remarks followed a recent major trade mission to Australia led by International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz to pave the way for a free trade agreement between the two countries.
'I think national interests are at the core of his foreign policy. His policies are not based on some fuzzy notions or emotions,' said Mr Abdul Razak in an oblique reference to Tun Dr Mahathir's emotional tirades against the West, including his infamous statement on how 'Jews ruled the world'.
He said the importance of national interests could be surmised from the list of some of the countries he visited this year: Singapore, China, Japan, the US, Britain, France and now South Korea.
All of these countries are Malaysia's main strategic and trade partners.
'It is definitely better to be friendly with these countries than to be only the champion of the Third World where we derive no real benefits,' said Mr Abdul Razak.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"