Anwar’s Foreign Policy Dithering Is Exacerbating Malaysia’s Challenges

Anwar’s Foreign Policy Dithering Is Exacerbating Malaysia’s Challenges
Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim attends the ASEAN-China Summit during the ASEAN Summit, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Sept. 6, 2023 (pool photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba via AP Images).

Upon becoming Malaysia’s prime minister in late 2022 after decades in opposition, Anwar Ibrahim promised to usher in a new era in the country’s foreign and domestic policy. A longtime political reformist and advocate of religious moderation, Anwar had long enjoyed close relations with the U.S., while also maintaining important contacts in China, positioning him to strike a delicate balance between the two competing global giants. Outside observers hoped that, with his smooth style, Anwar might convince an increasingly aggressive Beijing to take Malaysia’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea more seriously. Moreover, it was expected that Anwar would follow through on his commitment to addressing some of the challenges hindering Malaysia’s economy and cleaning up the vast corruption that has plagued the country’s politics for decades.

On both foreign and domestic policy, however, Anwar and his administration have largely failed, and these failures appear to be mutually reinforcing. He seems increasingly unlikely to realize his bold pledges to attract investment and make economic reforms to propel Malaysia into the 30 largest economies in the world within a decade, especially as his foreign policy has increasingly alienated the United States. This is partially because Anwar has taken the harshest position of any leader in Southeast Asia on the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Meanwhile, he has failed to defend Malaysia’s security interests against China’s encroachments strongly enough, yet does not seem poised to attract a flood of Chinese investment either.

Anwar has long enjoyed close personal ties with top policymakers in the U.S. as well as in Europe, where his experience as an opposition leader jailed on and off for decades engendered sympathy and support. He even spent a period of time in the mid-2000s as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University’s international policy school. As a result, Western leaders celebrated his appointment as prime minister in 2022, and many U.S. and European companies increasingly considered boosting investment in Malaysia. The fact that doing so would help reduce their operations in an increasingly unstable China only added to the country’s appeal.

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