Printer Friendly

Beyond Sovereignty: Non-Western International Relations in Malaysia's Foreign Relations.

As with other countries, Malaysia expresses concern about national sovereignty and issues related to the distribution and balance of power in the international system. However, Malaysia's behaviour in foreign relations is in some respects distinctive, and this may be due partly to the influence of a heritage of pre-modern Malay thinking. Certain ideas in this heritage--including perspectives on the character of the state, the interests of the state and international order (moral as well as political)--differ radically from post-Westphalian thinking. The best way to interrogate the Malay tradition of foreign relations is likely to be through a disciplinary collaboration between International Relations (IR) and Area Studies, particularly the "history of ideas".

The investigation of non-Western IR theory is demanding. (1) As Amitav Acharya puts it, "we need to move beyond discourses to research and scholarship". (2) To develop a genuinely "Global International Relations"--grounded in world rather than merely Western history--requires comprehending "dynamics of power and ideas" that may be "fundamentally different" from those grounded in the familiar so-called Westphalian model. (3) Key IR concepts, "including the state, self-help, power, and security" may not "fit" non-Western realities. (4)

Today, the need to investigate non-Western approaches towards China is obvious enough; but as the future of Asia will be determined by interaction between a range of players (and perhaps not only states), the operations of smaller Asian countries also matter. In the case of Southeast Asia, the study of its strategic heritage is still at a pioneering stage. (5)

Malaysia has been attracting the attention of the United States, Japan and China; and it is when we consider the particular way the country handles major powers, territorial disputes, region building and other issues, that its leadership's approach to foreign relations seems distinctive. (6) Material factors, of course, are relevant in Malaysia's determination to seek accommodation with China, to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and to be a highly energetic member of the United Nations (UN). A comprehensive analysis would take careful account, for instance, of the country's size, location and ethnic mix. But such an analysis also needs to examine ideational factors. This article seeks to support such an investigation by focusing on some features of pre-modern Malay conceptualizations of interstate relations. The manner in which the Malay heritage interacts with modern foreign policy assumptions would require careful study, case by case. Even in a preliminary inquiry, however, that heritage would appear to throw light on some of the peculiarities of modern Malaysia's international behaviour.

One analytic starting point is state "sovereignty", which, like "power", is a concept of pivotal importance in modern IR analysis. (7) Carrying assumptions about absolute and perpetual authority over a specific defined territory, and the presence of formal equality between state actors in the international system, the Western history of "sovereignty" is well known. (8) In the case of interstate relations in Asia, its influence is often taken for granted. In Southeast Asia, it is said to be the "central principle" of ASEAN. (9)

That "sovereignty" gained currency in Malaysia and other parts of Asia is not surprising given the hegemonic role of Western powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Is the commitment to sovereignty, however, in some way challenged or modified by the continuing potency of other earlier concepts? The question matters if we wish to take account of the full range of factors shaping international behaviour. (10) And yet, as Bilgin Pinar has explained, there has been a lack of curiosity in IR about non-Western thinking, and a tendency to explain away "non-Western" dynamics by superimposing "Western categories". (11) In these circumstances, the task of uncovering non-Western perspectives will benefit from collaboration with Area Studies, particularly textual analysis undertaken in the history of ideas. (12)

Such analysis is not essentialist; it does not insist on the determining influence of unchanging, shared characteristics distinguishing one society from another. There has been intense interaction and borrowing of ideas between communities, and between the "West" and "non-West". (13) What the examination of foreign-relations thinking in earlier eras does offer is the possibility of uncovering perspectives engaged in that interaction; perspectives which may continue to be reference points (conscious or unconscious) in the development of foreign policy in modern states. During de-colonization, Western institutions and policy settings were mimicked (including in the appropriation of "sovereignty")--mimicking that has often resulted in something "almost the same but not quite". (14) The identification of historical reference points can help define that difference.

