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Enhancing relations with Russia is both reckless & inappropriate 

Recent statements by the Malaysian ambassador in Moscow, Bala Chandran Tharman, have left foreign missions in Kuala Lumpur wondering about the direction of Malaysia’s foreign policy under the stewardship of Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.

In reports that received widespread international coverage, the ambassador was quoted as saying that Malaysia would consider any request from Russia to supply electronics, semiconductors and other products as part of its efforts to expand business ties with Russia. In addition, he said that Malaysian financial institutions were prepared to consider joining an alternative financial messaging system put in place by Russia after it was booted out of the international financial messaging system (SWIFT).

Ambassador Chandran also expressed the hope that Aeroflot will soon resume direct flights to Malaysia. “The issue of direct flights is on the agenda. As an ambassador, I really hope that Aeroflot will soon be able to open direct flights to Kuala Lumpur,” he was quoted as saying. At the moment, all Aeroflot flights to international destinations have been suspended due to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Flights to Malaysia were suspended in 2001 due to poor passenger and cargo loads.

As well, the ambassador announced that a meeting of the Russian-Malaysian Commission on Economic, Scientific, Technical and Cultural Cooperation is likely to take place this year. The last meeting of the Commission, which was set up in 2015, was held in 2020.

Under different circumstances, these initiatives would not raise eyebrows. Ambassadors usually work hard to find avenues for cooperation and promote relations. When you are ambassador to a country that doesn’t figure significantly in your country’s trade and investment balance sheet, that job is doubly difficult. 

However, the sudden flurry of diplomatic activity, coming at a time when most of the world is distancing itself from Russia over its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, cannot but be seen as a sign of tacit support for Russia. It sends a message that Russian war crimes in Ukraine including the murder of thousands of innocent civilians and the extensive aerial bombardment of cities – all in violation of international law – is not something that Malaysia is terribly concerned about.

That can’t be right. Refusing to take sides in the face of aggression and clear violations of international law, misguided as that may be, is one thing; endorsing Russia while its invasion and aggression is continuing is unconscionable, inane and not in our best interests. 

Remember too, that Russia shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight in 2014 killing all 298 passengers on board. It has not apologised or even cooperated with the international enquiry into the downing of Flight MH17. This is not a country we want to be particularly close to at any time leave alone when it is perpetrating armed aggression against a neighbour.

What foreign missions here are wondering now is whether all those statements by Ambassador Chandran are just the actions of an overzealous diplomat, or do they represent a shift in Malaysia’s foreign policy? If this is indeed our policy now, it marks a dramatic realignment in our approach towards the big powers. 

Whatever it is, actions have consequences; our dalliance with Moscow will not be without cost to Malaysia. If we so blatantly side with a nation which has made itself an international pariah by its aggression and invasion of a peaceful neighbour, we shouldn’t be surprised if our own relations with the US and Western Europe suffer as a consequence. 

The United States and Western Europe are important trading partners and significant investors in Malaysia. Indeed, the semiconductors which Ambassador Chandran promised to supply to Russia are, for the most part, manufactured in Malaysia by US, European, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese companies. Thanks to them, Malaysia has become one of the world’s largest semiconductor exporters in the world with annual exports valued at nearly RM40 billion. Any attempt to supply Russia with semiconductors would almost certainly invite sanctions against Malaysia itself.

Furthermore, our banks too will baulk at bypassing the financial sanctions against Russia; to do could result in being locked out of key Western financial capitals, something that would be catastrophic for a trading nation like Malaysia. Are we really willing to sacrifice that much for a country that is only tangentially important to us?

Clearly, this is a colossal foreign policy gaffe. Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah must now quickly set the record straight. Continued confusion and ambiguity as to where we stand will undermine important and long-standing bilateral and international relationships. 

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur |Sunday, 01 May 2022]