From 'Kabali' to the South China Sea, the Malaysian Prime Minister's Visit Had Everything

Bilateral talks were mutually beneficial, helping India to make a stronger statement against terrorism while Malaysia stood strong on the South China Sea issue.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak attend the opening of the Torana Gate, in an Indian suburb of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak. Credit: Olivia Harris/Reuters/Files

New Delhi: On his way to Delhi, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak’s in-flight entertainment consisted of popular Tamil culture – the hit 2016 film Kabali. Even as Razak got a selfie with Rajnikanth, to amuse the Indian diaspora back home, he also got the attention of the Chinese capital – owing to a joint announcement with India on the need for freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

On April 1, the Malaysian prime minister held formal talks with his host, Narendra Modi in New Delhi, that witnessed the signing of seven agreements. Najib’s visit was not only to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations with India, but was also a reciprocal visit of the Indian leader to attend East Asia Summit, less than two years ago.

When prime minister Narendra Modi visited Kuala Lumpur in November 2015, the bilateral joint statement issued after the talks had a very bland line of both countries sharing “mutual interest in cooperating for peace, prosperity and security of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond”.

Therefore, in the context of bilateral ties with India, the support of Malaysia – which is one of the parties to the South China sea wrangle – in the freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed region is a conspicuous signal in the current document.

“The two leaders reiterated their commitment to respecting freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded lawful commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982. They urged all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force, and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoid unilateral actions that raise tension. They emphasised that all parties should show utmost respect to UNCLOS 1982, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans.”

This is, however, not the first time that Malaysia has lobbied for freedom of navigation and overflight in a bilateral setting. It was also mentioned in the 2014 joint statement between Malaysia and United States, with explicit reference to the South China Sea. The document had also supported international arbitration which had been sought by Philippines, but boycotted by China.

A year later, a tribunal gave a verdict in favour of Philippines, ruling that China’s claim had no legal basis. Malaysia had noted the verdict, but called for compliance on the judgment.

Among the various other south east Asian countries, Malaysia has been relatively low-key – compared to Vietnam or earlier, Philippines – in advocating its claims on the South China sea.

However, there had been rising concerns after a Chinese coast guard vessel was spotted near Borneo’s coast in 2015 and around 100 Chinese fishing boats encroached onto Malaysian waters in March 2016.

Last year, when Najib visited China, the joint statement emphasised that all states should resolve differences through peaceful means, “in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”. In yet another demonstration of Kuala Lumpur’s balancing act, a favourite turn of phrase for Beijing was also included – “Both sides recognised that the involvement of parties not directly concerned would be counter-productive”.

China and electoral politics in Malaysia

Malaysia’s relationship with China has been rather complicated due the presence of Chinese-Malaysians as a quarter of the population. The Malaysian leadership has to always be careful that its external ties with China does not impinge onto its domestic space. In 2015, the Chinese ambassador was summoned after he was quoted stating that Beijing opposed any racial discrimination, ahead of a planned rally in Chinatown by a pro-Malay group.

During the 2013 elections, there had been a drastic reduction in the votes for Barison Nasional party ally, Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which migrated to the opposition Chinese parties. With early general elections ahead, Razak would also like to see the number of Chinese-Malaysians voting for his alliance, go up substantially.

Having faced two years of slow growth, the south east Asian country has also been scouting for foreign investment to revitalise its economy. While the west went through gradual economic recovery, China was the only major economic power with the ability to park its surplus capital in heavy infrastructure investments like ports, railways and industrial parks, becoming Malaysia’s large foreign investor.

Indian officials believe that while Malaysia had not indulged in the “sabre-rattling” over the South China sea issue because of its domestic Chinese population, there has been gathering disquiet below the surface, towards Chinese actions in the disputed islands.

Sources indicated that they did not have to engage in much diplomatic persuasion in getting the Malaysians to agree to an indirect reference to South China Sea. “They were very much open to it,” said a government official.

The absence of a South China Sea reference in the 2015 joint statement, was perhaps, more a reflection of Indian cautiousness. New Delhi has only lately become more aggressive in prodding China – with rising visibility given to Dalai Lama and implicitly talking of South China Sea with countries in South East Asia.

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Files

An aerial photo taken though a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged on-going land reclamation by China on mischief reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, May 11, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Files

Just like Indonesia and other south east Asian countries, Malaysia is also in the process of upgrading its maritime forces, despite a recent cut in defence spending due to economic stress.

Adding another layer to the complexity of Malaysia’s relationship with China, five littoral mission ships will be supplied, as per an agreement signed during Razak’s visit to Beijing in November 2016.

The first Malaysia-China army exercise were held in 2014, but Kuala Lumpur held military joint exercises with India, two years earlier in 2012. Last year, India held table-top naval exercises with Malaysia, which will be upgraded to field exercises.

Officials point out that the Malaysian prime minister himself has been interested in ramping up defence ties with India. It was during his term as defence minister that Indian Su-30 pilots went to Malaysia as trainers between 2008 and 2010.

The cooperation between the two Air Forces will be ratcheted up, with both sides close to finalising the terms of reference for the setting up of the Aircraft Safety and Maintenance Forum for cooperation in training, maintenance, technical support and safety-related issues.

India is also ready to buy recently decommissioned Mig-29 aircraft of the Royal Malaysian Air Force and upgrade them to augment its own depleted squadrons. “It also depends on its techno-commercial viability… If the deal goes ahead, Malaysia could ask for help with equipment as we have a lot of common platforms,” said the official.

