Will Malaysia-EU ties improve under the new government?
September 14, 2021
Malaysia's new government has already signalled that it will maintain its predecessor's legal battles against the EU, especially concerning the dispute over palm oil.
Changes of government are usually occasions for countries to reassess their foreign relations, but few analysts reckon Malaysia's new government that came into office late last month will oversee any fundamental change in approach.
It is a double-edged sword for the EU, which was beginning to build momentum with the previous government over a potential free-trade agreement between Malaysia and the European bloc, a key issue for Brussels as it seeks to sign new trade pacts with Southeast Asian states.
"The main thrusts of Malaysia's foreign policy have been consistent throughout the decades, anyway," Noor said. "So, while there may be tweaks in execution… its approach to major power dynamics will remain unchanged."
No clear opinion on international relations?
Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who retained his post after the government change, said as much earlier this month. According to local media reports, he stated that the new government will not seek to pursue "a new foreign policy."
Speaking on his first day back in office on September 1, during which he announced the formation of a new Foreign Policy Consultative Council, he said the new government's central theme is "continuity."
Ismail's new Cabinet came into office following three years of intense political activity. For almost seven decades, Malaysia was run unchallenged by a coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a party that represents the interests of the country's Malay-Muslim majority.
But an unprecedented victory in the 2018 general election by an opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, threw Malaysian politics into turmoil. The Harapan-led government survived until February 2020, when it collapsed following intra-coalition squabbles and the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Muhyiddin Yassin, a member of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), which had collapsed the previous government after splitting from the Harapan coalition, was named the new prime minister.
But he lasted only 17 months in office, resigning in August this year after losing majority support over his government's pandemic response. Ismail, a senior official in UMNO, was then asked by the country's monarch to form a government.
"Ismail Sabri has not been known for having a clear opinion on international relations, having mostly served as a functionary in his party and as a minister mostly dealing with domestic concerns," said Liew Chin Tong, a former deputy defense minister and politician for the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).
But Ismail "will not have the luxury of not dealing with geopolitics," Liew added, since the country has in recent years felt pressured to set a clear foreign policy agenda amid the US-China rivalry. "He will have to get up to speed relatively quickly," Liew said.
Free trade talks stalled
For EU-Malaysia relations, the continuation of the status quo in Kuala Lumpur will leave the bloc's diplomats with the same old challenges.
"The change of administration will not have a significant impact on EU-Malaysia relations," Ambassador Michalis Rokas, head of the EU delegation to Malaysia, told DW.
"The bilateral relationship is already in a good pathway, and we will continue to reach out to the new government in order to further strengthen our relationship and deepen our engagement," he added.
Talks over a free trade agreement began in 2010 but stalled two years later, after seven rounds, at the request of Malaysia. A "stocktaking exercise" was carried out by both sides in 2016, but Kuala Lumpur decided against restarting trade talks.
In April, the European Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia and the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers agreed to form a joint task force to lobby Kuala Lumpur to restart trade talks.
Doing so, the trade group stated, would ease some tensions of the proposed EU-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement since provisions laid out in the CPTPP, such as those involving labor, would be similar to those required in the EU trade pact.
Malaysia, the world's second-largest palm oil producer, claims this is simply protectionism from Brussels, designed to protect European oil producers.
In late May, the World Trade Organization accepted Malaysia's request to establish a panel to debate its protests and an opinion is expected by the end of the year. However, the EU could then appeal the ruling, which likely means the dispute could continue for years.
Rokas, the EU ambassador, said that his delegation is "reaching out" to the new administration to discuss this, especially with the new minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, Zuraida Kamaruddin, who oversees affairs relating to palm oil.
Zuraida, who did not respond to DW's questions at the time of publication, is expected to maintain Malaysia's stance on the EU's phasing out of palm oil imports.
The weakness of Ismail's new government, which controls only a slim majority in parliament, could even exacerbate tensions with the EU over palm oil.
"Structurally, the Malaysian government will have to protect its planters and this constituency is of particular import to Ismail," said Liew, the DAP politician, referring to the palm-oil workers and producers, the majority of which are from the Malay majority, which is the political base of Ismail's UMNO party.
"But Malaysia-Europe relations are far more than palm oil," said Liew. "I would like to see the government working with investors from the EU to help upgrade Malaysian industries and to transform technologically."