Malaysian-U.S. Relations: Society, Security, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Malaysian-U.S. Relations: Society, Security, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership


            Last November, a sitting United States president visited the Federation of Malaysia for the first time since 1966, hearkening “an opportunity to formalise a comprehensive partnership, and lay the foundation for even closer ties for years to come.” President Obama’s two-day stay in Malaysia held economic and security talks, outlining the future of relations between the two countries, especially regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The greater involvement of the U.S. in Malaysia has had considerable effects on relations and my fellow Malaysians—many locals greeted Obama’s efforts with open arms, with over half those polled viewing the United States in a far more favorable light than the previous 27%. In the weeks following the visit, Malaysia buzzed in optimistic anticipation of what the future would hold.

            However, future relations between the two nations are much more tenable than previously suggested, as new developments grow along the cultural, security, and economic faults in a country already stretched between West and East, the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Obama’s campaign to strategically “rebalance” the Asian-Pacific region has given relations between Malaysia and the United States new importance, as a formerly limited relations deemed a new age of “comprehensive partnership” expanded to include a new range of issues. These recent steps mark a deliberate change in Malaysian interests—from an “Asia only” focus determined by former Prime Minister Mahathir to a now extremely evident step towards increased bilateral negotiations and a closer relationship. 

I. Cultural and Internal Ties

            The former “Asia-only” focus of Malaysian participation on the international sphere is yet again an outcome of individual actors of national governance, a view that has recently changed as power has changed hands to more U.S. friendly parties and individuals in the form of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who emphasizes a close relationship with the United States in the realm of development and a closer friendship with President Obama on the golf course. But the positive views of the United Malays National Organization (UNMO), which currently holds the majority stake in the controlling coalition, have heated resistance. Various opposition internal political groups such as the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) have fostered dissent and have attempted to fight the tide of increasing cooperation with the United States on account of perceived anti-Islamic sentiment from the US; however, opposition will do little unless these parties gain the unlikely control of the Parliament; the fact remains that fostering stronger relations is practically appealing and necessary to both government and people.

            Despite the macro scale of foreign relations, developments still heavily depend on the sentiments of local populace and the domestic politics of Malaysia. As a result, the United States has courted Malaysia with gifts of aid and has regaled the populace with tales of Western prestige in order to paint a more positive image of the United States to combat the impression of an Anti-Islamist aggressor and to “rebalance” the Asia-Pacific region. Increased aid packages to Malaysia for implementing policy in accordance to U.S. standards, even the creation a substantial campaign by the Obama administration to increase internet access have supplemented the efforts to enamor the local population to support if not U.S. interests, then at least to accept Western culture, an important step to creating a reliable ally based on people-to-people ties rather than ephemeral political constructions.  And it has worked: the cultural hegemony that has thoroughly caught Malaysia in its wake is easily seen in the glorification of receiving an American education. Now more than ever, students are cultivating aspirations of leaving Malaysia—to enter the western world where greener grass surely awaits them. Marcus, a fellow student of the author, was one of many Malay students who idolized a U.S. education. “Every one knew what we wanted, and that was to study in the United States,” says Marcus, , who graduated high school two years ago with a scholarship from the Public Service Department of Malaysia (JPA) to attend Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, studying International Business.  Marcus’ path is not unique. Both the United States and private companies have capitalized on the possibility of using new and eager population to further interests and connections by the increasing of programs that provided scholarships for exchanges and studies abroad in the U.S., programs often funded by American corporations in collaboration with the Malaysian government, a type of mutually beneficial cultural and corporate hegemony. 

II. Security Implications

            The panic and chaotic response of Malaysia and the international community to the disappearance of flight MH370 highlighted the need for increased security collaboration in addressing immediate issues. Bilateral cooperation was essential in determining the path of the plane; through Malaysian military sources, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and British Inmarsat, the world was able to compile an inexplicable flight trajectory. Further collaboration between the United States and Malaysia included utilizing FBI intelligence to conduct background checks on passengers and the provision of technical advisors, ships, and aircraft to help locate debris. Though futile, major officials of both countries asserted that the level of international collaboration needed to facilitate an effective search for the doomed flight was a strong base for improving already strong bilateral security relations, and potentially points to increased intelligence sharing programs between militaries during times of crisis.