But, it did not feature in the final joint statement, as there was no deal to negotiate till it’s viability was established.

The Indian angle

There is also a domestic component in Razak’s visit India – one not as problematic as Malaysia’s relationship with China.

He began his trip with Chennai, which was unusual, because he is probably the first foreign leader to visit the state capital twice. During his visit, his priority was not just to meet with Indian businessmen and Malaysian students, but also superstar Rajnikanth.

Sources said that Rajnikanth had not confirmed the meeting till the night before on March 30. The Tamil movie icon invited Najib to his residence, so that both of them could watch ‘Kabali’ together in his home theatre. The 2016 film depicted the fictional life of a Kuala Lumpur-based gangster chief.

Razak and his wife are major Bollywood fans, but had not watched any Tamil films till now. Razak invited the Tamil star to Malaysia again to make a sequel. As a parting gift, the Malaysian prime minister received a DVD of the film, so that he could view the rest of the film later.

“He (Razak) told PM Modi that he watched the entire film Kabali on his flight from Chennai to Delhi,” said an Indian official.

Corruption scandal

The Malaysian prime minister is expected to call for snap polls this year, rather than hold them as scheduled in mid-2018.

In the last general elections, the ruling coalition won 60% of the 222 seats in parliament, but had got only 47% of the popular vote.

Razak has survived a tumultuous political year, wading through corruption allegations that billions of dollars from a state fund 1MDB were allegedly put into an account held by the premier. This has certainly dented his image, but Razak has managed to successfully manevour against his political detractors.

With support from Chinese-Malaysians uncertain, Razak is looking at the third largest ethnic group to shore up his electoral victory against a fractured opposition. More than 70% of Indian origin Malaysians trace their roots to Tamil Nadu.

That’s why, Razak was effusive in his praise for the Indian diaspora, which has not gone unnoticed back home. “I can truly say that without Malaysian Indians, Malaysia simply would not be what it is today, and they constitute a very special reason why it is so natural for our two countries to forge ever closer and friendlier relations,” he wrote in an op-ed published in Hindustan Times.


For India, the visit also brought a much stronger statement from Malaysia on combating terrorism.

Compared to barely 75 words on terrorism in the 2015 joint statement, Modi and Razak signed off on a more strident and expansive version on April 1.

Condemning recent “barbaric” terror attacks in the region, the two premiers “stressed that there could be no justification for acts of terror on any grounds whatsoever”.

“They asserted that the fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against states, which encourage, support and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues. There should be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs,” said the joint statement.

Despite no names being taken, the language is a reflection of Indian concerns over Pakistan, and will be certainly interpreted as a rebuke in Islamabad. The reference to ‘martyrs’ is New Delhi’s finger-pointing at Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif repeatedly praising slain Hizbul Mujahidden commander Burhan Wani as one.

In his remarks to the media, Najib said that Malaysia and India were enhancing their security partnership “to combat global terrorism and extremism, that includes fight against ISIS and any type of terrorism”.

Malaysia has arrested over 250 people over the last two years for having links with ISIS, even as scores have already gone to fight in Iraq and Syria. According to Malaysian police, about 30 Malaysian nationals have been killed in West Asia.

The Malaysian government has been rather proud of its de-radicalisation program for convicted extremists, which apparently has a rehabilitation rate of over 95%.

“PM Modi was particularly interested in our de-radicalisation program… I presented a book on this module to him,” said Razak, adding that Malaysia and India will co-host a conference on de-radicalisation.

Official sources said that a date for the conference has not yet been decided. “We expect ASEAN will take the lead in organising the conference, while India and Malaysia will be the chief collaborators,” he said.

Tourism and trade

With Malaysia being a favourite destination among Indian tourists, Razak announced a further liberalised visa regime for Indians, by waiving the visa fee, approval for online visa applications within 48 hours and multiple fees. There had been a 12% drop in Indian tourist arrivals to Malaysia in 2016.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian prime minister batted for early conclusion of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the mega trade agreement between 16 countries. Standing next to Modi, Razak said, “Now that TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) has been buried, we need a fresh agreement to revitalise trade. RCEP is therefore more and more relevant”.

Razak’s remarks on RCEP took place in the background of negotiations facing a road-block, with India’s demand for greater liberalisation in services not finding any takers among other countries.

Meanwhile, the India-Malaysia Joint CEOs forum pitched for early completion of a “balanced” RCEP.

“Both trade and investment will benefit from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which aims to be a deep integration trade agreement covering trade in goods, trade in services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, competition, dispute settlement/legal and institutional issues among others. Therefore, the forum calls for a balanced RCEP which will address both trade and services and be concluded at an early date,” it said.

There has been a drop in bilateral trade from $16.9 billion in 2014-15 to $12.8 billion in 2015-16. India and Malaysia had first set a target in 2010 to reach a trade volume of $15 billion by 2015. Seven years later, the target has been against set by two prime minister to return to $15 billion “in the immediate future”.

India is Malaysia’s 20th largest investor with $2.5 billion, while Malaysia stands at 21st rank among foreign investors in India with $7 billion.

The Malaysian prime minister will be going to another Indian state after the Delhi sojourn. He will be hosted in Rajasthan on April 2, where several Malaysian companies have won road contracts worth nearly $1.4 billion.

On the last day of his visit, more than 15 business agreements will be signed, which could amount to over $5 billion, as per Indian officials.