Will the UAE-Israel deal change anything in Malaysia?

Photo: Bruce Emmerling from Pixabay

After Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a landmark agreement to normalize relations, it remains unlikely that Malaysia will accept Israel as a state any time soon. But there are promising signs that attitudes are shifting, albeit slowly.

By Umair Jamal

In an unprecedented development, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have agreed to normalize relations after years of discreet contacts. The so-called “Abraham Accord” between the two countries has secured a commitment from Tel Aviv to stop additional annexation of Palestine lands in the occupied West Bank.

If the Israel-UAE deal is executed successfully, it may pave the way for other major Islamic countries, including Malaysia, to recognize Israel’s independence. Malaysia has never recognized Israel as a state and remains steadfast in its support for the Palestinian cause, supporting a two-state solution to the conflict.

Map showing Israel’s foreign relations – Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia are the only ASEAN nations without any diplomatic relations

The Malaysian government has not officially responded to the Israel-UAE accord. However, the deal is likely to whip up existing anti-Israel sentiment in Indonesia further. Hatred for Jews, as well as Israel as a country and national identity, runs deep in Malaysia. Governments, political parties, Islamists and the media use antisemitism to gain domestic political capital.

However, there is some hope that this may change; some elements of Malaysian society are pushing for the normalization of ties between the two countries.

Are Israeli-Malaysian relations at the point of no return?

Malaysia remains one of the world’s most anti-Israel countries. As it is elsewhere in the Muslim world, support for Palestine is voiced at the highest levels of the state. It would not be imprudent to argue that governments in the country have a vested interest in stirring antisemitic fervor as it often unifies otherwise divided political forces in Malaysia.

Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad believes that the agreement between Israel and the UAE would divide the Muslim world. “They will increase the ability of the contestants to fight each other, and there will be no peace even between Muslim countries,” he said.

Malaysia does not hide its disdain of Israel. In 2019, it announced that it would open an embassy accredited to Palestine in Jordan to offer financial aid to Palestinians. Moreover, last year, Kuala Lumpur refused to allow Israelis to participate in the World Para Swimming Championships. The country stuck to this position even after losing the rights to host the tournament. Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman was unrepentant. “Malaysia stands firm with our decision on the ground of humanity and compassion for the Palestinian plight,” he said. “We will not compromise.”

A long history of antisemitism in Malaysia

Anti-Israel attitudes and antisemitism are part of state-promoted social control in Malaysia which are not likely to go away anytime soon. Furthermore, anyone suspected of supporting Israel in Malaysia risks being labeled as unpatriotic. For decades, Malaysia’s political elite has looked at the Palestine-Israel dispute as not only an issue of foreign policy but as a useful cause for rallying political support domestically.

To an extent, the issue has also been one of the primary factors fueling the country’s highly racialized political landscape where Malay Islam has turned into a form of religious nationalism. For instance, Mahathir, who comes from the Malay ethnic community and first served as Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003, implied in 2016 that Jews and Muslims are natural enemies, saying that “1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews.”

In Malaysia, roughly 60% of the country’s 32 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims. According to an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey, 61% of Malaysia’s population exhibit antisemitic sentiments, which is significantly higher than other Southeast Asian states.

Source: Anti-Defamation League

As Malay society has become increasingly polarized, blaming Israel and Jews for a range of crimes and governance failures has become part and parcel of Malaysian politics. “There is a decades-long tradition of political leaders in Malaysia defaulting to anti-Semitic tropes to explain all kinds of social, political and economic circumstances,” said Michael Salberg, ADL’s Director of International Affairs. “It is classical scapegoating, deflecting responsibility to an unseen hand.”

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

For the new generation of educated and globally mobile Malaysians, who are fast becoming a significant electoral force, Israel and Jews represent the opposite to the religious nationalism they wish to reject in the country.

This representation comes from the country’s growing middle-class that believes in a truly liberal and secular Malaysia. These groups do not necessarily belong to ethnic minorities; most of them come from the country’s privileged Malay community as well.

Israel’s government also believes that support for the Jewish people and the State of Palestine is rising in Malaysia. “From our contacts with Malaysian citizens it is clear to us that many of them support Israel and actually reject and are embarrassed by the anti-Semitism coming from their government,” said Michael Ronen, the head of Israel’s Foreign Ministry’s Southeast Asia bureau.

Mary Ainslie, the author of a book entitled Anti-Semitism in Contemporary Malaysia: Malay Nationalism, Philosemitism and Pro-Israel Expressions, believes that there are encouraging signs of change. “We should not mistake loud noises for big noises,” she warned. “Antisemitism is part of a ‘backlash’ against the breakdown of social control—it is ugly, and it is loud, but it is a backlash against wider social changes that are a force for good,” she added.

“Perhaps these views are becoming stronger amongst those who hold them, but I do not believe they are increasing among the general population. Instead, the opposite is true,” she concluded, her words reflecting the fact that if change is going to happen, it will not come about quickly.

It is abundantly clear that although there are some encouraging signs of antisemitism waning in Malaysia, it will take some time before the state is ready to accept Israel. As Malaysia’s older generation of political leaders gradually retire, antisemitism in the country is likely to reduce in coming years. That will open up space for Malaysia’s new generation of politicians to consider revising their country’s relationship with Israel, something that has hitherto been impossible.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15