Our investigation of the Malaysian historical record is influenced by recent work on major Asian states, especially China. (15) Yan Xuetong has argued that a "hard core" of Chinese foreign relations thinking can be identified in the ancient writings of pre-Qin thinkers. (16) Reading their works, he explains, provides insights into a Chinese understanding of hierarchy, hegemony, authority and other matters--insights that are relevant in helping to understand current Chinese approaches to foreign relations. (17) One lesson here is that perspectives not explicitly related to interstate relations--perspectives from different registers, such as social or religious values--can exercise a critical influence, as messages from "Worlds beyond Westphalia". (18)


With a population of some 30 million (including a large Chinese minority), and one of the stronger economies in Southeast Asia, Malaysia has been proactive in Asian diplomatic affairs, with a good deal of continuity from one prime minister to the next. It is extraordinary as a trading nation--boasting a trade-to-GDP ratio higher than many other high-trade countries (19)--and has remarkably porous borders (especially with the Philippines and Indonesia) that have allowed large-scale irregular immigration over a long period. (20) Malaysia has been a leader in Southeast Asian region-building, and has paid careful attention to developing ASEAN's relations with China. There has been continuity as well in the way successive governments have declared a determination to keep the country "equidistant" from the major powers (refusing to join military alliances) and in the sharp sensitivity these governments have expressed regarding Malaysia's international standing. (21)

In terms of a conceptual framework for handling IR, Malaysia is all the more interesting because it is difficult to see much in the experience of the British colonial period--which commenced in the late eighteenth century and ended in 1957--that can explain the country's international identity. Pre-modern thinking about foreign relations, on the other hand, has been neglected in studies of modern Malaysian foreign policy. (22) Research by Charles Alexandrowicz on the international history of the different kingdoms on the Malay Peninsula and surrounding islands from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries is a partial exception. (23) His analysis of treaties between European trading companies and Asian rulers showed IR specialists that Europeans arriving in Southeast Asia from the sixteenth century found an interstate society already in operation. (24) Alexandrowicz, however, gives little attention to intra-Asian relations (and perspectives), being dependent primarily on European source materials.

This article seeks to supplement Alexandrowicz's inquiry by interrogating the Malay-language sources for Malay (or Archipelago) history (25)--searching for "hard core" perspectives that helped shape those early inter-polity relations, and which might be relevant to modern Malaysia's foreign policy. We do not uncover a systematically organized non-Western theory of IR; but the different social assumptions, preferences and aspirations which the Malay writings reveal--sometimes not obviously specific to interstate relations--do seem to possess a foundational capacity. Also, even in a necessarily superficial attempt to substantiate the present-day significance of this pre-modern Malay thinking, there would seem to be a case for supplementing a sovereignty-based analysis.

Identifying the Malay Heritage of Ideas

Although not as ancient as the pre-Qin texts which Yan Xuetong explored, pre-colonial Malay writings are the product of a very different socio-political configuration from that of present-day Malaysia: different in scale, because the kerajaan (the ruler-centred polities) often had populations of only tens of thousands; different too in mode of life, and in the prevailing concepts of political and social life.

These traditional Malay writings are primarily hikayat, written in prose and usually produced in a royal court, though we also examine a number of Malay letters from rulers. Sometimes hikayat is translated simply as "story", but it also suggests "investigation" or "analysis'". (26) It is difficult to date these texts. Although often generated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they tend to exist in manuscripts from a later period, and copyists are known to have "improved" as they copied. The texts we focus on are the Hikayat Hang Tuah (with its continuing focus on the envoy role of an outstanding royal official, Hang Tuah), the Sejarah Melayu (the so-called "Malay Annals", which is concerned with the dynasty that ruled in Melaka), the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (from Kedah) and the Hikayat Patani (from the kingdom of Patani in what is now Southern Thailand).

Some Malay texts and letters have been employed before in investigating the foreign relations of specific polities, for instance Kedah or Perak. (27) Several recent articles use hikayat to throw light on the practice and institutions of diplomacy. (28) Alan Chong has published a useful reading of a single text--the Sejarah Melayu--in examining non-western "forms of international relations". (29) Like Chong, we cite the "Cambridge School" of the history of ideas, (30) but our focus is more on language issues. Interrogating key Malay terms, our concern is not the texts' accuracy with reference to events, but the values and assumptions they highlight. (31)

Concerning the pre-modern Malay world, one Malay kingdom was by no means the same as another in size or orientation (including the preoccupations of their respective court literature). Despite differences, however, their hikayat reveal certain common themes, or hardcore perspectives--tending to give the region a particular identity in international terms. We concentrate here on two key Malay terms, kerajaan (ruler-centred polity) and nama (which suggests "reputation", "status", "prestige" and "name"), and examine their different implications for interstate relations, including for the importance of hierarchy, a topic of growing interest in IR. (32) Kerajaan and nama, we suggest, may have possessed a centrality, or constitutive function, in pre-modern Malay political thought that is comparable with the role of state sovereignty in modern IR analysis--and they could, in one way or another, possess a continuing potency today.

