Mahathir Mohamad’s stunning return to office might be good for Malaysian democracy but its impact on his country’s relations with Australia could be problematic.
It was, after all, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating who famously dubbed Mahathir a “recalcitrant” for not traveling to Seattle for an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit back in 1993.
As a proud nationalist leader, Mahathir took great offense and demanded an apology which was eventually half- heartedly given. But the episode soured his government’s relations with Australia all though the remaining decade of his 22-year strongman tenure.
The description took on a life well beyond the Seattle-hosted free trade summit, with Mahathir’s “recalcitrance” extending to most aspects of his relationship with Australia.
It was an era when Australia was seeking greater integration in Asia, and Mahathir was there to frustrate Canberra’s attempts at every turn.
In Mahathir’s view, Australia was simply a part of Europe and the West, and needed to be held at arms-length from the family of Asian nations and regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
He was particularly critical of the country’s long-abandoned racist policies promoting a White Australia and frequently said that Canberra would never be accepted by regional countries as long as it acted as a “deputy sheriff” to America.
Such criticisms may have been largely for domestic Malaysian consumption, but Mahathir seemed to revel in his diatribes against Australia, all of which were closely reported Down Under.
For Australia, the criticisms were also taken as ingratitude for the solid backing given to Malaysia’s push for independence and nationhood, and the educational support given to the emerging Malaysian elite through the Colombo Plan – a Canberra-backed intergovernmental effort to promote Asia-Pacific development through human resource development.
When Mahathir left the premiership in 2003, many Australian leaders breathed a sigh of relief and quickly looked to forge a new positive relationship with Malaysia under his successor premiers.
This new diplomatic push culminated in a bilateral free trade treaty, the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which came into effect in 2013. Two-way trade between the nations now stands at A$20 billion (US$15.1 billion) per year; Malaysia is Australia’s 10th largest trading partner.
Like most observing nations, Australia expected incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition to continue its uninterrupted six decade hold on power after last week’s polls.
Based on this expectation of continuity, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put significant effort into a charm offensive with the now deposed Najib.
Although the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Four Corners” investigative program had been at the forefront of covering the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, in which Najib stands accused of pilfering billions of dollars from a state fund, Canberra swept the story under the carpet as it pursued stronger ties with Malaysia.
The scandal may have tainted Najib, but the official Australian position was to ignore it and deal with the political reality that he would neither face legal action at home nor fall from power at the ballot box.
Even reports that the Turnbull’s son, Alex, had resigned from his investment banking job at Goldman Sachs after blowing the whistle on the bank’s role in helping the 1MDB fund raise US$6.5 billion in debt, were not allowed to cloud the air. Mahathir seized upon the reports in the run-up to the election, even calling on Alex Turnbull to reveal what he knew.
Meanwhile, Australia continued to court Najib. By the time Australia hosted the Australia-Asean summit in Sydney in March, commentators in both countries were referring to a budding “bromance” between Turnbull and Najib.
“We will delete the word recalcitrant from our dictionary. None of us are recalcitrant: every one of us is very positive,” Najib said in Sydney, referring to Keating’s fateful comment about Mahathir.
Key to those positive vibrations was the recently broached possibility of Australia joining the 10-member Asean, a move that would have been unthinkable under Mahathir and his previous mindset.
Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is on the record as saying he wants Australia as a full Asean member, so a successful courtship of Malaysia, one of the grouping’s core founders and more influential members, would be a critical next step for Australia to win entry to the club.
In a late March interview with Fairfax Media, Mahathir said he still considered Australia “an outpost of Europe”, but that Canberra could one day join Asean if it could prove itself more “Asian than European.”
Like others, Australia has been totally wrong-footed by Mahathir’s amazing election upset and, for two years at least, it will have to deal with a man who was once one of its thorniest regional critics. The extent to which Australian policy will have to change, however, will depend largely on Mahathir and whether his attitude has mellowed as he has aged.
There are certain signs that could be the case. Few ever imagined that he would take the step of reconciling with his one-time deputy Anwar Ibrahim, who he once threw in jail, and smoothing his way to the premiership.
New reports not Mahathir also twice jailed his newly appointed finance minister, Lim Guan Eng, an Australian educated banker and the country’s first ever ethnic Chinese to head the key ministry.
If Mahathir can make amends with his former domestic foes, then surely he can consider being less “recalcitrant” towards Australia during his new tenure as national leader.