Time for leadership and engagement in Malaysian Studies in Australia

Time for leadership and engagement in Malaysian Studies in Australia

Australia needs to look beyond Malaysia’s current political impasse and engage more widely with an important neighbour

For some time now, Malaysia watchers in Australia have focused much of their attention on the potential for the 1MDB crisis, and the 2013 election result before it, to unseat UMNO president and Barisan Nasional prime minister Najib Razak.

The imaginative pull these intertwined issues exerts is understandable—the sense of slowly building crisis, the moves and countermoves by government and opposition parties, and the clever deployment of hidden political resources are fascinating, especially when events appear to gather pace. Equally alluring is the temptation to be the person who called the critical moment just before it happened.

Yet surely the time has come to do more than attempt to call the timing of Najib’s potential demise. Assuming that such potential exists, we nevertheless remain at a political impasse between Najib and his opponents—both liberal and illiberal—which key actors inside and outside UMNO are presently working to break. They may well succeed at some point, and we can and should analyse these actors’ roles and motivations, including by mapping possible strategies, tactics and outcomes.


Nevertheless, given Malaysia’s present state of competitive political flux, we should also acknowledge that we cannot predict what combination of actors and outcomes will finally trigger Najib’s removal, and/or some other form of political change. Nor can we predict what that change might look like, or assume that it would result in democratic outcomes, although we can infer what social and political undercurrents might surface if and when change is triggered.

These undercurrents reflect the strong growth of exclusivist forms of racial and religious nationalism, which continue to undo the opposition parties’ attempts to regroup, and the possibility of an internal UMNO putsch reinforced by new, far-reaching national security powers. Further, many of our counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore continue to argue that Najib will not be removed quickly no matter how serious international action against him might grow—assessments that should remind us that the timeline for any potential change remains totally open-ended.

In these circumstances our role should be to look beyond the present impasse, and both show and build new leadership in Malaysian Studies in Australia. We should also work to engage Malaysians in Malaysia and Australia—where more than 150, 000 Malaysian-born people now live.

Malaysia is extremely important to Australia, for a range of reasons aside from its close proximity, its security and counterterrorism relationships with Australia, and its importance in regional discussions on people smuggling. It is also our tenth largest trading partner, our third largest source of international students—so critical to our capital city economies—and our seventh largest source of international tourists. Indeed, an important proportion of Malaysia’s middle class consists of people who have worked or studied in Australia, and/or have family and friends living here. The 2011 census showed that Malaysia is the ninth largest source of our overseas-born population.

In part, this silence is related to institutional nervousness about offending the Malaysian government by drawing attention to work that is, or could be seen to be, critical of its actions

In addition, there is a rich tradition of Malaysian Studies in Australian universities, including excellent work in history and politics, along with anthropology, cultural and media studies, education and public policy, economics and law. Whole branches of Australian universities operate in Malaysia, training professionals of all kinds. Yet this work is performed relatively quietly, without access to a functioning national structure to draw it together and amplify its outcomes.

In part, this silence is related to institutional nervousness about offending the Malaysian government by drawing attention to work that is, or could be seen to be, critical of its actions. Yet now, even Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has finally acknowledged that the 1MDB crisis is in fact ‘serious’. Meanwhile, the University of Adelaide has severed one of its connections with the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition by renaming a courtyard associated with former Sarawak chief minister Taib Mahmud.


Now, our role should involve demonstrating our relevance in supporting Malaysians’ resilience through—and after—whatever comes next in relation to the Najib impasse. In many important ways, our work can help shape Malaysians’ narrative of where their nation is and where it is going now, and, as the situation unfolds, it can also contribute to building new and credible systems of political and financial governance.

Equally importantly, our work can help craft new, authentic and more inclusive visions of national and civic citizenship with and for Malaysians—in Malaysia if possible, and through Track 2 Australian diplomacy if not. Neither of these issues is ‘softer’ or less important than terrorism, trade or people smuggling, or analysing political machinations. Further, the work of engaging Malaysians in relation to both is now essential to maintaining social cohesion together with our neighbours, friends and relatives in Malaysia, and across the broader region in which we are located.

As a national community and a regional player, we are privileged to hold such close and wide-ranging relationships with Malaysia and Malaysians, and we have profited from this neighbour’s haemorrhage of students and professionals to our shores for decades. It is now time to open up the structures that govern our scholarly work to include Malaysian colleagues and students as partners, and create a new coherence for Malaysian Studies and the impact we generate from it.

Featured image:
Malaysia’s flag. Photo: Eric Teoh, Flickr

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