The Political Unit: The Kerajaan

Considering the constituent units and drivers in the pre-modern Malay world, (33) we are not dealing with an "interstate" system based upon

"nations". Even the word "state" raises misleading expectations, and there is no term that is a close equivalent to "sovereignty". (34) However powerful today, "sovereignty" is not part of the deep ideological heritage of Malaysia (or probably much of Southeast Asia).

Kerajaan is a term that does illuminate pre-modern Malay political life. (35) It conveys the sense of a ruler-centred community, defined by person-to-person relations with a raja and not, for instance, in relation to a specific territorial unit. To say that there was no physical dimension whatever to this polity, of course, would be misleading. The ruler might well have lived inside a fort--like the early seventeenth century ruler in Johor (36)--and have wished to defend that fort. But as contemporary Malay writings make clear, the real unit that needed to be defended and fostered was that of the ruler and his subjects, not a piece of territory defined by borders and administrative institutions and called a "state" (or some analogous term).

Given the way the kerajaan was constituted, the priorities of those engaged in this type of polity--the specific aspirations and anxieties that engendered action--differed significantly from the drivers encountered in many modern states. This pre-modern world was one of "inter-raja" (or "inter-kerajaan") rather than "inter-national" relations. As portrayed in the text, all political action was carried out on behalf of the ruler. Emissaries and diplomatic letters were sent from one ruler to another. In such letters rulers do not tend to call themselves "Sultan of Perak" or "Sultan of Kedah". Rather, the ruler himself (and they were generally males) is highlighted. A ruler might describe himself as "sitting on the throne of the kerajaan that is located in the region of Perak". (37) The word kerajaan does not refer to a specific territory or to an administrative entity that incorporates the ruler. It means, essentially, "the condition of having a raja". The texts take for granted that every community must have a ruler. The Hikayat Hang Tuah tells of a wealthy Indian merchant who comes from a place where there is no raja, and who explains that in such a situation the property he possesses can have no purpose (guna). (38) Malay writings suggest that the absence of a raja, the condition of not "having a raja", could mean hum hara, or utter confusion, (39) including rapes, mass killings and even disease. (40)

Highlighting the ruler in this way--conceptualizing the polity in terms of ruler-subject not ruler-territory--raised the question of what was "inside" the polity, and also what was "outside". A ruler's subjects might live far away, close to another ruler. Being inside rather than outside a specific kerajaan was a matter of allegiance not location. In a sense, membership of a kerajaan was something "in the mind". Such foregrounding of ruler rather than territory tends to convey the impression that political concerns were personal, almost selfish, rather than state concerns--that it was the ruler's enemies and not a state's enemies who were the source of anxiety. (41)

It can be asked whether such a ruler-defined political tradition might have a possible modern relevance. What referents are given greatest priority in modern Malaysian security and foreign policy decision making? Has a special emphasis been given to the ruling regime--more than to the internationally-standard concern for securing the nation state?

The kerajaan did assume a degree of physicality through its ceremonies. Hikayats give careful attention to court ceremonial: they sometimes also highlight a ruler's fine personal manners and knowledge of protocol. (42) Membership of the polity was defined partly by participation in royal ceremonies; participation in a sense comparable with crossing a national border today. Engaging in ceremony--being seated in one position rather than another, wearing a particular formal attire, receiving gifts of a specific type and quality--helped define a person's specific status (nama) as well as his political allegiance. Effective ceremony would have been critical in retaining and attracting subjects, and in praising a royal patron's ceremonies a hikayat was itself engaging in inter-kingdom competition for subjects--advertising that royal court, as claims about high-quality government are used today to attract foreign investment and quality, skilled immigration.

Modern Malaysia and Brunei, of course, are both kingdoms, with domestic government and interstate relations still articulated in a royal idiom. (43) But Malaysia's modern devotion to ceremony and ritual is not only evident in specifically royal ceremonies; it has been observed, for instance, in Malaysia's behaviour in ASEAN meetings. (44)

Inter-raja Relations

Kerajaan monarchies are related to one another in a manner different from territorially-defined, theoretically equal, sovereign states. (45) The downplaying of the territoriality of the polity is evident in the Sejarah Melayu, when it gives strikingly little emphasis to the Portuguese conquest of Melaka in 1511--to the loss of the physical capital. The ongoing continuity of the royal line of sultans, and of inter-raja relations, is highlighted, though these former Melaka rulers are now headquartered in a range of archipelagic locations. Similarly, Europeans meeting Malay rulers were surprised by the seemingly casual approach the rulers took to the geographical definition of their polities: in the 1870s, the Sultan of Terengganu said he had no idea of where his boundary ran. (46) When one considers the somewhat nonchalant way in which modern Malaysian leaders sometimes approach border and immigration issues--dealing with the South China Sea disputes or Filipino and Indonesian illegal immigrants (47) --the possibility also arises that this pre-modem stress on subjects rather than territory may remain relevant.

