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Dhaka Tribune

Gaza war

Anti-West sentiment grows in Malaysia

The ongoing war in Gaza has prompted debates in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia over what is seen as the West's moral decline

Update : 05 May 2024, 05:23 PM

Bruce Gilley, a Portland State University professor, sparked a scandal in Malaysia late last month. Gilley claimed during a lecture in Kuala Lumpur that the Southeast Asian country could never be a trusted friend of the West because its leaders are supporting a “second Holocaust against the Jewish people.”

His comments referred to the Malaysian government’s public support of Hamas since the Gaza War began.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has twice spoken with the leader of the Hamas group, Ismail Haniyeh.

Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the German government, the EU and the United States, among others.

Gilley’s comments and previous posts on X, formerly Twitter, ignited a firestorm on social media.

Even Anwar intervened to criticize the Universiti Malaya, the country’s highest-ranking university, for inviting a “mediocre scholar” to give the lecture on April 23.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

After Gilley left the country, he posted on X that he managed to escape an “Islamo-fascist mob” whipped up by Malaysia’s government, adding it “was not safe” to travel there.

This prompted even more of a rebuke from the Malaysian authorities.

The US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur became involved to clarify that it classifies Malaysia at Level 1 on its travel risk index, meaning travelers are to exercise normal precautions in the country but that it is still a safe visit.

‘Hypocrisy’ and double standards

Other foreign nationals living in Malaysia jumped in to accuse Gilley of spreading lies about insecurity.

The incident has reignited debates within Southeast Asia about the West’s alleged moral decline for not having more forcefully condemned Israeli actions in Gaza.

More than 34,000 people in Gaza have been killed by Israel, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

During a state visit to Berlin in March, Anwar, the Malaysian prime minister, accused European countries of “hypocrisy” over their apparent support for Israel’s attacks on Hamas.

At a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Anwar called on Western governments to end their “selective” and “ambivalent” attitude to human rights globally.

He insinuated that Europe was engaged in double standards by defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion but not helping Palestinians in the face of what he called Israel’s “colonialism,” “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing.”

Writing in a guest column in the Economist, a British magazine, on April 26, Indonesia’s president-elect, Prabowo Subianto, argued that much of the world feels “the failure of Western governments to put pressure on Israel to end the war indicates a serious moral crisis.”

“How else can such double standards be explained where we are asked to have one set of principles for Ukraine and another for the Palestinians?” he wrote.

However, Indonesia’s outgoing president, Joko Widodo, and Prabowo, who will take office later this year, are trying to occupy a moderate, centrist position, argues Jakarta-based analyst Kevin O’Rourke from the political risk consultancy Reformasi Information Services.

O’Rourke said the administration of President-Elect Prabowo Subianto will want to avoid antagonizing the US.

“As for the general public in Indonesia, foreign affairs is a distant concern for most,” O’Rourke added.

“There is disdain for Israel, and empathy for Palestine, but not to an extent that mobilizes more than just the most ardent Islamic organizations to demonstrate or protest.”

Since the October 7, Malaysians and Indonesians have boycotted a number of companies associated with Israel and the West.

The West’s image problem in Southeast Asia

Europe’s image in Southeast Asia has worsened over the past 12 months, according to the latest State of Southeast Asia report, a survey of “elite” opinion in the region produced by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

As DW reported last month, many analysts in the region put the EU’s declining reputation in the region down to the backlash over the war in Gaza, which Southeast Asian elites reckon is the most important geopolitical issue of the moment, the State of Southeast Asia survey fund.

But Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute Malaysia, reckons that the anti-Western sentiment pervading Southeast Asia is about much more than Gaza.

She said that, with the exception of the Philippines, many countries in the region are tilting towards China, while viewing the West as suffering democratic and moral crises.

A narrative has taken hold that many of the EU’s policies, including its deforestation regulations, are masquerading moral concern for the environment as a pretext for blatant economic protectionism.

Indonesia’s economy minister has accused the EU of “regulatory imperialism” for its environmental policies, which will hamper local producers across Southeast Asia.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was heavily criticized in 2022 when he described Europe as geopolitically a “garden” and most of the rest of the world as a “jungle,” a statement that some people construed as having colonial undertones.

Although he apologized “if some felt offended” by his remarks, he denied they were racist.

Is the West’s image going from bad to worse?

It remains to be seen whether Europe and the West’s image in part of Southeast Asia can improve.

“The situation can improve if the Gaza situation improves, but it is likely that there are different visions on what improvement means, so any prospects of improvement will be slow and limited at least until the medium term,” Welsh said.

Some analysts reckon that a victory for Donald Trump in the US presidential election in November and gains by far-right parties in the EU elections next month would escalate Southeast Asian perceptions of the West’s moral decline.

Another variable is Iran. If the West was involved in an Israeli attack on Iran, “the Indonesian government would have no choice but to take a stronger stance, while public outrage would escalate,” said O’Rourke.   

On April 15, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar said he supported Iran’s decision to launch a drone attack on Israel, describing it as a “legitimate act.”

On the other hand, European officials contend they are engaging in dialogue with Southeast Asian partners to mitigate the potentially harmful impacts of EU legislation and that European governments are directly supporting the region’s development.

“The EU and Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) share a common ambition to strengthen the EU’s Strategic Partnership with Asean, as both of our organizations remain devoted to promoting international law, a rules-based order, multilateralism and stability,” Peter Stano, an EU spokesperson, told DW last month.

The EU is now negotiating free trade deals with Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, having already signed arrangements with Singapore and Vietnam. Malaysia is reportedly interested in restarting talks.

European aid and economic assistance to Southeast Asian states has grown in recent years, while some campaigners allege that the EU has toned down its criticism of human rights violations in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia in recent years.

It’s also likely that France and the Philippines will ink a security deal next month that will allow French troops to use Philippines military bases, the latest development in a more concerted effort by European states to help defend Manila against the Chinese navy’s movements in the South China Sea.

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