Protests for greater democratization have
spurred a strategic Muslim ally of the United
States to clamp down and prioritize security
concerns over civil liberties. Opposition parties
have promised more protests, while the government
states it will not tolerate any more public
demonstrations that it deems a threat to national
security. All of this takes place with critical
democratic elections on the horizon.
Although this scenario could apply to
Pakistan, a key ally in the US-led "war on
terror", it applies equally to Malaysia, a country
in recent years has been on the periphery of US
foreign policy and now suddenly is at risk of
becoming another regional political hot spot.
Malaysia is important both strategically and
economically as the world's 34th largest economy
and currently the US's 10th-largest trade partner.
Geographically, Malaysia straddles the
Strait of Malacca through which approximately 50%
of the world's oil supply flows, including over
70% of China's imports. The US navy has pushed to
play a larger role in patrolling the strategic
waterway, including protecting against possible
seaborne terror attacks.
Malaysia is also
home to the Southeast Asia Regional Center for
Counterterrorism, which has trained over 1,000
police and military personnel on strategies to
combat terrorism in the region. Multilateral
security agreements between Malaysia, Indonesia
and Singapore have recently helped to hobble
Indonesia-based terror group Jemaah Islamiyah and
other al-Qaeda-linked operations in Southeast
Asia, including in the southern Philippines.
On the surface, Malaysia is precisely the
type of moderate and modern Muslim country that
the US should prioritize for improving relations.
The current prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, is a
third generation Islamic scholar and has advanced
a concept known as "Islam Hadhari", which focuses
on progressive values, moderation, and social
justice in Islam. He is currently the chairman of
the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the
premier global forum for Muslim country leaders.
Abdullah was appointed to power in 2003,
ending the autocratic reign of the previous prime
minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who had earlier
anointed Abdullah as his eventual successor. In
2004, his United Malays National Organization
(UMNO) won an overwhelming majority, winning 198
of 220 parliamentary seats and gaining electoral
ground against a radical Islamist party, though
the polls were somewhat tainted by restrictions
that prevented full participation by opposition
Although it has many blessings,
Malaysia also suffers from a growing number of
dire domestic problems. Mahathir's 22-year reign
saw dramatic economic growth, but at the same time
entrenched social discrimination, with
preferential government policies drawn on ethnic
lines that pit the majority ethnic Malays against
the minority Chinese and Indians. As a result,
endemic corruption, ethnic tension and uneven
economic development now threaten to overwhelm
Abdullah's once popular administration.
While Malaysia is relatively prosperous
compared to other countries in the region, many
areas of the country are still impoverished. The
sharp ethnic and religious divide between Muslim
Malays, Buddhist and Christian Chinese and Hindu
Indians has clearly been accentuated by recent
events. Earlier, a high-profile court case pitting
the state against a Malay woman who attempted to
officially convert from Islam to Christianity
stirred fundamental tensions over ethnic identity,
religion, and civil liberties. (By law Muslims in
Malaysia are not allowed to change their faith).
Most importantly, the government remains
largely unresponsive to these mounting tensions.
Proposed anti-corruption measures have stalled,
the police are still largely unaccountable and
electoral barriers for opposition parties remain
in place. All of these problems have in recent
months fueled some of the largest protests in
Malaysia's history. The government has responded
by cracking down hard on peaceful demonstrators
and banning further protests - an order that the
political opposition and non-governmental
organizations have defied.
instability could imperil US interests, as well as
the security of key neighboring US strategic
allies, including Singapore.
The US has a
surprisingly large lever to push for democratic
change in Malaysia. The two sides have been
engaged since June 2006 in extensive talks about
signing a new free trade agreement (FTA), which if
implemented would give Malaysian export products
preferential treatment in US markets. Because
exports represent roughly 130% of Malaysia's gross
domestic product, potential greater access to US
markets is a big economic deal.
administration of US President George W Bush has
made it clear that it is committed to successful
negotiations, but could also use the talks to
wring important political concessions from
Abdullah, in particular towards good governance
and democratic change, reforms that could help to
relieve the pressure surrounding the ongoing
protests and government crackdowns.
instance, a US push for a gradual easing of
electoral restrictions on opposition parties and
greater freedom for non-governmental organizations
to put a check on government would allow some of
the pressure now building on the streets to be
vented in parliament. Abdullah's UMNO party, which
has ruled the country uninterrupted since
achieving independence in 1957, currently enjoys
an overwhelming majority in parliament.
The US could also pressure Malaysia to
more effectively implement its anti-corruption
legislation. Endemic corruption continues to
weaken the Malaysian state and provides a big
hurdle to US investors who must abide by the
Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In return, the US
could offer preferential concessions in an FTA to
groups that increasingly are being left behind by
Malaysia's development, including fisher-folk and
Pakistan serves as
an increasingly grim example of what can go wrong
when the US fails to engage a strategic ally by
lobbying for democratic and economic reforms that
could go to redress underlying socio-economic
problems. And the US could also arguably enhance
its ongoing fight against terrorism by improving
and re-engaging its relationship with Malaysia.
Indeed, a more democratic, prosperous and
religiously moderate Malaysia could serve as a
valuable conduit for future US engagement with the
broader Muslim world.
Wilson is an intern with the national security
team at the Center for American Progress in
Washington DC. He is a graduate of the University
of California, Berkeley.