As to the equality aspect of sovereignty, Malay rulers were accustomed to operating in a hierarchical order, and one not limited to the Peninsula and Archipelago, but reaching out to Siam, Burma and China, and even as far as the Ottoman Empire. European powers, through such centres as Melaka, Batavia, Pinang and Singapore, also gained high status in the regional system. (48) There seems to have been nothing intolerable about the principle of being in a hierarchy--looking down on some other rulers, looking up to others. The Hikayat Hang Tuah refers respectfully to the rulers of Ottoman Turkey, China, Vijayanagara (in Southern India), Siam and Majapahit (in Java)--but we are left in little doubt that the rulers of Pahang or Kampar were considered to be of lower standing. The observation to stress here is that hierarchy in itself was not seen as a problem, and this may be a further point of view to be taken into account today, particularly when examining the prominent part played by Malaysia in developing ASEAN's relations with China. (49)


Probing further the hierarchical relations between rulers--and also ruler-subject relations--the Malay term nama, understood in the context of the hierarchical kerajaan, is more helpful than the imported "sovereignty". Nama, like kerajaan, is a constitutive concept, and together these terms suggest a political and social order fundamentally different from that implied in the expression "sovereign state". Note how nama is used. The task of a royal subject, according to the opening lines of the Hikayat Hang Tuah, was to be "loyal to his ruler and give devoted service to his ruler". (50) Later the text states that "we who live under rajas do whatever work we have to do as diligently as possible, for as the old people say, it is good to die with a reputation [nama] that is good". (51) Concern about nama is also evident in the episode above where the Indian merchant complains about not having a raja. After he succeeds in installing a ruler--and thus becomes himself the subject of a ruler --the Indian explains that now his "name (nama) will be famous and die namas of [his] descendants will be remembered to the end of time". (52) Just as subjects seek to enhance their nama, the texts explain, so the ruler's nama is a matter of crucial concern; and it can be enhanced or damaged as a result of the way he interacts with his subjects. A ruler's nama is influenced by the number of his subjects: a "great ruler" (raja besar) is assumed to have many subjects. (53) In losing subjects, the Malay writings sometimes suggest a ruler experiences shame or dishonour (malu, aib), (54) the very reverse of a positive nama. Acquiring tributary kingdoms (or even just respectful inter-raja relations) also assists a ruler's nama. When people "above and below the wind" show respect (sopan) to Melaka, explains the Hikayat Hang Tuah, then the Melaka ruler's nama will be "renowned in all the lands". (55)

In relations between kerajaan, the advancing or protecting of the ruler's nama was a strategic concern, just as the determination to protect "sovereignty" is a strong objective in modern states. The nama emphasis also had specific implications, including in the operation of inter-polity hierarchies. Time after time in the Hikayat Hang Tuah, action is taken to bolster or defend a ruler's nama. When a senior adviser tells the Melaka ruler to give a high title to a rich Indian merchant, the ruler agrees "because then my nama will be famous in the land of the Tamils". (56) Nama considerations --for instance, anxiety about strengthening or "dishonouring the ruler's nama"--are vital when decisions are made as to whether to fight or avoid a war. (57) The apparently binary opposites, nama/malu, prestige/shame--or Malay terms allied with these terms--appear time and again as preoccupations which motivate or constrain action in direct relations between rajas.

How did nama relate to other apparent drivers in inter-polity relations? The texts do express admiration for rulers who attracted trade. (58) In doing so the rulers might be said to achieve "fame for their nama" ("nama termasyhurlah"). (59) In these hikayat, however, wealth is not presented as an end in itself--wealth per se can have no purpose (guna), as the Indian merchant pointed out when explaining the need for a ruler. Wealth is presented as being needed essentially for "belanja"--"outlay" or "expenditure". (60) Belanja was required for the task of attracting and rewarding subjects, including through ceremony and gifts, and generous rulers are often praised in the hikayat. (61)

Pre-modern Malay writings, therefore, convey that it was the concern for nama rather than considerations of power or material gain that really drove action between polities (as well as within the essentially hierarchical polity). (62) The foundational role of kerajaan and nama helps to define the specificity of the Malay tradition of inter-polity relations, but this tradition may also have affinities with "political" thinking in early periods of European history (as Richard Ned Lebow's work on ancient Greece suggests). (63)

