Monday, April 6

Get Brexit done, and improve bilateral ties


AT previous British general elections, I have suggested that Malaysians living in the UK should vote (in accordance with UK law though some argue, in contravention of Malaysian law) Conservative, on the basis that the bilateral relationship seems to fare better when they form the government.

After World War II, it was Conservatives then in opposition who supported Malayans in overturning the Malayan Union.

This highly centralised entity that ignored Malayan history and institutions was eventually replaced by the Federation of Malaya, created in an Agreement signed by the Malay Rulers and the British Crown at King’s House (now Seri Negara and in a deplorable condition).

This federation recognised the importance of the states and married constitutional monarchy with parliamentary democracy: the foundation of our post-Merdeka stability.

Conservative Edward Heath, Prime Minister from 1970 to 1974, visited Malaysia at least twice, and during his tenure the Five Powers Defence Arrangements were signed – still in operation and often cited as a shining example of military diplomacy.

On a visit to Malaysia in 1985, Conservative Margaret Thatcher said to our Prime Minister, “We agree on the advantages of the free enterprise system and the liberalisation of world trade, and … you too are devotees of privatisation and reducing the role of the State.”

This was after the worst days of the Buy British Last policy and still early in Dr Mahathir’s first term. Much was yet to emerge in terms of that ‘privatisation’ and wielding of state power.

Still, in 1993, Dr Mahathir welcomed Conservative John Major to Seri Perdana, noting that “two-way trade between Malaysia and Britain registered a 10 per cent increase in 1992 despite prolonged economic recession globally”, and attributing our economic growth to pragmatic economic policies, hard work, free trade, and largely unrestricted access to world markets.

Neither of the two Labour Prime Ministers who followed – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – visited Malaysia. It took the next Conservative, David Cameron, to do so, where political, economic, and social ties were strongly reiterated: something I witnessed through my involvement in the Malaysian British Society.

Theresa May did not make it to Malaysia during her three-year premiership, and for many in the diplomatic community the greatest regret was that Malaysian domestic politics derailed a much-anticipated plan for Malaysia to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2020.

The last time Malaysia hosted was in 1989, when Queen Elizabeth II stayed in Carcosa (also in a deplorable condition today).

Following the general election last week, the British High Commissioner to Malaysia Charles Hay made a pertinent reference to our own general election last year, saying, “The UK will continue to support Malaysia in its reform agenda through the sharing of British expertise and experience.”

His predecessor Vicki Treadell did much in this area, promoting knowledge exchange between key institutions, supporting civil society, and stressing people-to-people links beyond official ones.

Ever since the Brexit referendum, British officials have always maintained that things will stay the same or get even better. I have long hesitated in my reaction: for surely it also depends who forms the government.

A UK that becomes more insular and xenophobic – in terms of welcoming foreign students and workers (I was both), or becoming unattractive for investment due to economic policy decisions – would surely not be good for Malaysia.

The big win by Boris Johnson last week – in a seismic election result that turned some solid Labour seats blue for the first time ever – therefore provides, in theory, an emphatic clarity that Brexit will finally be pursued on widely-known terms.

‘In theory’ because Johnson is also accused of being ambitious to the point of saying whatever is required to attain power. Furthermore, he has certainly written some things that people have found offensive.

However, during the election, and also since winning it, he has repeated (among his key pledges on hospitals, schools and police) that he is a ‘One Nation Conservative’, invoking an inclusive and progressive vision for his premiership.

More importantly for us, he has stressed an open, friendly, and free trade Britain in the world.

If he is able to stick to that, more the Boris who was twice Mayor of London, rather than the Boris egged on by the right wing of his party, then I foresee another successful trip to Malaysia by a British Conservative Prime Minister in the future.

After all, I am sure he will want to rival, as I mentioned to him in 2014 at Epsom College in Negeri Sembilan, close to Kampung LBJ, the fact that an American President of the same surname has a town named after him.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is a former parliamentary researcher in the UK House of Commons.