            The United States and Malaysia have a substantial history of long-term military cooperation in pursuit of shared interests in defense and maritime security, built on shared standards and interests in the region. Malaysia recently supported the Proliferation Security Initiative sponsored by the U.S., increased restrictions and oversight on nuclear materials within the nation, was the first country to complete the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Global Peace Operations Initiative, and hosts the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counterterrorism (SEARCCT). The two nations routinely engaged in the joint Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training (CARAT) exercises at least twice a year, and even sent personnel to Afghanistan to support reconstruction in the region, acting as one of the few majority-Muslim nations to show solidarity with the U.S. rebuilding efforts despite widespread opposition to the Iraq War. Exchanges and collaboration between military forces are common, with many Malaysian officers studying through jointly funded International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs and participating over seventy-five bilateral training activities each year.

            Increasing shared resources is yet another arm of military relations. Though in September of last year there was clear confusion over whether or not U.S. ships and surveillance craft would have use of a military facility in East Malaysia, which would enable the United States to monitor the disputed James Shoal, the offer of a military facility in exchange for intelligence, was a practical one, despite a perhaps premature announcement that resulted in its subsequent withdrawal. This offer, however, still exists: though withdrawn to prevent a potential upset in the relatively and delicately peaceful South China Sea, recent Chinese display of naval authority and firepower in the area could indicate an escalation in the region that may result in Malaysia calling for U.S. support and surveillance in the area. Whether or not the deal occurs, the fact remains that in this regard, Malaysia and the United States are creating precautions for an encroaching China. The possibility of trading U.S. Patrol intelligence for sharing a base in the area is a small price to pay, and grander offers may even come about, such as the potential stationing of the USS Poseidon in the disputed area to act as a maritime patrol, curbing Chinese advancement and increasing trust and reliance between the United States and Malaysia.

            Malaysia holds the role as a vocal moderate Islamic partner with the United States in addressing terrorist activities. Malaysia, though not a home of a permanent terrorist base, has long been a hub for the planning of terrorist activities. Malaysian cities act as a conduit where most attacks are crafted in principle, demonstrating the need for Malaysian cooperation with the United States in identifying terrorist threats and crafting counterterrorist measures within the Asian hemisphere and displaying a unified front against a shared extremist threat. Malaysia has implemented some of the most arguably stringent anti-extremism counterterrorist policies in the world by recommendation of SEARCCT in conjunction with the heightening of similar U.S. measures, creating opportunities for increased collaboration between the two nations, especially regarding the tracking of financial flows in the region. This shared emphasis on combatting radical extremism and terrorism, Malaysia’s role as an Islamic nation, along with the ability of the United States to increase the capacity of Malaysia to combat terrorist activity through aid and intelligence collaboration, has provided a fertile ground for security relations to grow, especially with a rising threat of the Islamic State.

            In terms of guns and soldiers, Malaysia and the United States have made a solid marriage of security convenience two address the growing strength of shared adversaries, potentially through future partnerships based off Malaysia’s strategic location in Asia and fueled by the coffers and technology of the United States.

III. Economic Relations Between Malaysia and the US

            Much less optimistic, however, lies in the uncertain future of economic relations. Historical tensions regarding U.S. criticism over Malaysian policies to contend with the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis has led to a much more cautious approach to tying the economic knot. Once symptoms of deteriorating trade conditions surfaced in 2005, economic relations between Malaysia and the US have been diseased with steady declines: of foreign direct investment, of exports, of general partnership. Since then, Malaysia has desperately scrambled for a cure. Yet four years of negotiations towards a Malaysia-US bilateral trade agreement failed to produce anything meaningful. In addition, by October 2010, these negotiations were absorbed into an extremely ambitious, multi-national monster of an agreement: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

             The TPP started as a standard collaboration between New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, and Brunei. This was until the US entered and began dictating negotiations in 2008. Once Uncle Sam got his greedy, capitalist hands on the partnership, he expanded its scope to include seven more countries and issues that are beyond most FTAs. He then brought it into his smithy and forged it into a sledgehammer of neoliberal exploitation. Its purpose: to demolish market barriers and government regulation in the pursuit of incentivizing trade (read: establishing US control of foreign economies). Once these walls are shattered, less established economies—including the one of Malaysia—would be pillaged by corporate monopolization, intensified competition from large businesses, invasive copyright laws, etc. If TPP negotiations come to fruition, an imbalanced relationship between Malaysia and the US would be established in various sectors, including the following:

