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Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007

CHANDRAN JESHURUN earned his BA and MA at the University of Malaya before obtaining a PhD in International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He subsequently taught at the University of Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and was the first holder of the Chair of Asian History at the former from 1976 to 1989. He has published widely, his major works being The Contest for Siam, 1889-1902: A Study in Diplomatic Rivalry and Malaysian Defence Policy: A Study in Parliamentary Attitudes, 1963-1973.

Talisman Publishing (First Edition, 2008)
422 pages


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Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007 is an account of Malaysia’s entry into international affairs as the independent Federation of Malaya in 1957 until 2007. The entry itself marked the emergence of a uniquely new factor in Southeast Asian regional politics. However, by dint of an amazingly intuitive and constructive leadership from the very beginning, it became an attention-grabbing and daring player in the world at large within the following two decades. From the 1980s onwards it embarked upon a determined mission to stand up for the rights and natural justice of developing nations with a series of pioneering projects for peace and understanding in an increasingly unbalanced international order. Throughout, Malaysia has steadfastly maintained the defense of the United Nations Charter and regional cooperation as two of its foremost foreign policy goals. Thus, this essential record of its first fifty years in international diplomacy when, for the most part, Malaysia succeeded in punching well above its weight, is intended as a handy guide for the interested reader.

A publication of Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007 deserves some explanation as it is neither an academic treatise nor a journalistic exercise. Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007 origins can be traced back to the author’s inevitable post-golfing sessions at the Royal Selangor Golf Club and other similar venues in Kuala Lumpur in mid-2006; on these convivial occasions a number of former and current Wisma Putra staff and the non-golfing author found themselves attracted to the idea of having a published record of Malaysia’s diplomacy since 1957 to commemorate fifty years of hard work and solid international achievements. The veterans are devoted to their profession and experienced enough collectively to appreciate the very real constraints in attempting a study of contemporary history, particularly where it delves into the recent past in the country’s foreign diplomacy.

All of them also sincerely believe that the real success of a nation’s independent existence over fifty years is best explained by its survival in the unpredictable world of international politics. Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007 then is a record of quite incredible experiences by the author in which all of them had been personally involved since the early 1960s. They were spontaneous in wanting to have some summary of it published for posterity’s elucidation.

Chandran was invited to be the writer of this survey of Malaysia’s diplomatic history over the past fifty years partly because none of the veterans of Wisma Putra had the time to undertake the task at such short notice. Another salient reason for their reluctance to commit their thoughts to paper was that, in the best traditions of the Foreign Service, they were naturally constrained from publicly airing their own experiences especially where they touched on official policy. For Chandran part, his training in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science seemed a good enough reason for him to be entrusted with the responsibility of writing Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007. But, most of all, they were sojourners of those times, and, between them, there was mutual trust and respect for their individual convictions.

It was apparent from the outset that this was not going to be the last word on the subject. Even though the prospect of privileged access to official classified documents was considered, Chandran preferred to base his work on the available written record and as many oral sources as he could tap. The opening up of the national archives of the US, UK and Australia during the last decade has attracted many graduate students and researchers, and has resulted in the revision and re-discovery of important aspects of Southeast Asia’s regional politics. To complement these vast archival sources, a lot of first-hand interviews with important personalities in their retired lives were conducted, and these have brought forth much new data.

The author’s own experience in this respect has been somewhat unscholarly as he have not been able to access the foreign sources personally due to a severe time constraint to undertake such primary research. Instead, he have relied almost entirely on published official documents and reports with a minimum of newspaper reporting which is never quite reliable. While he have attempted, as an incorrigible historian, to cite primary sources wherever they were readily available, the author admit in all honesty that empirical evidence is not the basis for the bulk of the work.

Chandran have no special training in conducting interviews with Prime Ministers and senior officials who had first-hand experience of diplomatic affairs at close quarters. Thus, he found it most challenging even talking to his former diplomat friends, all of whom were wonderfully supportive of this venture. But what he could not find as evidence in published sources, the author was more than delighted to be able to rely on personal recollections and even some documentary material through these memorable interviews. He had to evaluate these interviews as objectively as he could due to the sometimes selective memories of some of the players as to their precise roles in particular instances. In attempting to trace a fifty-year phenomenon from its origins, Chandran was reminded of the tenuous hold on life that they all have, as several people who were eagerly looking forward to engaging him in conversations about the past diplomacy left us during the course of his work through illness and old age.

The personalities of the leaders of our nation have invariably shaped and directed the path of Malaysian foreign policy since 1957. Of that, the author have no doubt. Thus, wherever possible, he have deliberately tried to make their individual preferences as the motivating force in our international initiatives. Naturally, this has resulted in a certain amount of critical evaluation of the particular courses of our foreign policy foci, not all of which were productive in terms of our national interests.

As Tun Dr. Mahathir held the fort for 22 years in the field of our external relations, any discussion of the last fifty years must necessarily offer a fairly balanced picture of how Malaysia has managed its diplomacy during that period. No one can question his personal integrity and his high sense of patriotism in pursuing Malaysia’s international goals, but his methods and his own dealings with individuals may need to be scrutinized in more detail than the author have been able to do in this abbreviated evaluation of the time when he called the shots.

Despite the current Prime Minister’s in-depth knowledge and understanding of the realities of international politics in today’s much-changed world, it is still too early to pass any judgement on his handling of the nation’s external relations.

In the field of international discourse, there are many sides to an issue and even more so when it comes to dealing with bilateral relations. Throughout these fifty years, Malaysia has had to observe the best standards of mutual trust and openness in its dealings with its traditionally closest friends even to the extent of being deferential to its former colonial master. It strikes one as rather odd that, notwithstanding the frequent sojourns of Malaysian leaders in London over the years since independence, it was not until 1985 that a British Prime Minister deigned to pay an official call on one of its former crown jewels. Within the region, it is Thailand that stands out as the exemplary partner in a historical friendship. And in the celebration of Malaysia’s fiftieth year of independence, she has decided to have her Prime Minister in attendance in Kuala Lumpur to receive none other than His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Thailand as the personal representative of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, to grace the occasion.

Conversely, however, we have been spectacularly unsuccessful in maintaining a mature and pragmatic relationship with Singapore. While the history of the relationship and its ups and downs date back to the Tunku’s times, it is the Mahathir period that set the seal on the highly volatile state of affairs today. This will be one of Prime Minister Abdullah’s greatest challenges: to be able to live as friendly neighbours as we have done with the Thais since day one. In 2003, Malaysia and Singapore jointly agreed to request the International Court of Justice to settle their longstanding dispute over the sovereign ownership of three maritime features off the coast of Johor. On 23rd May 2008, the court decided that Batu Puteh belongs to Singapore, Middle Rocks to Malaysia while South Ledge belongs to the State in the territorial waters of which it is located. In all probability, it will be eventually established as belonging to Malaysia because South Ledge is a mere 1.7 nautical miles south of Middle Rocks. It was not possible to enter into the details of the dispute when this book was being written as the ICJ decision came much after the completion of the original manuscript.

The author other regret is that the available data and his own contacts have been insufficient for him to portray the true state of Malaysia-Indonesia relations during the Orde Baru (New Order) years. All he have been able to show, to a limited degree, is the somewhat testy nature of bilateral interaction during the past decade or so, especially at the purely diplomatic level, despite the se rumpun (one common stock) factor between the two predominantly Malay societies. In the final analysis of Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy 1957-2007, this is an unapologetically Malaysia-centric account of our bilateral and multilateral dealings with the rest of the world.

Weight1.1 kg
Dimensions22.5 × 15.5 × 2.5 cm




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