Beyond Sovereignty: Non-Western International Relations in Malaysia's Foreign Relations.

AuthorMilner, Anthony

As with other countries, Malaysia expresses concern about national sovereignty and issues related to the distribution and balance of power in the international system. However, Malaysia's behaviour in foreign relations is in some respects distinctive, and this may be due partly to the influence of a heritage of pre-modern Malay thinking. Certain ideas in this heritage--including perspectives on the character of the state, the interests of the state and international order (moral as well as political)--differ radically from post-Westphalian thinking. The best way to interrogate the Malay tradition of foreign relations is likely to be through a disciplinary collaboration between International Relations (IR) and Area Studies, particularly the "history of ideas".

The investigation of non-Western IR theory is demanding. (1) As Amitav Acharya puts it, "we need to move beyond discourses to research and scholarship". (2) To develop a genuinely "Global International Relations"--grounded in world rather than merely Western history--requires comprehending "dynamics of power and ideas" that may be "fundamentally different" from those grounded in the familiar so-called Westphalian model. (3) Key IR concepts, "including the state, self-help, power, and security" may not "fit" non-Western realities. (4)

Today, the need to investigate non-Western approaches towards China is obvious enough; but as the future of Asia will be determined by interaction between a range of players (and perhaps not only states), the operations of smaller Asian countries also matter. In the case of Southeast Asia, the study of its strategic heritage is still at a pioneering stage. (5)

Malaysia has been attracting the attention of the United States, Japan and China; and it is when we consider the particular way the country handles major powers, territorial disputes, region building and other issues, that its leadership's approach to foreign relations seems distinctive. (6) Material factors, of course, are relevant in Malaysia's determination to seek accommodation with China, to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and to be a highly energetic member of the United Nations (UN). A comprehensive analysis would take careful account, for instance, of the country's size, location and ethnic mix. But such an analysis also needs to examine ideational factors. This article seeks to support such an investigation by focusing on some features of pre-modern Malay conceptualizations of interstate relations. The manner in which the Malay heritage interacts with modern foreign policy assumptions would require careful study, case by case. Even in a preliminary inquiry, however, that heritage would appear to throw light on some of the peculiarities of modern Malaysia's international behaviour.

One analytic starting point is state "sovereignty", which, like "power", is a concept of pivotal importance in modern IR analysis. (7) Carrying assumptions about absolute and perpetual authority over a specific defined territory, and the presence of formal equality between state actors in the international system, the Western history of "sovereignty" is well known. (8) In the case of interstate relations in Asia, its influence is often taken for granted. In Southeast Asia, it is said to be the "central principle" of ASEAN. (9)

That "sovereignty" gained currency in Malaysia and other parts of Asia is not surprising given the hegemonic role of Western powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Is the commitment to sovereignty, however, in some way challenged or modified by the continuing potency of other earlier concepts? The question matters if we wish to take account of the full range of factors shaping international behaviour. (10) And yet, as Bilgin Pinar has explained, there has been a lack of curiosity in IR about non-Western thinking, and a tendency to explain away "non-Western" dynamics by superimposing "Western categories". (11) In these circumstances, the task of uncovering non-Western perspectives will benefit from collaboration with Area Studies, particularly textual analysis undertaken in the history of ideas. (12)

Such analysis is not essentialist; it does not insist on the determining influence of unchanging, shared characteristics distinguishing one society from another. There has been intense interaction and borrowing of ideas between communities, and between the "West" and "non-West". (13) What the examination of foreign-relations thinking in earlier eras does offer is the possibility of uncovering perspectives engaged in that interaction; perspectives which may continue to be reference points (conscious or unconscious) in the development of foreign policy in modern states. During de-colonization, Western institutions and policy settings were mimicked (including in the appropriation of "sovereignty")--mimicking that has often resulted in something "almost the same but not quite". (14) The identification of historical reference points can help define that difference.

Our investigation of the Malaysian historical record is influenced by recent work on major Asian states, especially China. (15) Yan Xuetong has argued that a "hard core" of Chinese foreign relations thinking can be identified in the ancient writings of pre-Qin thinkers. (16) Reading their works, he explains, provides insights into a Chinese understanding of hierarchy, hegemony, authority and other matters--insights that are relevant in helping to understand current Chinese approaches to foreign relations. (17) One lesson here is that perspectives not explicitly related to interstate relations--perspectives from different registers, such as social or religious values--can exercise a critical influence, as messages from "Worlds beyond Westphalia". (18)


With a population of some 30 million (including a large Chinese minority), and one of the stronger economies in Southeast Asia, Malaysia has been proactive in Asian diplomatic affairs, with a good deal of continuity from one prime minister to the next. It is extraordinary as a trading nation--boasting a trade-to-GDP ratio higher than many other high-trade countries (19)--and has remarkably porous borders (especially with the Philippines and Indonesia) that have allowed large-scale irregular immigration over a long period. (20) Malaysia has been a leader in Southeast Asian region-building, and has paid careful attention to developing ASEAN's relations with China. There has been continuity as well in the way successive governments have declared a determination to keep the country "equidistant" from the major powers (refusing to join military alliances) and in the sharp sensitivity these governments have expressed regarding Malaysia's international standing. (21)

In terms of a conceptual framework for handling IR, Malaysia is all the more interesting because it is difficult to see much in the experience of the British colonial period--which commenced in the late eighteenth century and ended in 1957--that can explain the country's international identity. Pre-modern thinking about foreign relations, on the other hand, has been neglected in studies of modern Malaysian foreign policy. (22) Research by Charles Alexandrowicz on the international history of the different kingdoms on the Malay Peninsula and surrounding islands from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries is a partial exception. (23) His analysis of treaties between European trading companies and Asian rulers showed IR specialists that Europeans arriving in Southeast Asia from the sixteenth century found an interstate society already in operation. (24) Alexandrowicz, however, gives little attention to intra-Asian relations (and perspectives), being dependent primarily on European source materials.

This article seeks to supplement Alexandrowicz's inquiry by interrogating the Malay-language sources for Malay (or Archipelago) history (25)--searching for "hard core" perspectives that helped shape those early inter-polity relations, and which might be relevant to modern Malaysia's foreign policy. We do not uncover a systematically organized non-Western theory of IR; but the different social assumptions, preferences and aspirations which the Malay writings reveal--sometimes not obviously specific to interstate relations--do seem to possess a foundational capacity. Also, even in a necessarily superficial attempt to substantiate the present-day significance of this pre-modern Malay thinking, there would seem to be a case for supplementing a sovereignty-based analysis.

Identifying the Malay Heritage of Ideas

Although not as ancient as the pre-Qin texts which Yan Xuetong explored, pre-colonial Malay writings are the product of a very different socio-political configuration from that of present-day Malaysia: different in scale, because the kerajaan (the ruler-centred polities) often had populations of only tens of thousands; different too in mode of life, and in the prevailing concepts of political and social life.

These traditional Malay writings are primarily hikayat, written in prose and usually produced in a royal court, though we also examine a number of Malay letters from rulers. Sometimes hikayat is translated simply as "story", but it also suggests "investigation" or "analysis'". (26) It is difficult to date these texts. Although often generated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they tend to exist in manuscripts from a later period, and copyists are known to have "improved" as they copied. The texts we focus on are the Hikayat Hang Tuah (with its continuing focus on the envoy role of an outstanding royal official, Hang Tuah), the Sejarah Melayu (the so-called "Malay Annals", which is concerned with the dynasty that ruled in Melaka), the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (from Kedah) and the Hikayat Patani (from the kingdom of Patani in what is now Southern Thailand).

Some Malay texts and letters have been employed before in investigating the...

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