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HomeGeopolitical CompassSouth & Southeast AsiaMalaysian Conceptions of International Order: Paradoxes of Small-State Pragmatism

Malaysian Conceptions of International Order: Paradoxes of Small-State Pragmatism

Author: Cheng-Chwee Kuik

Affiliation: National University of Malaysia (UKM)

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: July 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Number of Pages: 21



Keywords: Malaysia, Liberal International Order, Small-State, Southeast Asia’s Regional Order



This article delves into the concept of order as a manifestation of power dynamics, focusing on how strong actors maintain stability and regulate exchanges within systems. It challenges the perception of weaker states as passive entities by highlighting their agency, especially in post-1945 dynamics. With the shift from the Cold War to American unipolarity, Malaysia’s approach reflects a paradoxical pragmatism: rejecting power hierarchy yet leveraging asymmetry, acknowledging smallness while exerting influence. The article explores Malaysia’s stance on the ‘liberal’ international order (LIO) by examining historical, structural, and domestic factors. It analyzes three paradoxes in Malaysia’s approach towards the LIO, citing Cold War and post-Cold War policies towards global powers and neighboring countries. The discussion encompasses Malaysia’s response to the Ukraine conflict, US-China rivalry, and the emerging ‘Indo-Pacific’ dynamics, showcasing the adaptive but ambivalent stance of smaller states toward existing orders. Finally, the article aims to contribute to conceptual understanding and theoretical development in understanding the world order. This article dives into three aspects:


1- Features of Malaysia’s Conceptions of International Order:

Malaysia’s perception of the international order is complex and ambivalent, characterized by both acceptance and critique of the ‘liberal’ international order (LIO). While benefiting economically and strategically from the US-led and western-centric order, Malaysia has been resentful of its double standards, protectionism, and interventionist agenda. Mahathir Mohamad’s administration criticized globalization as exploitative and resented Western positions on international issues, particularly concerning the Muslim world. The EU’s anti-palm oil measures and selective reactions to global conflicts further fueled Malaysia’s dissatisfaction. Malaysia, like other global South nations, questions the West’s monopoly on ‘liberal’ and ‘universal’ values, highlighting inconsistencies in their application. They view the LIO as necessary yet flawed, promoting a multilayered order that accommodates diverse developmental, diplomatic, and defense needs. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which is central to Malaysia’s preferred order, emphasizes inclusivity, neutrality, and cooperative security. ASEAN-led mechanisms facilitate managing regional problems, engaging extra-regional powers, and institutionalizing ASEAN centrality. These institutions enable Malaysia and its neighbors to promote their principles and manage interstate disputes peacefully.


2- Factors Underpinning Malaysia’s Conceptions:

Malaysia’s nuanced conceptions of the international order are ingrained with historical memories, shaped by structural sources and driven by domestic determinants.

  1. Historical Insights:

Malaysia’s historical narrative reflects its encounters with great power politics. The rise of the Malacca kingdom, a key trading port, was reliant on alliances for protection. However, European colonization marked a decline in its prominence. Colonial periods, including British rule until independence in 1957, deeply impacted Malaysia’s worldview, especially during the Cold War.

Agreements like the Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement (AMDA) provided security against threats, but subsequent British and US military withdrawals revealed the vulnerability of alliances. This led Malaysia to adopt a more diversified approach, balancing ‘non-alignment,’ regionalism, and limited defense partnerships through arrangements like the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).

These historical events taught Malaysia about the unpredictability of power relations, the complexities of power imbalances, and the multifaceted challenges it faces externally, such as aggression or abandonment. Malaysia also recognized that dominant powers shape international rules, leaving concerns about the equitable provision of public goods and rule enforcement.

In essence, Malaysia’s outlook on the international order is deeply shaped by its historical encounters, and emphasizes the intricacies of power relations, the significance of alliances, and the complexities of global dynamics.

Malaysia’s perspectives on the international order are further shaped by structural factors and domestic determinants.

  1. Structural Factors:

    – Size and Strength: Malaysia, considering its limited size, territory, and defense capabilities, perceives itself as a ‘small’ state in a system where great powers significantly influence its vulnerabilities and systemic challenges.

   – Threat and Patron Support: The absence of direct threats but the presence of multiple risks has prompted Malaysia to adopt a policy of ‘hedging,’ involving impartiality, diversification of ties with various powers, and prudent countermeasures to offset effects.

   – Hedging Policy: Malaysia’s approach aims to mitigate systemic risks while maintaining a fallback position amidst growing international uncertainties and focus on neutrality and strategic diversification.

  1. Domestic Determinants:

   – Elite Legitimation Needs: Domestic politics significantly influences Malaysia’s responses to external risks and opportunities. Ruling elites seek to justify their authority through performance, and particularistic and procedural legitimacy.

   – Optimized Legitimation: The state optimizes its response to perceived risks and benefits associated with the international order and alternative arrangements based on elites’ needs for balanced legitimacy across these pathways.

   – Paradoxical Pragmatism: Malaysia’s leaders pursue seemingly contradictory policies to achieve politically optimal trade-offs, balancing gains with drawbacks based on legitimacy pathways, such as prioritizing prosperity, addressing identity-based interests, and meeting electoral expectations.

In summary, Malaysia’s nuanced stance on the international order emerges from structural limitations and domestic political needs. These factors drive the country’s policy of hedging against risks while balancing varied legitimacy demands within its political landscape.


3- Politics of Paradoxical Pragmatism:

We see three paradoxes outlined in this article that deals with Malaysia’s foreign policy:

  1. Rejecting Hierarchy but Recognizing (and Leveraging) Asymmetry:

   – Idea: Malaysia acknowledges the permanent reality of power asymmetry but rejects the notion of a power hierarchy among nations.

   – Significance: The distinction between asymmetry (differences in abilities) and hierarchy (unequal status) guides Malaysia’s approach. It engages with major powers without completely aligning with or against any, recognizing their potential to both help and harm smaller states.

   – Examples: Malaysia maintains robust ties with both the US and China, leveraging economic and strategic benefits from both while selectively defying certain policies that contradict its interests.

  1. Acknowledging Smallness but Actively Punching Above Its Weight:

   – Idea: Despite self-identifying as a ‘small’ state, Malaysia actively strives to exert influence beyond its relative capabilities.

   – Significance: Acknowledging smallness does not equate to accepting inferiority. Rather, it prompts Malaysia to proactively shape its external environment, leveraging coalition-building and regional partnerships to enhance its influence.

   – Examples: Malaysia’s activism to promote East Asia-wide cooperation, despite being a smaller state, reflects its determination to create favorable external conditions and diversify partnerships beyond the West.

  1. Preserving Dynamic Coexistence via Contradictions:

   – Idea: Malaysia navigates international relations through deliberate contradictions, aiming to foster principled goals despite inherent contradictions.

   – Significance: Prudent contradictions accommodate competing interests and differences, promoting coexistence and continuous cooperation amid uncertainty.

   – Examples: Malaysia’s nuanced approach to the US-China rivalry, Indo-Pacific dynamics, and engagements like the Quad and AUKUS demonstrate a careful balance of concerns while maximizing gains and mitigating risks without taking a polarizing stance.

These paradoxes depict Malaysia’s intricate and calculated foreign policy approach, which relies on navigating contradictions, leveraging asymmetries, and actively participating in shaping the international order while safeguarding its national interests and sovereignty.



The conclusions drawn from this article offer significant contributions to the international order discourse:

  1. Small-State Perspective on International Order:

   – Enriching Literature: By focusing on Malaysia’s conceptions of the Liberal International Order (LIO), the article contributes to international order literature that predominantly centers on big powers.

   – Survival vs. Power Struggle: It underscores that international order is not solely about power struggles but also survival. Malaysia’s actions reflect a self-help approach, emphasizing the importance of survival strategies for small states within the global order.

  1. Complexity beyond Ideological Divide:

   – Beyond Dichotomies: The article challenges the simplistic ‘liberal versus non-liberal order’ narrative. Malaysia, a democratic country, selectively engages with aspects of the liberal order rather than wholly embracing it, adding complexity to the discourse.

   – Nuanced Responses: It highlights that responses to international order are not merely based on threat perceptions or alliances. Instead, states’ responses are nuanced, shaped by risk perceptions, and driven by pragmatic needs to mitigate various risks.

  1. Multilayered Approaches of Small States (Risk Mitigation and Pragmatism): Small states like Malaysia, not facing immediate direct threats, tend to avoid forming alliances. Instead, they adopt multilayered, pragmatic approaches that involve diplomacy, institution building, alignments, and diverse tools of statecraft to mitigate multiple risks. In essence, the article’s findings emphasize the intricate nature of international order, illustrating that small states like Malaysia navigate a complex landscape by prioritizing survival, adopting nuanced responses, and employing multifaceted strategies to safeguard their interests amid global power dynamics.


By: Dr. Nabil Kahlouche, Strategic Researcher 



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