MALAYSIA’S peace activism has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in the world. In coming to this as a Malaysian characteristic, some foreign observers have lately been asking searching questions.
An American scholar in Kuala Lumpur recently asked how Malaysia could be a credible third party in facilitating peace talks for others. Speaking at the Malaysian Association for American Studies conference, he said he genuinely wanted to know and did not mean to seem facetious.
Unfortunately, none of the assembled panellists answered his question. A considered answer would have been interesting and informative for both foreigners and Malaysians. But first, some caveats.
There is peacekeeping that concerns policing a cessation of hostilities, and there is peacemaking that involves mediation, or at least hosting peace talks for contending parties. Malaysia’s knack for both is advised and admired, as various parties including Prof Peter Wallensteen, the Swedish specialist in international mediation work, have acknowledged.
Also, Malaysia’s commitment to peace and peaceable due process is not a new development but a familiar principle. It is also a feature tempered in the crucible of policy, stretching back to the country’s origins as a sovereign state.
This commitment derives from the country’s constitutional ideals, national character and societal values over some five decades now of its life. It adds up to a principled and pragmatic stand for peace that is consistent, comprehensive and substantive.
This stand was cast since the birth of independent Malaya in 1957. Today, Malaysia is the only country in the region, perhaps in the world, to have achieved independence peacefully and then ended a domestic insurgency through peaceful negotiations.
When Malaysia was to be formed in 1963, it had to face the threat of konfrontasi (violent confrontation) from Sukarno’s Indonesia. It weathered that storm, incorporating Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore into the federation through the peaceful means of a referendum and Britain’s Cobbold Commission of Enquiry.
Malaysia’s staunch membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was further evidence of its commitment to peace. NAM principles meant equidistance from both belligerent superpowers, and also keeping a healthy distance from the Cold War.
Malaysia’s stand also saw its rejection of South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato) membership, regarding it as a US Cold War tool. Instead it opted for Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations), the region’s premier confidence-building mechanism based on complementary sovereignties promoting regional peace by pre-empting conflict among members.
Although the violence of May 1969 was a blot on the country’s history, Malaysians quickly learnt not to allow such an ugly episode to recur. The result has been decades of social peace, political stability and economic prosperity rarely seen in the developing world.
In January this year, Foreign Policy magazine’s Globalisation Index (by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington) placed Malaysia as the most globally integrated developing nation and Muslim country in the world. In the rankings based on economic, technological and social factors, Malaysia is ahead of even Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
In 1996, the Malaysian Peacekeeping Training Centre was established in Port Dickson, and this year saw the launch of the South-East Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism. Meanwhile, peace studies units have been established in Malaysian universities.
Malaysia has set great store by multilateral cooperation and international authority as vested in the United Nations. It has willingly submitted to the jurisdiction of the UN World Court (International Court of Justice), such as the disputed claim by Indonesia on Sipadan and Ligitan islands.
Malaysia’s involvement in UN peace initiatives is both long and distinguished. Since the 1960s, the country has participated in some two dozen UN peacekeeping operations.
These locations include Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chad, Congo (repeatedly, also the Democratic Republic of Congo), Croatia, East Timor, Iraq (repeatedly), Kosovo, Kuwait, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Western Sahara.
These places have seen a UN presence as both legitimate and justified. Consequently, Malaysia’s participation has meant tangible benefits for all.
Nonetheless, this has come at considerable cost: no less than 18 Malaysians have died and dozens more wounded in these operations, while the country is still owed tens of millions for this work. Yet some countries far richer than Malaysia have still not paid their dues for these operations.
This, however, has not dampened Malaysia’s peace activism. It is seen as not only a moral imperative in itself, but also of great practical benefit to both Malaysia and the territory so assisted.
As even the conservative Washington Times has observed, Malaysia has “sent troops to protect neighbouring countries from suspected terrorists, instructed neighbours on how to freeze terrorist assets, and is highly instrumental in maintaining the security of international waters in the Straits of Malacca and South China Sea.”
Throughout East Asia, Malaysia has offered assistance where it can help to protect or further the cause of peace. This has ranged from aiding stability in war-ravaged Cambodia to mediation in Mindanao to hosting talks between US and North Korean officials in Kuala Lumpur.
Among the latest initiatives is bringing Philippine and MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) officials together for talks to end the southern Philippine insurgency. Both parties accept Malaysia’s neutrality in hosting the talks, aware that its relations with both are equivalent if asymmetrical: Malaysia is linked with Manila through Asean, but also to the MILF through the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference).
More significantly perhaps, both the Philippine government and the MILF leadership know that Malaysia makes a good honest broker because it is in the direct interest of the country to ensure peace and prosperity in the region. This also explains Malaysia’s “prosper thy neighbour” policy, which helps to nurture development through shared interests and thereby ensure peace.
Yet Malaysia does not claim to be the foremost country in peace activity, content to leave such claims for other countries to make. But if Malaysia’s peace credentials are to be questioned, it is entitled to ask how the peace record of other countries compares with its own.
For decades, the very few reservations about Malaysia’s peace activity – such as expressed by a few East Timor leaders in 1999 – have been the exception to the norm. If those who rejected Malaysian and other Asean leadership in the UN force in their territory held the same standard to Australia – which for many years also sided with Jakarta over East Timor – Australian forces would not have led the UN contingent there either.
Despite the current alarm over militant Islamist groups in the region, Malaysia itself remains little implicated. Where the presence of such individuals or groups has been identified in the country, action by Malaysian authorities has been swift and firm. Besides all of Malaysia’s peace credentials over the years, there is another today: its chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement. This enhances what is already an extraordinary aggregate of experience and achievement in peace efforts at home and abroad.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently observed that world peace is possible if all states submit to UN authority. This was both a reminder that world peace is a primary rationale of the UN itself, and a nudge to other countries to honour their obligations in that respect.
Malaysia’s commitment to peace is deep-seated since it emanates from the government, the people, civic groups and voluntary organisations – with the nation as one, from the country as a whole. Groups such as Medical Aid for Palestinians, Mercy Malaysia, the national chapter of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Peace Malaysia and Stop the War Coalition were initiated by Malaysians.
The American academic in Kuala Lumpur who asked about Malaysia’s peace credentials also mentioned its seeming partiality to Palestine on the question of Israel. To this, it may be said that unlike some powerful countries Malaysia at least is not beholden to the influential Zionist lobby, whereas the cause of Palestine is essentially a nationalist cause of a people seeking legitimate self-determination endorsed by much of the world.
Malaysia is aware that peace is not appeasement, capitulation or even compromise necessarily. It is a non-destructive and more productive way to resolve, accommodate or transcend differences in moving towards a more promising shared future, something Malaysia has learned first-hand as a sovereign nation.