October 31, 2003 | WebMemo on Asia
The U.S. Senate's proposal to cut off all military aid to Malaysia goes too far in its efforts to punish Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad for his anti-Jewish, anti-western speech to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
President Bush, and other world leaders, correctly described the Oct. 16, speech as reprehensible. Congress' proposal would condemn the Southeast Asian nation, not the retiring Mahathir. Passing a Congressional resolution condemning the speech would be more appropriate.
Without question Mahathir's speech in front of the OIC contained some of the most outrageous arguments yet from a man infamous for his inflammatory remarks. The allegation that the Jews control the world and that Israel and the Jews are the enemy of the 1.3 billion down trodden Muslims is inexcusable. Afterward, Mahathir not only did not apologize for his words, but also declared that the international protests of his speech were "proof" that the Jews controlled the world.
There are many adjectives to describe Mahathir's speech, including disgraceful. Nevertheless, despite Mahathir's excesses, Malaysia has been a model friend to the U.S. in Southeast Asia and the Congress must bear in mind the future of U.S.-Malaysian relations.
The McConnell amendment proposed to the 2004 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill cuts off military assistance for Malaysia. But aid can be made available if the Secretary of State to determines and reports to Congress that Malaysia "supports and promotes religious freedoms, including tolerance for people of the Jewish faith."
War on Terrorism Ally
The amendment is a curious requirement for a country proud of its diversity. The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion and Malaysians of all faiths practice their religion almost without restriction. Islam is the official state religion encompassing approximately 60 percent of the population. Nevertheless, according to the State Department's report on religious freedom, religious minorities practice their religion freely. In many ways Malaysia is a moderate, progressive and secular Muslim state.
This amendment is also counter-productive to the war on terrorism. Malaysia has been a valiant and valuable ally in Southeast Asia. Malaysia hosts 15-20 U. S. navy ship visits a year, permits more than a thousand U.S. military over flights annually and, since 9/11, the Malaysian police have arrested 70 members of the Al Qaeda linked Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group. Kuala Lumpur plays a key role in regional efforts to combat terrorism including joint operations with Thailand, the Philippines and Australia. Malaysia has strong law enforcement and intelligence cooperation against terrorists and is the host to a regional counter-terrorism training center.
Military Cooperation Paramount
Lastly, the amendment against Malaysia will take effect after Prime Minister Mahathir has retired and left office. On October 31, Mahathir resigned and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi assumed the office of Prime Minister of Malaysia. Prime Minister Badawi will inherit a crisis on military cooperation with the United States that may consume his first few weeks in office and sour a new U.S.-Malaysian post-Mahathir relationship.
It is the prerogative of the U.S. Congress to address international injustice, but restricting military assistance to Malaysia based on the racist remarks of a retiring Prime Minister is counter-productive and counter-intuitive to U.S.-Malaysian relationship and the war on terrorism.