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Malaysia’s Foreign Policy under Mahathir’s Premiership

ISSUE 2019
No 13
Release 24 December 2019
By Dr. Leng Thearith and Mr. Thong Mengdavid

Executive Summary

  • Dr. Mahathir’s foreign policy is, during both terms of his premiership, characterised by his anti-Western position as evidenced by his defiance against the British colonial rulers and his criticisms of the US;
  • Mahathir’s foreign policy is, at times, critical of China, particularly when the latter’s signature initiative ̶Belt and Road Initiative ̶did not offer his country tangible benefits;
  • The Prime Minister has, during his two terms in office, consistently pursued a friendly foreign policy towards developing countries, particularly in relations with ASEAN with aims to build stronger Asian regionalism and south-south cooperation frameworks.


In 2018, Mahathir Mohamad, a-92-year-old statesman, ascended to Malaysian premiership for the second time following a landslide victory over his opponent, Najib Razak. He once served as the Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003. During his first tenure, Mahathir was known for embracing anti-Western policy and strong regional integration within ASEAN and Northeast Asia. Whether or not he has pursued a similar foreign policy orientation during his second term in office will be examined in this paper. Particularly, as Malaysia was able to recover from the Asian financial crisis quickly in the late 1990s, and became one of the most advanced industrialised economiesin the region, many people have questioned about foreign policy types Malaysia has pursued during the two terms of his premiership. In other words, identifying continuities and changes in Malaysia’s foreign policy during both terms of Mahathir’s premiership is crucial in predicting future Malaysia’s foreign policy orientation. This essay begins with the investigation of main features of Malaysian foreign policy under his premiership, from 1981 to 2003, and from 2018 to present day.

Mahathir’s Foreign Policy Between the East and the West

1. Mahathir’s Foreign Policy During 1981-2003

In both terms of his premiership, Dr. Mahathir’s foreign policy patterns are starkly indifferent. Mahathir has apparently tiled towards the East, while being critical of the West. Concretely, during the first tenure [1981-2003], Malaysia was keen to learn the development experience from Japan. During his visit to Japan in 1961, Mahathir expressed his strong interest in learning from “Japan’s Economic Miracle”, which enabled this country to transform its production from a low to high quality grade with competitive prices.i He later put forth the so-called “Look East Policy”, which steadily transformed Malaysia into a strong economy and became more economically independent from her former colonial master, the United Kingdom.

Regarding its relations with the Western world, especially the UK, Malaysia, under Mahathir’s leadership, embraced an “Anti-Western” style of foreign policy approach. The relationship between Malaysia and the British began deteriorating with Mahathir moving to take control of the British tin market through the purchase of Guthrie Corporation on stock market, and deliberately being absence from the Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting in Australia.ii The UK government increased the tuition fees of Malaysian students studying in the UK as a reprisal, and withdrew the preferential trade preference from Malaysia. As the tension rose, Mahathir launched the “Buy British Last” campaign in his country to encourage people to boycott British products and services.

2. Mahathir’s Contemporary Foreign Policy (2018-Present)

Mahathir has engineered Malaysia’s foreign policy during his second term in a pragmatic direction while maintaining his anti-Western rhetoric. Specifically, he has focused on developing Malaysian economic efficiency, while being poised to fight against any powers [regardless of the West and the East] that may jeopardise Malaysia’s national interests. This is manifest in his manoeuvres between the two adversaries — China and the US. In relations with China, Mahathir was rather critical of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Just months after being elected Prime Minister, Mahathir wrote off some China’s Belt and Road construction projects [called 1 Malaysia Development Berhad or 1MDB] which, from his perspective, did not genuinely benefit Malaysia and even led to a widespread corruption. Nonetheless, he has not totally shot down the BRI, for he believed that Malaysia would benefit greatly from this grand scheme.iii Mahathir has reckoned that it is imperative to bridge the development gap between western and eastern Malaysia, which has persisted since the British colonial era, through better infrastructure connectivity projects. Therefore, he has toned down his anti- Beijing, turning to align with China and criticising the West. During his official visit to Beijing in April 2019, Dr. Mahathir expressed his support of the BRI as follow:

I am fully in support of the Belt and Road Initiative. I am sure my country, Malaysia, will benefit from the project… Yes, the Belt and Road idea is great. It can bring the land-locked countries of Central Asia closer to the sea. They can grow in wealth and their poverty reduced.

