THE recent ban on Israeli athletes is merely a reiteration and affirmation of Malaysia’s policy on the question of Palestine.
Given the historical context of Malaysia’s efforts and stance on the question of Palestine — signified by its efforts in the UN Security Council, among others — the global reaction is surprising.
Its commitment is solidified, given Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s profound pro-Palestine stand. Thus, Malaysia’s refusal to allow in Israeli Paralympic swimmers for the qualifying round is not a surprise, but merely an affirmation by the Muslim-majority country.
The ban that resulted in Malaysia being stripped of hosting the 9th World Paralympic Swimming Championship leads one to wonder: why is Malaysia so dedicated to this cause? Why doesn’t Malaysia commit to other causes like the Rohingya or Uighur issue on the basis of Islam being its official religion?
Essentially, Malaysia’s historical commitment to Palestine is the main reason. It is a less problematic commitment compared to the issue of the Rohingya and Uighurs. Malaysia’s leadership and the re-election of Dr Mahathir are also major factors contributing to Malaysia’s strong advocacy of Palestine and being anti-Israel.
Firstly, Malaysia’s support for Palestine stems from the 1970s. It was the first Southeast Asian nation to allow the Palestine Liberation Organisation to establish itself in its capital, Kuala Lumpur before having it upgraded to full embassy status in 1983. While Malaysia was a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in 1989-1990, it helped the Palestinians lobby for support for their cause by allowing Palestine access to its network in the Non-Aligned Movement and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Additionally, Malaysia extended support for the cause financially and by having regular consultations. So much so that Tan Sri Razali Ismail, in his memoir, wrote that many of the UN resolutions on Palestine were written at the Malaysian mission in New York. Malaysia was an essential key player and important advocate of Palestinian issues. And throughout the years, Malaysia’s commitment stands firm. Its recent tenure in the UN Security Council was highly celebrated with the passing of Resolution 2334 declaring Israel’s settlement activity as a flagrant violation of international law and having no legal validity.
Secondly, the Dr Mahathir factor is certainly one that should not be overlooked. Within the first few months of his second tenure as prime minister, he famously blamed issues in the Middle East on Israel.
It can be safely said that he is no stranger to being labelled an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. At the end of his 22-year tenure as the fourth prime minister, he left a mark by saying the Jews ruled the world by proxy and caused fights and deaths for the state of Israel.
His support for the Palestinian state did not stop after retirement as he established the Perdana Global Peace Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that aids Palestine. All of his efforts were not ignored by the Jewish state too, as his visit to the West Bank was delayed as Israeli officials banned him from entering Jerusalem and the West Bank through Jordan in 2005.
However, Malaysia’s relationship with Israel has not always been non-existent. In the past few years, Israelis have visited Malaysia. Just in 2018, ambassador David Roet, currently Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, led a delegation to the 9th World Urban Forum. The delegation prided themselves on Malaysians using Waze, and Israeli-developed software. Articles by Israelis have also discussed prospective Malaysia-Israel ties as Israelis suggested that both countries have much in common, citing Malaysia’s multiculturalism as being one of them.
In the past year, too, Israel has managed to cause fury in Malaysia with an alleged Mossad agent killing a Palestinian in Kuala Lumpur in broad daylight. This assassination was clearly disrespectful to a foreign country’s sovereignty. Whether this hostile act has managed to influence the recent decision by the government can be the subject of speculation, but it should not be ignored that it plays a part in Malaysia’s hostility towards Israel.
While it is important to recognise the role sports play in diplomacy, it should be highlighted that Malaysia has not acted out of the ordinary. Whether it is because of Dr Mahathir’s second tenure as the prime minister, or simply Malaysia’s affirmation of its decade-long policy, rest assured, Malaysia’s stance against Israel is strong and will only get stronger from here on.
The writer is the granddaughter of former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, and daughter of the Tengku Temenggong of Kelantan. She is pursuing her Masters at King's College, London