July 28, 2021

Commentary: Malaysia wades into tricky waters with Kuala Lumpur Summit

6 min read

SINGAPORE: Malaysia recently hosted the Kuala Lumpur (KL) Summit – an inaugural gathering of Muslim countries from Dec 19 to 21 last year.

Spearheaded by Malaysia, the conference was attended by leaders from Iran, Qatar and Turkey, and sought to foster closer cooperation among Muslim countries in the hope of scouring new and practical solutions to address challenges facing the Islamic world.


But the event was not without challenges, complicated by the geopolitical dynamics among the Arab countries.

Saudi Arabia, which dominates the multilateral Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), felt affronted by what it perceived as a challenge to its regional and international leadership of the Muslim-Arab world, and an attempt to build an alternative bloc to the OIC that could prove a countervailing force to Saudi Arabia’s political and diplomatic influence, which had to be met with a swift pushback.

READ: Islamic body criticises Malaysia’s Muslim summit

READ: Commentary: Saudi leaders thought the kingdom was safe. They were wrong

Part of this snub arose from Malaysia’s initial reluctance to extend invitations to Saudi and its Gulf allies, while it proactively engaged Turkey, Qatar, Iran and Pakistan, countries which have been at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia in recent years for a range of reasons. 

But the reality could not be further from the truth. As far Malaysia was concerned, the mini-lateral KL Summit was meant to complement rather than compete or replace the OIC. 

In his welcome address at the summit on Dec 19, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said that almost all Muslim nations had been invited to participate in the summit albeit at different levels.

Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Deputy Pri
Malaysia’s King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visit an exibition during the Kuala Lumpur Summit in December. 

The summit’s objectives itself was “not to discuss about religion but instead the state of affairs in the Muslim world”, which was in “state of crisis, he added. Dr Mahathir also highlighted the importance of Muslim countries understanding the factors fuelling the rise in Islamaphobia and how best to address these concerns.

Despite this, the Saudis expressed concerns that the summit was not the right platform to discuss the matters of the world’s 1.75 billion Muslims. King Salman of Saudi Arabia reaffirmed in a phone call with Mahathir that such cases should only be discussed through the OIC.

READ: Commentary: Malaysia’s national consensus on race and politics risks unravelling

There are signs to suggest that the Saudis may have exerted diplomatic pressure on some of its allies, notably Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan who was initially scheduled to attend but later decided to skip the event, though they have refuted such claims. Despite being one of the initial three architects of the summit, Pakistan eventually did not even send a ministerial-level representation.

Turkey, Qatar and Iran, represented by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and President Hassan Rouhani at the summit, have also had difficult relations with the Saudis owing to a range of religious and geopolitical issues – including the civil war in Yemen.  


What could have spurred Mahathir to push for such a conference?

For decades, the ruling Barisan Nasional government had capitalised on affairs in the Muslim world to burnish its Islamic credentials in foreign policy moves among the majority Malay-Muslim electorate, thereby boosting its legitimacy.

This took place against a backdrop of fierce competition between the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest component of the BN, and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) for the hearts and souls of the Malay community.

READ: Commentary: A multiracial Malaysian agenda is not only necessary. It is desirable

Despite a change in government in 2018, race and religion remain difficult issues in Malaysia. Going by how developments on this summit panned out, it would appear the PH has taken a leaf out of BN’s playbook to play the race-religion card in foreign policy matters.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaking during the opening ceremony of the Kuala Lumpur Summit
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani speaking during the opening ceremony of the Kuala Lumpur Summit of Muslim leaders. (Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

As it stands, the PH governing coalition is facing intense competition from the opposition BN to amass Malay support, and a new threat in the form of an UMNO-PAS pact after losing four by-elections since the 2018 General Election.

It has thus become even more important for the PH to demonstrate to the Malays that it is not only committed to safeguarding Malay rights in-country, but also able to serve as a protector of Islam and champion the interests of the global Islamic community. 

It would be little surprise if the 94-year-old Mahathir, known for his outspokenness on Palestine, Israel and Jerusalem, had decided that the Kuala Lumpur Summit provided a useful vehicle to achieve these domestic political ends. 

READ: Commentary: Why Malaysia’s debate on race, education and vernacular schools will rage on

More recently, Mahathir has spoken up on the plight of the Rohingyas, opposed India’s new citizenship law which is widely believed to exclude Muslims, and supported Pakistan’s stand against India’s revocation of Article 370 which grants autonomy to India-administered Kashmir.

Part of this foreign policy shift might have also involved growing ties with Pakistan and Turkey, and away from Saudi Arabia, which former Prime Minister Najib Razak had cosied up to, to propose setting up an English-language television channel focused on combating Islamophobia and hosted the KL Summit.

READ: Commentary: The reinvention of Najib Razak, former prime minister of Malaysia

Indeed, such foreign policy moves might have been engineered with domestic political considerations in mind, given the imperative PH faces in winning back the Malay ground.


In reality, Malaysia has neither the influence to bring together countries in the divided Muslim world nor can it expect Arab leaders to take their cue from them.

The continued reluctance to deport popular but divisive preacher Zakir Naik to India has also thrown Malaysia into an unwanted spotlight. While Mahathir has continued to denounce the cleric, urged him to avoid stirring up racial sentiments and highlighted the rule of law, he had ultimately allowed Zakir to stay on the basis that “he might be killed if he is sent back”.

Anwar (left) and Mahathir
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (right) sits next to Malaysia’s reform icon Anwar Ibrahim during a rally in Port Dickson on Oct 8, 2018. (File photo: AP/Vincent Thian)

But Mahathir remains a pragmatic leader. He has refrained from criticising Beijing on the Xinjiang/Uyghur issue as China is a key trading partner and a leading investor in Malaysia. “It is better … not to antagonise China too much because China is beneficial for us,” he said in a media interview in September.

Similarly, when India threatened to boycott Malaysia’s palm oil exports over Mahathir’s comments that India had “invaded and occupied Kashmir”, Mahathir reined in further criticism.


The hosting of the KL Summit came hot on the heels of concerns over leadership succession from Mahathir to his heir-apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, with talk that Mahathir may have felt the need to shore up his own religious credentials to stem calls for succession.

READ: Commentary: Why Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad should set a timeline for handover

The fact of the matter is that Anwar is widely seen as a pious Muslim leader even relative to Mahathir, having made his name as a student leader in an Islamic youth movement in his younger days.  

But Mahathir was unequivocally the face of Malaysia for the summit, even as Anwar hosted many visiting dignitaries. Mahathir had projected himself as an international leader of the Muslim world with a point of view about common challenges and flashpoints in the region.

And even though the Summit had seen a lower level of attendance from some countries and had met with concerns from parts of the Muslim world, there are plans for this to be an annual event renamed as the Perdana Dialogue.

READ: Commentary: Jho Low’s fantastic Houdini disappearing act

Looking ahead, some aspects of foreign policy could be driven by domestic politics in Malaysia, particularly Malaysia’s stances on issues relating to the larger Muslim world.

Just as UMNO and PAS were bent on winning over the Malay-Muslim ground, we are also likely to witness struggles between PH’s Malay-majority parties and the UMNO-PAS alliance for the Malay ground between now and the next general election, which is slated to take place in 2023.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin is a research fellow with the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.