In addition, this Prime Minister, while expressing his compliment to Chinese tech giant Huawei, criticised the West, especially the US during the 25th Conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo in late May 2019. His criticism is worth quoted at length:

Trump administration’s decision to effectively ban Huawei is “not the way to go” …. We have to accept that the US cannot forever be the supreme nation [with] the best technology … [The West] must accept that this capability can also be found in the East. But if they want to have a situation where they are always ahead, and if not [they] will ban you, [they] will send warships to your country, that is not competition. That is threatening people. 

At one point, he even put the blame on US President Donald Trump for causing the US-China trade

Mahathir and Multilateral Diplomacy

Dr. Mahathir’s foreign policy during both tenures has centred upon South-South cooperation rather than North-South one. During the first term, this Prime Minister proposed the creation of the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC)— the ASEAN Plus Three’s antecedent— and enthusiastically backed the Organisation of Islamic Community (OIC). Coming to his second term of premiership, Mahathir has still prioritised these cooperation mechanisms.

1. Mahathir’s Foreign Policy during 1981-2003

a. Mahathir and ASEAN Regionalism

ASEAN was one of the main cornerstones of Malaysia’s foreign policy during the first Mahathir’s premiership, for Malaysia, like many other small states, wanted to press for its economic agenda on the international stage. Having encountered a regional financial woe in the late 1990s and wrong prescription by the West in coping with the crisis, Mahathir began looking to the East for solutions.vii Mahathir lost his trust in the West for failing to provide the correct solutions to recover the Asian economy, and even blamed the latter group for worsening the situation. He turned to Japan, China and South Korea to promote the so-called “Look East Policy” with an aim to reduce its dependence on the West. More interestingly, he proposed the creation of the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) aimed at deepening economic integration among ASEAN members and Northeast Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. Despite difficulties in its initial take-off, Mahathir’s proposal officially came into being after the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) was institutionalised at the 3rd APT Summit in 1999.

b. Mahathir and other South-South Cooperation Frameworks

Besides deepening its economic cooperation with ASEAN and Northeast Asian countries, Malaysia, under Mahathir’s leadership, strengthened his country’s relations with several Muslims countries (e.g. Developing Eight).ix He fully supported the Organisation of Islamic Community (OIC) to cement his domestic Muslims with other Muslim communities around the world. This policy not only aimed to contribute to the protection of Islamic values, but also to the extension of Malaysia’s economic ties with the OIC countries. Apart from this, he also tightened Malaysia’s economic cooperation with the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) under the concept of mudarabah. x The increase in trade and investment from the OIC member states to Malaysia earned the country’s some political and economic leverages vis-à-vis the Western bloc.

2. Mahathir’s Contemporary Foreign Policy (2018-Present)

a. Mahathir and ASEAN Regionalism

As for the second term of his premiership, Mahathir still considers ASEAN as one of the main pillars of the national foreign policy. Strong ASEAN will bring Malaysia economic prosperity given the country’s heavy dependence on export; therefore, the Prime Minister wants this regional organisation speak with one voice, especially when dealing with other big economies on the global stage.xi He envisions the ASEAN members will largely depend on their own domestic market rather than external one so as to have a better economic standing and avoid being too dependent on the West. Therefore, Malaysia has become of the most enthusiastic proponents of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) concluded between 10 ASEAN countries and Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.