  • Agriculture: the TPP would trigger a massive reduction—if not a complete removal—of farming subsidies and agricultural tariffs. With an influx of US agricultural goods entering the Malaysian market, Malaysia’s small farmers would be rendered incapable of competing with the deflated prices of large, US agribusiness. As a result, many small producers would be ushered out of the market, establishing dominance of big US corporations and a unilateral dynamic in Malaysia-US agricultural relations.
  • Healthcare: US intellectual property demands would extend copyright protection to medicine and increase the cost of medicinal agriculture inputs in Malaysia. SM Mohamed Idris, president of the Consumers Association of Penang, argues that the TPP “would raise medicine prices in Malaysia at a time when the government’s ability to subsidize medicines is under pressure from the budget deficit”. With the increased intellectual regulation of large US corporations, access to affordable pharmaceuticals will be diminished while US influence on Malaysian healthcare grows.
  • Culture: In virtual space, the TPP would establish copyright terms that extend well beyond the laws provided in the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. More specifically, it would permit the acquisition of enforced trademarking and copyrighting of indigenous intellectual, traditional, and cultural property and knowledge. As a potential result, Malaysian culture could very well be outright owned by US businesses for profit-driven uses.

            The author witnessed these concerns—along with many others—being vocalized by the Malaysian public. Local discontent was revealed to him in small protests outside Malaysia’s House of Parliament, where small business owners chanted in unison against the prospect of crippling competition. Local awareness was exposed in hawker centers of Penang, where dinner conversation with my fellow Malaysians gravitated towards talks of the “bad deal with the US”. These concerns—along with many others—were vocalized to Prime Minister Najib, yet he continues to zealously support the TPP’s passing. For no matter how loud these apprehensions are voiced, money will continue to talk—and it will do so in a louder fashion. Singing projected gains of $41.7 billion in exports and $26.3 billion in income gains in Malaysia, the melodic voice of the TPP is easier heard than the voices of the locals.

            Though the Malaysia-US relations established by the TPP would be lopsided, they would nonetheless be an improvement of the relations in the status quo. Grotesque exploitation aside—an increase of US FDI, US trade, and overall economic collaboration would strengthen the ties between the two countries. Malaysian officials have been seeking a cure for the past ten years, and the TPP is as close as they have come. This being said, the TPP is in no way a perfect cure for Malaysia’s weakening economic relations with the US. In fact, though Najib is a strong proponent of the TPP, he maintains one non-negotiable condition that would prevent his support if left unresolved: the TPP’s language on state-owned enterprises.

            Under the TPP, Malaysian state-owned enterprises—which represent half of Malaysia’s stock market capitalization—would be demolished by Uncle Sam’s sledgehammer to ensure fair competition between foreign firms. To contextualize the importance of this implement, it is important to consider the following: 30% of the Malaysian government’s income is from taxes and dividends from state-owned oil companies alone. Malaysia’s involvement in the TPP is largely contingent upon the amendment of this section—and if none is achieved, the TPP has no future in Malaysia-US relations, and Najib will again be in the pursuit of a cure.

IV. A New Future

            Though internal politicization of Anti-U.S. sentiment due to socio-economic factors have prevented further growth in this relationship, the fact remains that Malaysia is strongly tied to the United States in terms of trade and security. Though relations themselves have various points of contention, such Malaysian opposition to U.S. support for the State of Israel and U.S. concerns over potential politicized violations of human rights, Malaysia’s internal political conflict and external balance between the United States and China, the substantial increase in cooperation over enumerated shared interests provide a strong foundation for stronger relations. Obama declared in his visit, “there’s perhaps no region on Earth that has changed so dramatically” as Southeast Asia, where Malaysia is a leader. Even within the specific relationship between the United States and Malaysia, there are constant changes through TPP negotiations, newly integrated military initiatives, the flux of internal politics, changes that have the potential to reverse progress—but positive build-up of trusted relations are possible. As President Obama stated during his Malaysian tour, relations are “more than just security alliances or trade agreements, but genuine relationships,” relationships with agency for change, foreign relationships that, if careful cultivated, only stand to grow.


Jaylia Yan

Arizona State University

United States


Jing Y. Liong

University of California, Berkeley


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Tags: #TPC2015


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