Notes from the Field

Malaysia’s South-South Cooperation Leaves Lasting Effects Far and Wide

November 30, 2011

This story is one that I have shared many times before. Years ago, I found myself walking through a stunning village in Bazarak, Panjshir Valley – home of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud – over 50 miles from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. I was there to help monitor preparations for the 2004 presidential elections. Just after 10 a.m., when we (I had three other colleagues with me: a driver, guide, and interpreter) arrived, I was brought to the village head’s house. The site was unforgettable: a cozy traditional house, basic setting, no electricity but a generous supply of natural fresh water, possibly from melted ice flowing down from the Hindu Kush Mountain range. As soon as I walked into the house, I was introduced in Pashtu: “Herizal Hazri, election worker from Malaysia.” A stocky man (the village head) immediately shook my hand, and said through our interpreter, “Malaysia is good. … Mahathir is our leader!” (Yes, I did think of testing his conviction but again, as a foreigner, I knew better than starting a debate, especially with a village head!)

I was surprised; but not because he adored Malaysia and its former prime minister so much, but rather that this short exchange of words was happening here, in a remote village in the Pansjhir Valley, with no electricity, no internet, and largely buffered from the outside world due to war, or more precisely: many wars. I thought to myself, if only I had travelled here to measure the effectiveness of Malaysia’s foreign policy, my ratings will be largely boosted by this conversation.

Seven years later, this moment stuck with me as I sat down to co-write a chapter on Malaysia’s foreign policy and South-South Cooperation for the new book, Emerging Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation, jointly produced by the Korean Development Institute and The Asia Foundation which was just released at the Fourth High Level Forum in Busan.

It is not too much to claim that South-South Cooperation is an important tenet in Malaysia’s foreign policy. Since its independence in 1957, Malaysia’s involvement in promoting greater cooperation and solidarity among newly independent countries of Asia and Africa has been a prominent feature of its modern political history. While Malaysia did not participate in the inaugural Bandung Afro-Asian Conference in 1955, it quickly played an integral role in the formalized South movements such as its active membership in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN), and the G77 caucus within the United Nations.

Malaysia’s commitment in championing the cause of the developing South became even more prominent by the early 1980s when ASEAN, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), NAM and the Commonwealth took center stage in the nation’s foreign policy. The Mahathir Administration (1981-2003) had consistently championed the South’s cause and Mahathir charged internationally as one of the leading advocates for the developing world. He was the voice of conscience of the plight of the developing countries. Since then, over the last three decades, Malaysia’s rise as an active player in promoting self reliance of the developing countries through cultivating partnership among them, as well as consistently and at times vocally expressing the South’s agenda internationally.

Malaysia’s major initiative for South-South Cooperation was made prominent through the establishment of the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Program (MTCP). MTCP is synonymous with Mahathir even though the program was officially launched before his appointment as prime minister. He had the vision of the importance for the South to be economically and politically strong and independent, thus not having to be overly dependent on the West. Under Mahathir, Malaysia’s foreign policy has changed from one that was decidedly pro-Western and anti-Communist to one that is openly identified with Third World concerns and aspirations. It was during Mahathir’s premiership that Malaysia sought to play a more prominent role in international affairs, especially at the United Nations, in the Commonwealth as well as among the developing countries in the context of South-South cooperation.

Since its inception, more than 2,000 participants from 136 countries have participated in the various programs administered under the MTCP annually. Today, the program continues to draw interest and participation from a multitude of countries, ranging from the African continent, Europe, Latin America, and Oceania. Many of the participants have return to their home countries and contributed to their own path of development. It is not surprising for one to meet a senior academic or civil servant in South Korea who will share wonderful experiences of being trained in Malaysia many years ago under the MTCP.

Mahathir’s successors, namely Abdullah Badawi and (current) Najib Razak, have both maintained Malaysia’s commitment to the developing South. In October 2009, Prime Minister Najib launched a UNESCO-Malaysia trust fund to enhance South-South Cooperation. This new initiative was focused to capacity building in education and science for the benefit of the Least Developed Countries, Small Island States and in support of the Priority Africa agenda.

Malaysia’s assistance program was initiated with a small but noble goal of extending a hand in friendship – through training assistance and capacity building. This imperative continues to drive the MTCP and other Malaysian government’s initiatives for South-South Cooperation. Malaysia has learned a great deal through the course of furnishing assistance to more than 140 countries. Today, as Malaysia is gearing toward becoming a fully developed nation status herself, its foreign assistance framework is facing a new challenge: finding a new framework where Malaysia can provide deeper and sustainable partnerships for international development. This is even more challenging at times when the global economic system is showing much fatigue.

Whatever the future may be for Malaysia’s foreign assistance program, the nation has proven its commitment to international development. From the busy metropolis of Seoul to the serene valleys of Pansjhir, Malaysia is known and remembered for its commitment to the developing world.

Herizal Hazri is The Asia Foundation’s program director in Malaysia. He can be reached at hhazri@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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