In relations to the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, which have, at times, disturbed regional peace and even ASEAN unity, Mahathir embraces a middle ground position whereby all claimant states are expected to avoid the acts of military build-ups which may further escalate tension in the SCS. In his eighty-page new foreign policy framework, Dr. Mahathir assures that Malaysia will keep pursuing an independent, pragmatic foreign policy and principle that embed the spirit of peace, humanity, justice and equality, and emphasise the need of non-militarisation in the South China Sea where Malaysia also has its the territorial claim. Moreover, this Prime Minister warned of a possible eruption of an armed clash in the future should the claimant states keep on sending their own warships to the disputed waters.

b. Mahathir and other South-South Cooperation Mechanisms

Dr. Mahathir remains a strong advocate of the South-South Cooperation, as evidenced by his participation in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and various South-South cooperation initiatives. Malaysia has so far been a part of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), Far East Asia Latin America Cooperation (FEALAC) and G77. This Prime Minister urged the third world countries not to heavily depend on any particular superpower for political and economic support, but rather on self-reliance and “South-South Cooperation” so as to establish the resilient economies. The Mahathir’s ‘New Malaysia’s Foreign Policy Framework’ would, as he envisions, reinstate the importance of his country commitment towards the improvement of the ummah (community) status and Malaysia’s important role in the OIC.

At the 74th UNGA session, Mahathir put a strong blame on the West for having destabilised the Middle East through the act of shoring up the state of Israel.xvi Also, he criticised the western world for not taking adequate responsibility to protect the Rohingya community once colonised by the latter group.xvii Furthermore, Mahathir pointed out the inequality of the trading system imposed by the rich states on the smaller ones through the former group’s acts of exploitation of the latter group’s natural resources, and these have, according to him, in turn, exacerbated the latter’s economies and political stability’s. Lastly, Mahathir underlined the lack of global responsibility, especially the West’s in tackling problems pertaining to climate change and multilateral governance system.

3. Mahathir’s Personalities and Foreign Policy Making

As can be seen, Mahathir’s foreign policy appears to be more anti-Western [if not Western phobia], while placing an emphasis on coalition building with developing countries, ASEAN in particular. This worldview is crucial in Malaysia’s foreign policy orientation under his leadership. What have shaped this worldview of the Prime Minister? Having grown up in semi- rural Kedah State and experienced the British colonisation have significantly contributed to producing an abrasive, combative personality and a tenacious will.xviii These traits also contributed to his penchant for interpreting the global environment in polarised, ideologically laden terms: “black or white,” East versus West, North versus South. Simply put, these traits have apparently influenced him to be rather anti-Western and more Asian friendly.


The contemporary’s foreign policy of Mahathir is more a continuity of his foreign policy during the first term of the premiership. This is evidenced by his continuance of anti-Western stance, the embrace of stronger ASEAN regionalism and the strengthening of the South-South cooperation mechanisms. Mahathir, during his first term of premiership, defied the British colonial rulers by reverting the Guthrie Corporation to Malaysia, deliberately being absent from the Commonwealth meeting and initiating the boycott campaign against the British goods and services in Malaysia. During the second term, the US has been at the forefront of Mahathir’s anti-Western foreign policy. This Prime Minister lashed out at the US for causing tension in the region through the latter’s initiation of trade war with China, the sanction against Huawei telecom and the American show of force. Nevertheless, one can also witness a change in his foreign policy, that is, his defiance against the East, China in particular. During the second term in office, Mahathir has been cynical about China’s BRI, which triggered 1MDB corruption scandal. The demonstration of his anti-West and anti-East positions on certain selected issues suggest that this Prime Minister is a pragmatic and strong nationalist leader.

Another noticeable continuity in this outstanding personality’s foreign policy is his strong embrace of ASEAN and East Asian regionalism. Mahathir was the first to propose the EAEC aiming at establishing ASEAN and Northeast Asian countries as a strong economic grouping. As for his second term, the Prime Minister has shown a similar goal, as can be seen in his desire for ASEAN to speak with a common voice, Malaysia’s strong support of world’s biggest trade deal—RCEP—and the adoption of peaceful stance in relations to South China Sea dispute. In addition, continuous engagement in the South-South cooperation mechanisms is another continuity of Mahathir’s foreign policy framework. This Prime Minister has, during both terms of the premiership, cooperated with many developing countries, the Muslim community in particular. Dr. Mahathir has participated in the OIC, the Islamic Development Bank, NAM, FEALAC and G77.

As seen, Mahathir’s foreign policy seems to give more priority to the developing economies rather than the developed ones. What have influenced him? Mahathir’s difficult childhood and his first-hand experience with the Western colonisation of his country can be used as indicators proving he is a leader with strong will, combative personality and pragmatism.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.