Malaysia’s foreign policy has generally served the country well since Malaya’s independence in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Malaysia is now entering a new national moment with the primary goal of becoming a fully developed country in all its dimensions by 2020.

Muthiah Alagappa
Alagappa, formerly a nonresident senior fellow in the Asia Program, was the first holder of the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in international studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research focuses primarily on Asian security, the political legitimacy of governments, civil society and political change, and the political role of the military in Asia.
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Concurrently, its international, political, strategic and economic environments are undergoing fundamental changes. Realising the aspiration to become a fully developed country in the context of dramatic changes in domestic and international circumstances requires innovative and cutting-edge foreign policy and skilful diplomacy.

As Malaysia becomes a developed country, it would also enter the rank of middle power. Becoming a developed country and a middle power would necessitate Malaysia to take on additional international roles. In sum, the aspiration to become a developed country and the management of international affairs as a developed country would place new demands on Malaysia’s foreign policy, which must target a force multiplier role.

Malaysia’s international goals and agendas are becoming broad-ranging and more complex, involving numerous ministries, departments and agencies, with the prime minister and his office playing crucial roles in forging new directions and approaches.

Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should continue to play the principal role in representing the country abroad, foreign policy is no longer the preserve of a single ministry. It has and will become even more so the responsibility of the entire government.

At the same time, effective formulation and implementation of foreign policy must of necessity involve the private sector and civil society which have invaluable talent, resources and expertise that can and should be tapped in the service of Malaysia’s foreign policy. Recognising this, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has assigned an important responsibility to the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation in advancing the cause of moderation in international affairs, which he has championed at several world forums.

Fostering the development of a strong and vibrant international studies culture and community is crucial for innovative and cutting-edge foreign policy. It can support the building of a vast reservoir of knowledge, information networks, experts and practices that can be brought to bear on foreign policy decision-making.

Developing a vibrant international studies community must be accompanied by free flow of ideas, experts and practices between the government, civil society and the private sector. Building a vibrant international studies community entails an intellectual culture that supports free, open, analytical and critical discourse on key issues in Malaysia’s international affairs to strengthen policy content on specific issues.

A second requisite is the development of strong policy-oriented research programmes in universities, research institutes, think tanks and issue/cause-oriented non-governmental organisations as well as a media that supports well-grounded debates and discussions. Strong peer-reviewed publications, empirically grounded analytical research and good data sets are also vital in the development of a vibrant international studies culture and community.

Since the early 1990s, there has been an explosive growth in the number of policy-oriented research institutes and think tanks in the world. In 2012, they numbered about 6,600. Although most research institutions are located in North America and Europe, there has been rapid growth in Asia as well.

Malaysia has a respectable number of policy-oriented research organisations but there are glaring gaps as well, including in the areas of foreign policy, environment, healthcare, political development, domestic and international economic policy, social policy, science and technology, labour, civil society studies, governance, energy and resource policy, and education.

Many policy research institutions in the country are government-funded and led by ex-practitioners who generally lack suitable training or experience to develop intellectual depth and vision for their institutions. It is difficult to find a research institute in Malaysia that has one or more strong research programmes and substantial publications that appear on a regular basis.

Peer-reviewed policy research is virtually absent. Lacking strong research programmes, expertise and capacity, many institutions have become event organisers. Reliance on government-funding and a culture of control have stymied international studies research. Institutions are reluctant to take part in, if not hostile to, critical thinking, alternative viewpoints and public discussion of important policy issues. With exceptions, the media too has fallen short in supporting well-grounded policy debates and discussions.

Apart from institutional and cultural constraints, lack of funding and shortage of suitably educated personnel are two key factors that stymie the development of a vibrant international studies community in Malaysia. Private philanthropy, not well developed in Malaysia, is reluctant to support not-for-profit research in international studies.

Government policy and the tax system should incentivise private philanthropic support for policy- oriented research. In the foreseeable future, the government will be the primary supporter. How ever, it must limit itself to providing seed funding and thereafter, take a hands-off approach. Institutions must decide their own research agendas and become self-supporting within a fixed period of time. They should prosper or fail on their own steam. Competition, productivity and impact are critical in the development of research excellence.

Expertise in international studies is sorely lacking. Malaysian universities do not have strong international studies departments or programmes. Despite the aspiration to play a high-profile international role, unlike other countries in Asia, Malaysia does not have a school of international studies. There is an urgent need to train a large cadre of Malaysians in the field of international studies in reputed international educational institutions.

In the interim, universities and research institutions should be allowed to recruit internationally recognised experts from other countries. In due course, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other ministries, departments, agencies, research institutes and international organisations must mostly recruit persons with formal training in international studies at master’s and, where necessary, doctoral levels. Research institutes and think tanks must emphasise leadership that has doctoral level qualification, strong international publication record and a flair for institution building.

To sum up, innovative and cutting-edge foreign policy requires a vibrant international studies culture and community with ample opportunities for the development of expertise, networks, critical thinking, frank discourses on alternative ideas as well as free flow of ideas, personnel and practices between government and non-government sectors.

To enable this, the government must establish an International Studies Foundation with credible leadership and staff. With a substantial endowment, the foundation must be mandated to foster the development of an international studies culture and community within a decade. Though funded by the government, with regular interaction with the prime minister and cooperation with the relevant ministries, the foundation must be allowed to function independently.

Its initial programmes should include a study of the state of international studies in Malaysian universities and research institutes; establishing a highly reputable school of international studies in a leading public university and a programme to train a substantial number of Malaysians in that field; a programme to support research and publication on international studies through intellectual and financial incentives; fostering the development of a professional international studies association in the country and supporting excellence in existing and new research institutes and think tanks.

On foreign policy, the foundation should take the lead in establishing an independent Malaysian Council on Foreign Relations and a National Consultative Group on foreign policy. The foundation should develop a master plan and strategy to realise its mandate of fostering the development of an international studies culture and community. Strengthening international studies is not just a nice thing or an ideal but a necessity to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

This article was originally published in the Edge Malaysia.