Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Bangi and Assistant Political Education Director for the Democratic Action Party (DAP) on the 13th of December 2021

Malaysia’s lack of participation in the Summit for Democracy organized by the office of the President of the United States is a lost opportunity and sends a poor signal for the future direction of our foreign policy

Malaysia was one of the three southeast Asian countries (Indonesia and the Philippines were the other two) to be invited to the recently concluded Summit for Democracy that was organized by the office of the President of the United States. 1 Unfortunately, Malaysia made the decision NOT to participate in this summit. This is a short sighted and unstrategic move that points to a larger lack of coherence and independent thinking in our foreign policy direction moving forward.

Malaysia should have grasped this opportunity to reiterate our firm commitment to the principles of democracy that have been tried and tested over the past 3 and a half years since the 14th General Election in May 2018. Indeed, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri could have used this opportunity to showcase a new phase of political maturity under his premiership with the historic signing of the Memorandum of Understanding(MoU) between his government and the main opposition coalition, namely Pakatan Harapan, which includes many elements of political and democratic reforms such as the promise of an introduction of an anti-hopping law, equal allocations for Members of Parliament, lowering the voting age to 18, increasing the effectiveness of parliament as a means of check and balance to the executive and a commitment to greater decentralisation and autonomy for Sabah and Sarawak.

Instead, the Prime Minister was too caught up with the celebration of his 100-day Keluarga Malaysia government where numerous SOPs were flouted by himself and his cabinet, and long queues were spotted outside KLCC comprising of people who had lined up to try to pay their discounted police summons. Even if he could not attend the event “live”, he could have recorded his official interventions, together with over 90 heads of government 2
, including outgoing President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who emphasized his commitment to a peaceful transfer of power to his successor at the end of his term in 2022. (3)

President Jokowi of Indonesia was invited to share his remarks together with 11 other leaders including newly elected German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. (4)Coincidentally, this summit took place at the same time as the 14th edition of the Bali Democracy Forum which was initiated by Indonesia back in 2008 under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.(5)

I am sure Saifuddin Abdullah, the Foreign Minister, will brush this aside and say that Malaysia can deliver its foreign policy messages in other ways including during Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken’s first visit to Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand) later this week. But I am sure that Saifuddin is well aware that foreign policy is as much about sending signals about the foreign policy direction of the country
in addition to the substantive content that could have been raised by the Prime Minister at the Summit for Democracy. One area of such signaling is with regards to Malaysia’s hedging strategy vis-à-vis the big players in regional geopolitics in South-East Asia.6 Will Malaysia’s lack of participation in this summit be interpreted by some that we are tipping over to one side in this tricky balancing act? Or is this a sign of a directionless government with regards to the complicated area of foreign policy which requires proper
coordination and strategic thinking on the part of the decision makers in the Prime Minister’s office and Wisma Putra? Either way, the signs are very worrying for those who are concerned with the foreign policy direction of the country under the current leadership.

1 https://www.state.gov/participant-list-the-summit-for-democracy/
2 https://www.state.gov/official-interventions-the-summit-for-democracy/
3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IbXCUDQl0E
4 https://jakartaglobe.id/news/jokowi-shares-session-with-new-german-chancellor-in-bidens-summit-for-democracy/
5 https://bdf.kemlu.go.id/bdf-xiv
6 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/07/opinion/malaysias-balancing-act.html