From Samirul Ariff Othman
Maligned foreign influence in domestic affairs is a problem many countries have to deal with, and Asean members are increasingly finding themselves in the crosshairs as great powers vie for influence in the region.
While the intentions of Western powers are debatable, their main rival, China, has clearly demonstrated what its aims are. While promoting itself as a beacon for multilateralism and international trade, it has unveiled maps which will clearly deprive Asean states of their rightful access to the South China Sea and the resources contained within.
It is interesting to note that while being publicly funded, think tanks such as the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (Isis) and the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) have been lacklustre in forming policies and providing expert advice to educate the public and advise the government on how it should navigate around these complex and potentially dangerous issues.
Following the unveiling of the 2023 China Standard Map, neither Isis nor MIER issued any public statement on how Malaysia should prepare itself and respond. While Malaysia is a small country in comparison to the superpowers, it is an exporter of valuable and indeed critical items including rare earth minerals and microchips. Surely our voice counts for something.
We have to ask if these publicly funded think tanks have somehow forgotten the vital role they are meant to play, leading them to stay mum despite the existential challenges facing Malaysia as the loss of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) will prove to be catastrophic.
While little known in Malaysia, the activities of groups such as the United Front Work Department (UFWD) are well known overseas, with India, Canada, Taiwan and Australia among others having uncovered covert influence operations on their soil aimed at manipulating public opinion and even national elections.
This organisation is responsible for coordinating domestic and foreign influence operations through propaganda and manipulation of susceptible audiences and individuals, and is taken as a serious threat to the aforementioned countries with instances of the group having infiltrated academic, the media and other influence mechanisms.
Naturally as an economist, I fully acknowledge and appreciate the huge role that China plays in Malaysia’s international trade and economic development, but this must be based on the “win-win” mantra that China’s officials frequently repeat. How is it a win-win if Malaysia is facing a loss of its EEZ and the strategic institutes we trust to formulate policies remain silent.
Even Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has pushed for Malaysia and Asean to chart its own path but for this to be a reality, Malaysia and its neighbours must ensure that their societies, think tanks, academia and media are not “captured” by such influences.
While investment and trade are welcome, elements which put Malaysia’s sovereignty at risk must be opposed at every turn. There must be transparency, check and balance and due diligence to ensure that doing business with our largest partner does not come attached with unwanted strings.
Perhaps there are plans and strategies that are indeed being formulated to ensure Malaysia’s interests are protected vis-a-vis China, but these are of little use if reassuring public statements are not made by those entrusted to do so and if public awareness is not raised.
Malaysia and its people must be able to navigate these complex geopolitical realities with their eyes wide open, not with the wool pulled over them.
Samirul Ariff Othman is an economist and international relations analyst and a senior consultant with Global Asia Consulting (GAC).
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.