Addressing the UN General Assembly session in September 2019, Mahathir Mohammad, the then-Malaysian Prime Minister, targeted India, saying, “New Delhi had invaded and occupied Kashmir.” The unexpected and unscrupulous remarks sparked a backlash in India that badly hit mutual relations, particularly in the bilateral trade and commerce sector.
Mahathir was playing second fiddle to the anti-Saudi conformist Islamic group that had become energetic under the initiation of President Erdogan of Turkey. The Turkish President had made no secret of his ambition to revive Ottoman pre-eminence by wresting the leadership of the Islamic world from the hands of Saudi royalty.
The contrivance ended in a fiasco when Saudi Crown Prince Salman warned the then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan of dire consequences for becoming an accomplice in a move against him. Imran Khan had to eat the humble pie; he was absent.
Mahathir’s reckless comments prompted India to discourage the import of large quantities of Malaysian palm oil. Calls for Indians to shun Malaysian products became viral. Soon after stopping the import of palm oil from Malaysia, a central Indian vegetable oil trade body called on its 875 members to avoid buying palm oil from Malaysia, noting the government was mulling retaliatory measures.
“In your interest as well as a mark of solidarity with our nation, we should avoid purchases from Malaysia for the time being,” said Atul Chaturvedi, president of the Solvent Extractors’ Association of India. It was a blow for Malaysia, as India was the country’s third-biggest market for palm oil and palm oil products in 2018, with a value of 6.84 billion ringgit (US$1.63 billion).
Teresa Kok, the then Malaysian Minister overseeing the commodity, scrambled to defuse tensions, describing the association’s move as a “major setback” and saying Malaysia was considering increasing imports of sugar and buffalo meat from India.
With Western companies reducing use of the commodity as green groups ratchet up pressure, the top two growers have increasingly come to rely on demand from India — the world’s biggest buyer of edible oils — and China.
The row is a further hit to the sector in Malaysia after the European Union announced plans to phase out palm oil in biofuels by 2030. Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to fight the move, saying it could damage the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers.
The Winds Of Change
Several reasons predict the normalization of India-Malaysia relations. The visit of Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir to New Delhi from November 5-8 is a noteworthy development in putting bilateral relations back on the rails.
He met with his Indian counterpart for the sixth India – Malaysia Joint Commission Meeting. The JCM reviewed the progress of the Enhanced Strategic Partnership, which covers several areas, including defense, security, investment, etc.
Zambry’s visit promises to revitalize cultural and civilization ties and to more sectors of cooperation shortly. One should not lose sight of the ground reality that India is one of Malaysia’s ten most significant trading partners, and Malaysia is the third-largest trading partner for India among the ASEAN countries.
India, usually pragmatic in her foreign policy, has, under the leadership of her Minister of External Affairs, hinted that improving relations with Malaysia would be helpful in lending support to regional peace and stability.
The visits of the Indian Defence Minister to Malaysia in the summer, followed by that of the MOS in the MEA, show that common ground is being explored for the normalization of bilateral relations. Zambry said Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim also intended to visit India soon.
‘New’ India Impact
After some critical global events in which India’s role received appreciation from the world community, including outstanding international organizations, Malaysia found it in her national interest to mend the fence with India.
Zambry announced that Malaysia would allow Indian citizens a 30-day visa-free entry starting December 1, 2024. This move signals intent for more excellent connectivity and people-to-people interaction.
India is forecast to emerge as the third-largest economy in the world by 2027. This is an opportunity for Malaysia to initiate and capitalize on a partnership with India in the digital, fintech, and semiconductor fields.
Also, India has been a success story in digital payments, and several best practices can be shared with and adopted by Malaysia, such as UPI and the RuPay payment service, which would boost financial engagement between the two countries.
Putrajaya (Malaysia’s seat of government) understands that India of today is a very different India they have to deal with since the last JCM more than a decade ago. India’s footprints in global strategies and her emergence as a regional trendsetter, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region, have raised India’s stature and profile in international politics.
Malaysia foresees the importance of the digital economy in ASEAN, which is projected to increase to around US$330 billion in 2025, supported by the implementation of the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) in 2025 with Malaysia as ASEAN Chair.
Last year, India chaired the G-20; she also chaired the SCO, and New Delhi has proposed the Global South agenda. All these essential engagements have lent strength to India’s voice in the comity of nations. Malaysia has to be in regular contact with India because she is a critical member of ASEAN.
Above all, India is a leading proponent of Indo-Pacific cooperation and is guided by core policies such as “the Neighbourhood First Policy, Act East Policy, Africa Outreach Initiative, and Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative (IPOI).
All this shows how New Delhi’s role in the emerging Indo-Pacific order is taking new forms and gaining fresh momentum,” writes Asia Times of December 8 in an opinion piece headlined “Time for Malaysia to recognize the “NEW” Delhi.
The change of government in Malaysia emphasized to the new administration the wisdom of revisiting the stalemate in its relations with New Delhi. The sides took silent initiatives to rebuild relations facilitated by the universally accepted norms.
As India has grown into a giant economy and has gone up in the graph of its relevance and importance to international peace and security, it is good news that the leadership in India and Malaysia have agreed to give a new thrust to their traditionally cordial relations. That is what matured statesmanship will endorse.