YESTERDAY (Sept 18), the 73rd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convened in New York for two weeks of deliberations.
Heads of governments are attending, including Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is leading the Malaysia delegation.
UNGA, a platform for member countries to articulate their foreign policy priorities and concerns, comes at a time when the world is faced with a dramatically-changed geopolitical landscape — a maverick “leader of the free world” has undermined global trade, security and environment by starting a trade war with Canada, the European Union, China and Turkey, threatening to leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) and abandoning American government’s participation in the Paris Climate Change Accord.
In his foreign policy, United States President Donald Trump has just kicked out the official Palestinian representation from the US, moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognised the latter as the capital of Israel.
The state of the Muslim world, too, remains precarious with the civil war in Syria and Yemen and the UN-declared genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, which has resulted in millions of refugees across the borders in Bangladesh, Turkey, Jordan and across Europe in Germany. There is also the ongoing violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the Sahel, Egypt and Pakistan.
The politician who has had the most street “cred” amongst millions of Muslim youngsters is none other than Dr Mahathir, who was Malaysia’s fourth prime minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003. Malaysia’s extraordinary economic transformation during those decades, coupled with Dr Mahathir’s unwavering championing of “Muslim causes” at home or abroad, had endeared him to his millions of admirers.
Here is a no-nonsense democratically-elected Muslim leader who could take on the International Monetary Fund, George Soros and Western fund managers as during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, and Western leaders, including Margaret Thatcher, with his “Look East” policy in protest against her policy of charging foreign students studying at British universities exorbitant fees. He was extremely critical of successive US administrations for their blind support of Israel, and the autocratic and “backward” Muslim regimes who always put themselves before their people. Even Dr Mahathir’s staunchest of critics had a secret respect for him and his policies.
Malaysia’s foreign policy is generally dominated by the premier of the day. This was particularly so during Dr Mahathir’s 22-year tenure. He had three foreign ministers who served him well — the flamboyant and brilliant “King Ghaz”, Tun Ghazali Shafie, who served in the first three years of his premiership, followed by Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar and Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, all of whom I have interviewed over the years.
I remember Dr Mahathir’s unique support armed with a handsome business delegation especially for newly-liberated countries, such as the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa — he was the first foreign leader to visit Nelson Mandela after he was released from prison after 26 years of incarceration.
Or, for President Aliya Izetbegovic of Bosnia following the collapse of Yugoslavia and the emergent Muslim central Asian republics, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Mistakes were made, especially in the lack of oversight of the Malaysian government and private investments in these countries, but Malaysian foreign policy was riding the crest of a popular wave.
Even after he left office in 2003, Dr Mahathir was heavily involved in causes such as the Kuala Lumpur Foundation to Criminalise War, which convened a conference in London in 2009 to highlight the Israeli war in Gaza and its brutality.
It is this spirited evocation of Malaysian foreign policy that Dr Mahathir must “rediscover” in New York when he addresses UNGA.
This is the clarion call of the young Muslims in the street and among the wider ummah.
The new government has been slow in articulating its foreign policy. It took more than a month for Dr Mahathir to appoint a foreign minister, especially at a time when the Rohingya were being systematically and ethnically cleansed by the Myanmar military, Islamic extremist violence flourishing all over, and the rise of Islamophobia gaining new grounds.
The world today is a more dangerous place than it was during Dr Mahathir’s 22-year premiership, despite the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Today’s cornucopia of challenges are related to global security, world trade, the financial crisis, reform of international institutions especially the Security Council, the peace dividend, climate change, rising inequality and nuclear non-proliferation.
The theme for this year’s UNGA is “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet” in alignment with UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
The best way to focus onapeople-centred foreign policy is as the ex-British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, championed through his adoption of an “ethical foreign policy”.
“Our foreign policy,” he explained in 1997, “must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves.”
It is up to statesmen like Dr Mahathir to champion this in Malaysia’s foreign policy. For, the world has seen the chaos that is wreaked when ethics are bereft as in the global financial crisis.
Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer