South-east Asia and America under Trump

US-Malaysia: Stuck in neutral gear

The election of Donald Trump as America's next president has introduced uncertainty into ties between the world's superpower and other countries. Five scholars at the ISEAS -Yusof Ishak Institute evaluate the likely impact on key nations in South-east Asia.

America is Malaysia's third-largest trading partner and the latter is hopeful the Comprehensive Partnership the two countries signed in 2014 will continue under the Trump presidency. The US is a key export market for Malaysia, worth around RM73.7 billion (S$24 billion) last year.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was quick to congratulate Mr Trump on Facebook on the latter's "extraordinary victory" and said he believed his country's "partnership with the US would remain because (Mr Trump) too needs the partnership with Malaysia and other countries".

Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed chimed in later, saying perceptions of Mr Trump have improved as he has softened his rhetoric on Muslims since winning the election.

As for Malaysians themselves, they can be divided into four groups. The first group cares little about who is in the White House; the second group is fuelled by Islamic conservatism and considers Mr Trump to be an Islamophobe; the third group is informed by liberal progressive values, and views Mr Trump with contempt due to his xenophobic and misogynistic remarks; and the fourth group, which wants a change in the government in Malaysia, believes the one lesson to be drawn from Mr Trump's win is that a similar upset could take place in their country. They base their hope on the "Trump effect" of downcast and disenfranchised voters coming out in droves to vote for the opposition against Datuk Seri Najib's ruling coalition in the general election expected next year.

Malaysia's economic interests in preserving close ties with the US have to be balanced against political considerations, namely the creeping Islamisation of its domestic politics, which may compel Mr Najib's government to be cautious when dealing with a Trump presidency.


Malaysian Muslim schoolgirls taking a selfie with a cut-out of Mr Trump. Malaysia's best hope is that the incoming US President's anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric does not translate into official policy. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mr Trump's moves to appoint to his Cabinet individuals who are anti-Islam - such as Mr Mike Flynn, who has called Islam a cancer and now looks set to become national security adviser - may further inflame the tension between the US and Muslim countries.

This, in turn, may compel Putrajaya to keep Washington at a distance for domestic political reasons.

Should Mr Trump's protectionist policy be enacted, it could adversely impact Malaysian exports. As a result, Malaysia may be compelled to make up the shortfall by deepening trade relations with other partners. In this respect, Mr Najib's recent China visit to further strengthen Sino-Malaysian economic relations is prescient.

Malaysia's best hope is that Mr Trump's anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric and championing of trade protectionism not translate into official policy.

A good outcome would be for the current state of its ties with the US to be stuck in neutral after the transition to the new administration.


  • The writer is a fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'US-Malaysia: Stuck in neutral gear'. Print Edition | Subscribe