AuthorBishku, Michael B.


Malaysia is one of three neighboring countries--the others being Indonesia and the microstate of Brunei--located in Southeast Asia (a region stretching from Myanmar in the west to the Philippines and Indonesia in the east and bounded by China in the north and Australia in the south) with majority-Muslim populations. In Malaysia's case it is 61.3 percent, (1) a figure smaller than that of its neighbors, (2) with the remainder of Malaysia's population being mostly Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu. The country received its independence from Britain as the Federation of Malaya comprising eleven states on the Malay Peninsula in 1957; in 1963, more states, along with the former British colonies Sarawak and Sabah (located on the island of Borneo), as well as Singapore, joined to form Malaysia, but Singapore seceded and became an independent country through mutual agreement two years later. Bumiputera (Malays and indigenous people) comprise 62 percent of the population, while ethnic Chinese and Indians constitute 20.6 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively. (3)

As most Malaysian states have hereditary rulers and the country has an elected constitutional monarchy, Malays have dominated national politics both as prime ministers and other members of the cabinet as well as in parliament, though ruling coalitions have historically included smaller numbers of members from Chinese- and Indian-based parties. From 1957 to 2018 all prime ministers were members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

According to the Malaysian Constitution, which confirms the National Language Acts 1963/67, (4) Bahasa Malaysia is the official language (Article 152), but English may be used in parliament, and Islam--in particular the Sunni sect--is the official religion, though "other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony" (Article 3). However, the Constitution also includes a definition of a "Malay": "a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, [and] conforms to Malay custom" (Article 160). (5) In the essay "Malaysia: Islam and Multiethnic Polities," published in 1987, Fred R. von der Mehden points out that since May 1969, when Malay-Chinese sectarian violence took place as a result of the backlash against the results of parliamentary elections, the "secular rhetoric [of Malaysian leaders] has given way to a greater emphasis on Islamic values." (6) This is also reflected in foreign policy, especially since the 1970s, for symbolic and tangible benefits such as developing national cohesion, enhancing Malaysia's economic situation, and strengthening its political position in international relations. Therefore, Malaysia is a founding member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC, known until 2011 as the Organization of the Islamic Conference), generally regarded as a Saudi-inspired organization--though Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, may have given the project some impetus--dealing with political, economic, social, and cultural issues, and Malaysian Muslims have taken an active interest in the affairs of their coreligionists in other countries; that has been especially the case regarding Palestinians, and it is an important reason why Malaysia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, like a number of other majority-Muslim countries in Asia. (7)

Nevertheless, Malaysia's main priority in foreign relations has been Southeast Asia and in its early years secondarily the West as a member of the Commonwealth. While Malaysia joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1970, it was when Mahathir Mohamed became prime minister the first time (1981-2003) that the Middle East (and indeed the Islamic world) became second in importance to Southeast Asia. Through closer ties with the region, Mahathir sought to enhance Malaysia's diplomatic position in the world, in part to counteract the influence of its more powerful immediate neighbor, Indonesia, to enhance his political position at home, and to further develop his country's economy. This article will examine Malaysia's political and economic connections with the Muslim Middle East through the changing geopolitical and economic environments of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, focusing particularly on those ties with Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia and to a lesser degree on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Although Malays had connections with the Ottoman Empire, the closer relationship with Turkey is generally more recent and involves a convergence of political and economic interests. Ties with Iran are largely about oil, as Shia Islam is officially banned in Malaysia. As for relations with the Arab world, the most extensive have been with Saudi Arabia due to annual pilgrimages of Muslims, financial assistance early on, and in more recent times investment. Interregional relations or ties between middle powers such as Malaysia and those in the Middle East--Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia fit that category, while the UAE and Qatar have had degrees of influence and interests outside their region--are important elements in geopolitics. A most succinct definition of a middle power is offered by Dong-Min Shin: "a state actor which has limited influence on deciding the distribution of power in a given regional system but is capable of deploying a variety of sources of power to change the position of great powers and to defend its own position on matters related to national or regional security that directly affect it." (8)


Turkish connections with what became present-day Malaysia preceded the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, as it was the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, whose sultan also held the title of caliph, successor to Muhammad the Prophet, and a revered leader of the Sunni Muslim community worldwide. While the Ottoman Empire at its zenith during the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) did provide military assistance in the fight against the Portuguese in the Malay Archipelago, things were different three centuries later. However, to Malays dealing with growing British imperialism during the nineteenth century, ties to the Ottoman Empire--whether symbolic through the embrace of the ideal of pan-Islamism promoted by Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) and the flying of Ottoman flags or through diplomatic visits to Istanbul by Maharajah and, as of 1886, Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor (1862-95)--appeared to offer a means of maintaining a degree of independence for as long as possible, as Abdul Hamid was not in a position, even if he wanted to be, to intervene due to geographical distance and military weakness. Yet demonstrations of resistance were significant in the long run in the development of nationalism, (9) while Abu Bakar's travels and diplomatic maneuvering may have forestalled the inevitable. Although most of Abu Bakar's travels included Britain and other countries in Europe, and he was the first Malay leader to do so, he also visited the Ottoman Empire twice--in 1879 and again in 1893, when he traveled through Egypt subsequently--as well as countries in South and East Asia. (10)

On the visit to Istanbul in 1879, Abdul Hamid presented Abu Bakar with a Circassian concubine named Rukiye, whom he wed to his brother Ungku Abdul Majid. Rukiye would marry twice more and was the grandmother of Malaysia's third prime minister, Hussein Onn (1976-81). Abu Bakar would wed a second concubine, Hatice, whom Abdul Hamid presented to him on a subsequent visit in 1893, as his fourth wife; she was Rukiye's sister. (11) Despite a negotiated elevation of his title in 1886, Abu Bakar continued to acknowledge British-ruled Singapore's control over Johor's foreign affairs, but he had managed to avoid having a resident British agent on his territory. (12) However, the new title did initially cause a problem in Istanbul in 1893 until Abu Bakar was able to provide assurance it was "merely within the Malay tradition of sovereignty, and not equal to the status of the Sultan as protector of all Muslims" Abu Bakar was awarded the "First Ottoman Star, normally given to a sovereign ruler as a sign of friendship." (13) He died two years later on a trip to London, with the original Malay account stating that the Ottoman ambassador, at the command of the sultan, had participated in the religious rites for his body, which in fact was not the case! (14) In 1914, Johor became the last Malay state to lose its sovereignty when it was forced to accept a British adviser. With Malaya under British rule, the Republic of Turkey had no formal connections with that country.

During the early Cold War era, when Malaya achieved its independence, Turkey was most concerned diplomatically with its relations with the United States and the European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as with the politics of its Middle Eastern and communist-bloc neighbors, although it did have formal ties with some countries in Asia, including Japan, India, Pakistan, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Indonesia. (15) Malaysia and Turkey did not establish diplomatic relations until 1964. Turkey was the third country in the Middle East with which Malaysia established formal ties, as Malaysia's greatest concerns were for its Muslim citizens carrying out their obligation of pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) and those engaged in Islamic studies at al-Azhar in Cairo. However, the leaders of both Turkey and Malaysia shared a distrust of communism as in the actions of the Soviet Union with regard to Turkey following World War II or internally as with the case of Malaysia due to an insurgency from 1948 to 1960. Indeed, Turkey's prime minister ismet Inonu (1961-65) had been president (1938-50) when the Soviet Union unsuccessfully laid claim to Turkish territory, while Malaysia's prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (1957-70) was pro-Western and in the midst of Konfrontasi with Indonesia, whose leader...

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