Malaysia tweaks its terror
compass By Ioannis
KUALA LUMPUR - Just two weeks ago
Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak said that a
greater United States presence in Southeast Asia to
fight terrorism would fuel Islamic extremism here. Yet
on Monday, Najib softened his approach almost to the
point of an about-face, saying that Malaysia is now
ready for "expanded cooperation" with the US to fight
terror in the Malacca Straits, the narrow waterway
bordering Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia through
which a third of the world's trade passes.
Najib's initial comments, Indonesia, which sided with
Malaysia in rejecting US military involvement in the
Straits, has announced a joint proposal between the
three countries to protect the vital sea trade route.
The proposal was quickly lauded by Singaporean Defense
Minister Teo Chee Hean, who also encouraged neighboring
countries to stop arrogantly shunning Western assistance
in the Straits.
"[The international community]
also has a very important role to play, and I hope that
they will be able to work together with the littoral
states to improve security in the Malacca Straits," Teo
Earlier this month, Najib said
it would be better for the United States to leave
protecting the Straits up to Malaysia, Singapore and
Indonesia. His comments came shortly after a visit by US
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who told US naval
troops he hoped the United States would hunt for
terrorists in Southeast Asia soon.
however, after hour-long talks between Najib and Admiral
Thomas Fargo, visiting commander-in-chief of the US
Pacific Command, Najib seemed to have a change of heart.
According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), the defense
minister declared Malaysia's readiness for "expanded
cooperation" with the United States in fighting terror
in the Straits, which may involve "joint exercises" in
the area of intelligence swapping and capacity building.
With a touch of deference, Najib added, "Admiral
Thomas Fargo is pleased with the level of commitment
shown by Malaysia to check the threat of terrorism
internally and also the fact that we are doing our level
best to ensure maritime security."
that Malaysian resistance was due to a misunderstanding
over comments Fargo made in April. Fargo reportedly said
that the United States planned to deploy marines to the
Straits, which Malaysia said would infringe on its
sovereignty. But in comments made on Monday, Najib said
Fargo respected Malaysia's sovereignty, adding that
Malaysia needed to increase its "capacity to deal with
problems of maritime security".
rekindles the question of whether a greater US presence
will fuel extremism, assuming Najib's comments to that
end were sincere.
"The issue of sovereignty," as
it relates to resentment, anti-Americanism and extremist
sympathies "is always there," said Roy Anthony, a
lecturer with the Department of International and
Strategic Studies at the University of Malaya. But, he
added, in Malaysia it really boils down to how the media
dress up or dress down a story. "If they highlight the
issue of sovereignty, with headlines like 'No Third
Force' it will cause opposition from the people."
The issue of sovereignty - as being jeopardized
by imperialistic intentions, as the Malaysian government
has long played the story, partly to instill obedience
to the ruling National Front - was brought front and
center by the local media when Fargo's comments broke,
and then again when Najib rejected greater US assistance
two weeks ago.
Analysts say Malaysia has
generally been cooperative with the United States in
fighting non-state-sponsored terror. But since the
US-led invasion of Iraq, the Malaysian government and
government-manipulated media have become more
freewheeling in their anti-Western rhetoric - though,
with a lack of self-reflection and monitoring, at the
expense of internal security some suspect.
Patrol of land borders - along Thailand in the
north and Indonesia in the east, on the island of Borneo
- has proven to be lax, despite official statements to
the contrary. By many accounts, Islamic boarding schools
and mosques, long thought to be spawning grounds for
extremism, are being monitored with less vigor than when
the visionary autocrat Mahathir Mohamad, who retired in
October, was serving as premier. Several government
officers have groaned that the general attitude at
departments responsible for internal security has too
often been an exercise in minimalism - an
A regional counter-terrorism center that
Malaysia had agreed to collaborate on with the United
States has, in the wake of the US-led invasions of Iraq
and Afghanistan, been scaled back more or less into a
seminar center. And though no major terrorist incident
has shaken Malaysian turf, Malaysians abroad and at home
as well as foreigners in Malaysia have regularly been
linked with terrorist activities.
for greater cooperation with the world's most powerful
nation, say some, is an indirect concession that
Malaysia is not doing enough to fight terror. Others say
that behind the scenes there has likely been greater
cooperation than meets the eye; that it's just bad PR to
announce that fact. Malaysia is a Muslim nation, and
here the United States is generally not seen as a friend
of Islam. So when it comes to cooperation, according to
one defense analyst, "The government just keeps it
Meanwhile, Malaysia has joined the US in
Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT), a
bilateral annual military training exercise between the
United States and Southeast Asian navies. Malaysia
participated in 2003 and is set to again this year.
Some say extremism here is less likely to get a
boost from cooperation between the two nations than it
is from the Malaysian government's neglect of rapid but
lopsided development within its own borders.
Malaysia has impressed some observers with its
economic strides, but on the ground a different tale is
unfolding. Intellectually, note observers, Malaysians
have not progressed much since economic growth began
around 20 years ago. The public has not addressed the
country's deep-seated scars from the British colonial
era; racial tensions among the various communities here
and xenophobia continue indirectly to mire progress. As
does the government's oppressive laws prohibiting
dialogue, debate and activism.
The West in turn
has become a convenient target. And so Najib's comments
are a timely reminder that everything is probably not as
bad as it seems.
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