MUHYIDDIN YASSIN'S MAIDEN UNGA ADDRESS: ASSERTIVE BUT NOT QUITE ENOUGH
by Rizal Hamdan 5th October 2020
The United Nations was born out of a global crisis. After 75 years, the world Intergovernmental organization is yet to confront another in the form of the global outbreak of COVID-19. On the 26th of September, Prime Minister Muhyiddin made his first appearance as the Head of Government by giving maiden address (pre-recorded video statement) at the UNGA. As a foreign policy observer, I was glad that the Prime Minister’s speech covers several key points concerning the new dynamics of international relations.
Unfortunately, there is an important issue concerning the national interest and regional peaceful coexistence had been deliberately left out. Therefore, I will discuss two main key points and subsequently my thorough analysis, and constructive criticism of the speech.
Reform of the United Nations: A Priority
I applaud the Prime Minister for voicing out the call to reform the U.N system, particularly the Security Council. In his words, the Prime Minister argued: “differences in the Security Council left the body, as it has so many times, indecisive and ineffective”. The main criticism on the Security Council is the veto power held by the permanent members (The United Kingdom, France, The People Republic of China, Russia, and The United States of America). The composition of permanent members does not reflect the current affairs of the world.
Although the world went through major crises since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Security Council remains with the obsolete formula of the balance of power. This archaic post World War formula nonetheless has hampered many constructive approaches to perpetuate peaceful coexistence in the contemporary world.
To quote the former President of the United Nations General Assembly (1996/1997) Tan Sri Razali Ismail in his memoir, “…since transformations originate from the mind, an entire mental mindset must transform”. Therefore, the reform process of the U.N system must not merely at the structural level, nevertheless, it must undergo mindset transformation.
To straighten up a historical record, it is noteworthy to acknowledge Dr. Mahathir’s outstanding legacy in ‘calling a spade a spade’ in the international platform without attempting to sugar-coat any crucial issue, just to please the superpowers. It is the least that Prime Minister Muhyiddin can do by preserving our country's critical stance in the International arena.
Pledging our Commitment to the Humanitarian Agenda
The Plight of Palestinians is always close to our heart. It has become Malaysia’s permanent responsibility. The Prime Minister has mentioned, despite countless calls by the international community, the Israeli regime continues to ignore and terrorize the illegally occupied territory.
Malaysia urged the Israeli regime to withdraw its military from the occupied Palestinian territory and revert to a negotiation table. Malaysia’s position on this matter remains consistent, the two states solution is the only viable way to stop hostility between the Palestinian and Israeli regime. Nonetheless, it raises a million-dollar question, what is the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) position on this issue? In spite of being part of the government, PAS is strongly against the two-state solution.
While maintaining Malaysia’s position on the question of Palestine, the Prime Minister ensured, Malaysia will facilitate financial and social assistance to the refugees from Myanmar (The Rohingyas). At this juncture, Malaysia is currently hosting the largest number of Rohingya refugees in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia has a chance to enhance its international image by playing intermediary roles in these humanitarian conflicts. Malaysia must take up an active role to persuade the government of Myanmar to end an atrocity in the state of Rakhine. For the case of Palestine, the government must appoint a trained diplomat with distinguished credentials rather than just a token appointment to ease domestic political bickering. After all, diplomacy is a serious business.
The South China Sea: Deafening Silence
As a foreign policy observer, I noticed none of any leaders from ASEAN have included the question of the South China Sea in their speech, respectively. On the 13th of July, the U.S Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo had issued an official statement on the U.S position with regards to the South China Sea. It may be perceived as a stern warning to Beijing’s claim on the disputed waterways.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian retorted the U.S statement, by saying it was baseless and an attempt to sow discord between Beijing and the Southeast Asian countries. In my opinion, had the Prime Minister Muhyiddin brought up the South China Sea as a subject in his speech, we may capture the international attention by advocating a new approach to soothe the brewing tension in the world’s busiest shipping route. The security in the region is best conceptualized after the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) since 1971. I wonder if we could reformulate the same concept to ensure conflict between the superpowers will not affecting the geopolitical landscape of the region.
Dr. Mahathir once mentioned “better not to have warships, both in Malaysian waters and the South China Sea” therefore it will reduce the potential for an armed conflict. This so-called ‘the Mahathir Doctrine’ eventually forgotten along with the fall of the previous government. Nonetheless, Malaysia under the leadership of Muhyiddin could advocate the new security concept based on the same idea. In so doing, Malaysia have a chance to spearhead the new paradigm of peace-security in Southeast Asia, along with other ASEAN countries.
The UNGA begins its 75th session without celebration amidst the outbreak of a pandemic. It is the first time in history, the General Assembly was being held virtually. Despite Muhyiddin’s impressive speech, I think he did not ‘seize the moment’ to present himself as a very able leader at the international level like his predecessor. Nonetheless, it is the time for Malaysia to play significant and active roles in the United Nations in the coming years as we used to, a long time ago.
Rizal Hamdan is the Executive Director of NADI Centre.