By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Star 20 April 2012
UK Prime Minister David Cameron visited Malaysia last week, after nearly two decades of what our Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak termed “benign neglect”, at least in political and diplomatic terms, for throughout that time the people-to-people relationships have remained exceptionally strong. As Mr Cameron mentioned in his speeches at the events hosted by the Global Movement of the Moderates and the Asean Business Club last week, thousands of Malaysians are educated in the UK or study for British qualifications. He also highlighted the significant and growing business and trade links between the two countries. It is little surprise that these themes formed the core of Mr Cameron’s speeches, but it is worth assessing some other aspects of the relationship too.
Much of British popular culture has long lost out to that of the US throughout the region, but here Australian, Korean and Japanese music and television shows are denting that hegemony too. Accents in our campuses and companies blend all of these ingredients together, as if Malaysian English was not already varied enough. Of course the English Premier League is the major exception, but there have always been a number of Malaysian Anglophiles who partake in other quintessential (or stereotypical) British practices and styles too. Even as Asean is supposed to achieve its economic community in 2015, flying from Kuala Lumpur to London is more familiar to many Malaysians across the generations than flying to many Asean capitals. There remains a huge institutional legacy linking our two countries, from the legal code to the parliamentary system, from the templates of our earliest schools to the continuing popularity of British universities, with more Malaysian campuses set to open.
In an article I wrote during the time of the British general election in 2010, I predicted that if the Conservatives won, the UK-Malaysia relationship would strengthen, because the relationship with Conservatives has historically been strong. After World War II the Conservatives, then in opposition, supported Malayans and many (British) former officers of the Malayan Civil Service in overturning the Labour government’s plan for a highly centralised and virtually republican post-War Malaya. After two years, the hated Malayan Union was dismantled and replaced by the Federation of Malaya that married Westminster-style institutions with traditional institutions including the monarchy, to which Mr Cameron last week attributed the nation’s post-Independence stability. Incidentally, Oxford-educated Tuanku Abdul Halim performed a state visit to the UK during his first term as Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
With Conservative Edward Heath – the first British Prime Minister to visit Malaysia – we signed the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, crucially strengthening military cooperation amidst communist agitation. Margaret Thatcher visited Malaysia in 1985, telling Dato’ Seri Mahathir at a dinner hosted in her honour: “Like you, we both agree on the advantages of the free enterprise system and the liberalisation of world trade, and I am delighted to find, Prime Minister, that you too are devotees of privatisation and reducing the role of the State.” By then, the Buy British Last policy had been relaxed, but criticism of the methods of the ‘privatisation’ had yet to surface. John Major then came to KL in 1993, but neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown deigned to visit Malaysia during their premierships.
Of course diplomatic protocol prevents any official recognition of this apparent, perhaps coincidental difference in attitude between leaders of different political parties. Perhaps they should remember that Malaysians can (at least in UK law) participate in such matters since citizens of Commonwealth countries still enjoy the right to vote in UK elections from the age of 18; whilst Malaysian suffrage begins at 21 (although hopefully this will soon be reduced). Indeed our early Prime Ministers took a very keen interest in British politics when they themselves were students there.
If relations between the two countries are set to soar, I wonder about the attitudes of those thousands of Malaysians who remain the UK because they feel they are denied the opportunity to flourish in their home country: whether in the financial institutions of the city or in the restaurants of Chinatown. Of the former, many enjoy Permanent Leave to Remain and some take up British passports, breaking Malaysian laws on dual citizenship, whilst the less legal latter group are more likely to end up in the British press.
- – -
Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is the President of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)