Evolution and Multidimensional Reflections of Malaysia’s Look East Policy examines the policy from its inception to the present day while addresses multiple dimensions, including international relations, education, political economy, and socio-cultural perspectives, in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Malaysia’s Look East Policy. Soon after assuming the nation’s premiership in 1981, Mahathir Mohamad began to identify its strengths and weaknesses and he did not take long to introduce various developmental policies and national agendas with their grand visions and big ambitions. The goals and ambitions set were not merely rhetorical but implemented not only to stimulate positive change towards sustainable economic growth but also aimed at shifting mindsets of workers and the people towards more positive ethical values. The ultimate goal was to achieve developed country status within the Malaysian mould. February 1982 saw the birth of the Look East Policy (LEP) with Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) becoming developmental models for Malaysia. His first overseas visit as prime minister was to Japan in 1981, and during the 22 years of his first administration until 2003, he tirelessly visited Japan more than 100 times, mainly to promote his LEP.
Japan, which was the world’s second largest economic power at that time, and the only Asian state to be a member of the world’s most developed industrialized league under the Group of 7 (G7), is a model for Malaysia’s goals in achieving sustainable economic growth. The goal towards a developed nation that not only economically, but also politically, socially and spiritually set growth rates of not less than 770 per annum for a period of 30 years starting 1990. However, a developed nation without values and ethics is not something to be proud of. Thus, the moral and ethical values from Japan, coupled with Islamic values of cleanliness, efficiency and trustworthiness have been attempted to be inculcated into Malaysian society. The main driver of the government machinery towards this vision is none other than the civil service, and in preparing towards its implementation on a wider scale, involving the private sector as well.
Prior to the 1980s, privatization was not generally implemented because government agencies as a single corporate entity was something that was already accepted. The government controlled almost all the means of production until Japanese-styled incorporation was implemented into the government system to free institutions and organizations formerly under the public sector to develop more competitive and independent entities by applying effective Japanese management systems. Through privatization, organizations were transferred to new owners with completely different management systems from the government such as Jabatan Telekom which was privatized into Syarikat Telekom Malaysia Berhad in 1984 and Lembaga Letrik Negara (LLN) that was rebranded as Tenaga Nasional Berhad in 1990. While not all policies introduced by the government are good for society, it is undeniable that target groups will usually benefit more than before.
During the first dimension of the LEP from 1982 until 2012, major advances were achieved in addition to obstacles that did not bring commendable benefits. As a government policy that has been implemented for four decades, the transition to the second dimension of the LEP as announced by Najib Abdul Razak in 2012, was awaited as to how its content, involvement and implementation would take place. It is a very rare decision in Malaysia’s foreign policy orientation where government policies such as the LEP can last for a period of 40 years continuously under six prime ministers from 1982 to 2022.
On the eve of the second dimension of the LEP, Malaysia’s foreign policy was slightly skewed towards China under Najib’s administration. Even though investments and trade opportunities provided by China are too valuable for Malaysia to disregard, ties with Japan and the ROK are still significant. Both Japan and the ROK have maintained good relations with Malaysia since 1957 and 1960 respectively, and the growing mistrust in Malaysia-China ties during the communist insurgencies and the Cold War created a vacuum for Japan and the ROK to capitalize on. However, since the restoration of Malaysia-China relations in 1985, as well as China’s rise as an economic power over the past 20 years, these matters have paved the way for closer Kuala Lumpur-Beijing bilateral relations. The new dimension of the LEP is also likely to open up space for China as one of the actors playing an important role in the economic growth of Malaysia.