By Collins Chong Yew Keat

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: The participation of Malaysia in the recently concluded UN General Assembly, while laden with high hopes and expectations on the returns on the country’s economic and soft power revival, remains a missed opportunity for a bigger showcase of the country’s global return in role, impact and influence.

The UN is divided, and the world remains divided at the economic, ideological and security perspectives. The UN remains fractured, and fast becoming obsolete because of the impasse at the UN Security Council and the toothless and non-binding UN General Assembly. The so-called rise of BRICS and Global South led by different factions wanting to display greater influence and dominance has further created incentivization of power bandwagoning.

From Lula da Silva of Brazil, to Xi and Putin, the tussle for the bloc leadership of challenging the Western hemisphere has further eroded the efficacy and dividends of the multilateral global mechanisms. As Guterres has pointed out in his address, the increasing divide and tussle for global power and dominance, one that is shaped by the North-South- and East-West divides, and the division between economic power bloc and security  power bloc, remain the ultimate challenge to the sustainable assurance of peace returns.  

Malaysia faces a critical crossroads in its foreign policy and global standing ventures, and the litmus test now beckons as to how effective and reliable our ingrained focus on neutrality and non-alignment mantra in facing the renewed power rivalry and its aftermath.  Recent policy approaches have indicated yet the consistent alignment of closer ties with regional and traditional partners and institutions. The question remains whether the country will continue to hedge its bet on the Global South, ASEAN and the rise of middle powers and in capitalising on the best of both worlds in its neutral model, or to project a long-term assurance with proven values-based approach and normative framework espoused by the West.
Malaysia’s Reluctance to Escape its Past Dogma

On one hand, Malaysia is trying to play its card well in getting the best out of the bipolar rivalry and bloc divide between Beijing led East/South and Washington led West/North, but the strategy seems to have lost its luster with backfiring implications. Increased pandering and overtures to the perceived growing momentum of the South and in greater supporting the de-dollarization movement and deeper reliance on Beijing led capital market and infrastructure.
Malaysia is now caught in the middle of the big transition and once in a century geopolitical shift, and how we position ourselves remains critical in shaping regional power and economic tussle and in ensuring our own future economic resilience and security returns.

By initiating a meeting with Iran and Iraq, and with ever closer ties with Ankara in all fields especially new potential defense cooperation, Malaysia is seen to send a message to both the West and China and the Global South.

To the West, it implies that Malaysia still has different fallback options in security and defence support, and not seeing West as the only reliable source of security umbrella. This gives more options for Malaysia to have better chips and cards in dealing with both China and the West.
To China, it also implies that Malaysia still has considerable external deterrence and security support apparatus and bulwark, apart from the predominantly Western security domain.

The UN General Assembly sees the normalization of the trend for recurring issues of maintaining peace, and the demand of developing states to be seen as equal and the push for more equality in terms of treatment and fairness in international trade and financial system, singling out the West as the main root cause of this economic and security imbalance.

Democracy vs Autocracy

Minilateralism is being railed against, and the US has been called out for pursuing a bloc mentality and a minilateral and direct approach with targeted countries instead of a true multilateral engagement. Direct bilateral and minilateral approach is taking grounds with growing importance simply because the impact and efficacy of a multilateral platform have been dwindling for years. ASEAN and the UN remain the prime examples of how and why a multilateral platform has been dominated by certain powers or being trapped by an endemic perspective and policy affiliation.

Multilateralism and certain regional and global institutions have long remained benign, ineffective and a symbol of a toothless tiger that have failed to adequately uphold the very core principles and tenets they have been founded upon, being beholden to conventional dogma and influence seeking activities of other powers. They often lack the audacity in being bold, direct, consistent and unwavering in their adherence to systemic values and principles, often succumbing to external pressures and dictate.

U.S. President Joe Biden has urged the world to stand up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine during his speech at the UNGA and has consistently raised the urgency of the fate of democracy and freedom against the onslaught of oppression, autocracy and the mantra of might is right.  
Peace and freedom come at a price and commitment, and the sacrifice that one takes must be the unwavering audacity in defending the core tenets of equal respect for the law and norms as enshrined under the UN Charter, and to unyieldingly and staunchly defend and align with the strive for rule of law, freedom and rights of all nations and the people.

Narratives have been tried to be expanded both by Moscow and other powers that Moscow is provoked or being dragged into the conflict by the enticement and provocation from NATO and the US led system. This has been projected as the reality on the ground, projecting a greater Global South buy in.
Wise and Bold New Positioning

America and the West have always been projected to decline, and the argument that it is now the dawn of the Asian century and the Chinese century has been the central narrative. However, the future trends and statistics showing otherwise, in how the resilience of the Western economy and the continuous security and military superiority will endure are being drowned out by this ingrained new narrative of the rise and future dominance of the Asian Century.

Malaysia has been known for rising influence in areas of low politics, including cooperation in environment, socio-economic issues, common development, and progressive humanitarian uplifting. As the next decade and century are shaped by hard power and high politics on security and power assurance, it remains imperative for the country to have a clear and consistent stance on this sphere.

With greater economic role and presence, linking ASEAN with other regional entities in the Global South in South Asia, Africa and Latin America in deepening economic and people to people ties remains strategic and future-reassuring. Building understanding and connecting bridges in digitalization and education and mobility of talent and knowledge and skills training programs in new sectors especially green and digital economy remain the areas where Malaysia is at a position of strength.

For that, Malaysia’s foreign policy must be pillared on normative rules-based order and the espousing of equality, respect for international law, enshrined national rights and freedom and democracy of humanity and good governance. This bulwark remains of utmost importance, against the new tide of rising authoritative tendencies in challenging this entrenched global norm that has safeguarded world peace and economic progress.

*Collins Chong Yew Keat is a Foreign Affairs and Security Strategist at Universiti Malaya.*