Mahathirism and Its Legacy in Malaysia’s Foreign Policy

In: European Journal of East Asian Studies
Jörn Dosch University of Rostock

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The foreign policy style of Malaysia’s fourth prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad (1981–2003), was controversial in many instances, but the country’s influence and leverage in regional and global affairs had been remarkable for a country of its size. Despite initial outcries within Malaysia’s neighbourhood, Mahathir’s contributions to a wider East Asian regionalism are a lasting legacy. In the decade that has passed since Mahathir stepped down, Malaysia’s international relations have rarely made the global headlines. Does the legacy of Mahathirism live on in Malaysia’s foreign policy, or does the seeming absence of bold and pro-active initiatives indicate a substantive change of style and direction? The prime ministers since 2003, Abdullah Badawi and Najib Razak, have lacked Mahathir’s hegemonic status in policy-making, and this has inevitably led to a de-personalisation and institutionalisation of foreign affairs. At the same time both administrations have continued Mahathir’s practice of keeping foreign affairs out of the public domain as much as possible, in order to reduce the influence of domestic interests and debates on foreign policy matters.

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