Implications of a Nama Perspective

The implications of a nama perspective require further unpacking of this constitutive term. There is no easy English translation. Nama is not to be understood merely in a political register. It suggests not only status and reputation; it also has spiritual significance. As the comments of Hang Tuah and the Indian merchant (cited above) suggest, a person's nama in this life was seen to bear significance in the afterlife. (64)

What nama did not imply, however, is as significant as what it did, especially when compared with the implications of the foundational concept, "sovereignty". Consider the lack of stress on equality in nama-related endeavours. Far from demanding equality between rulers--even just theoretical or formal equality--nama was grounded in hierarchy. Enhancing nama required hierarchy, and it is thus not surprising that hierarchical relations were accepted or welcomed in the pre-modern Malay world.

In negotiating these relations, a more prestigious ruler was not always resisted, or balanced against (as Western IR thinking tends to assume). (65) When a less powerful ruler sent an embassy to a great ruler, the Malay texts suggest this could benefit the nama of the less powerful ruler. Thus, when the Melaka ruler thinks of sending a mission to the Ottoman Empire, his senior officials agree, pointing out that the Ottoman ruler "is a great raja", and that it is "proper that we establish close relations with him so that Your Majesty's nama will be famous". (66) A similar observation is made in the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa about the advantage to the Kedah ruler's nama in sending the bunga emas (the "golden tree" of tribute) to Siam. (67) Ceremonies in Siam were designed to exhibit the exact rank held by the Kedah ruler (or any other tributary ruler) in the hierarchy which flowed down from the Siam court. Through loyal service, individual rulers could rise in that hierarchy. (68) In the case of hierarchical relations with Britain, there is strong evidence from the Hikayat Johor that the Johor ruler appreciated rather than resented his subordinate standing with Queen Victoria, including the significant honour of being placed on her right at a formal dinner. (69) Had his principal concern been his state's sovereignty, and not his personal nama, he would probably have viewed the British relationship in far more negative, anxious terms.

The Malay texts, it is true, contain episodes that at a glance suggest a strategy on behalf of sovereign equality, or sovereign independence. On closer reading, however, the intent is more likely to concern the quest for hierarchical status. The texts, for instance, do not seek to deny the greatness of the Chinese ruler. The Sejarah Melayu calls him a "great raja" (70) and the Hikayat Hang Tuah expresses wonder at China's architecture and roads, and the "thousands of rajas" in the ruler's audience hall. (71) The superiority of the ruler of Majapahit is also acknowledged, (72) the Hikayat Hang Tuah calling Melaka a "little finch" compared to the Majapahit "great hornbill". (73) China's and Majapahit's power, one might assume, would have made them merely threats. In the episodes in the Malay texts, however, their greatness seems to offer an opportunity --through the use of astute diplomacy--for status accumulation on the part of the weaker ruler, the Sultan of Melaka. This is the objective, for instance, of what we refer to below as "mousedeer diplomacy".

Such insights from Malay texts recall important modern research on the handling of China in an earlier period: in particular, the success of fifteenth-century Melaka and the earlier Srivijaya monarchy (based in Sumatra). From China's perspective, the reception of tributary missions from Southeast Asian rulers was seen as "an illustration of the efficacy" of the China ruler's te, or "moral power", (74) and an efficacious te could also bring economic advantages to China. (75) On their part, the Archipelago rulers gained a special status on the basis of their China connection, receiving noble titles and seals of investiture from the emperor. (76) Such recognition, it is argued, helped in their struggle with local rivals. The number of missions sent to the China emperor testifies to the rulers' enthusiasm for Chinese recognition, and there is plenty of evidence of competition for that recognition. (77)

The handling of hierarchical relations--and the advancing of status which energized those relations--demanded different types of diplomatic expertise. The hikayats make clear the importance of exquisite manners and eloquent language, and also knowledge of the ways in which the customs of one place might differ from the customs of another. In one sense the Hikayat Hang Tuah might be understood as a manual for diplomacy, with many episodes elaborating a specific diplomatic problem, and then proceeding to provide possible solutions and even model speeches. We also find such information in the Sejarah Melayu and other texts. (78) In some cases, explains the Sejarah Melayu, when a letter from a foreign ruler arrives, "only the big drum, the clarinet and a yellow umbrella" are used. (79)

Another type of expertise sometimes referred to is resourcefulness or ingenuity (cerdik). An example comes in the Sejarah Melayu when the Chinese ruler, seeking to impress the Melaka ruler, sends him a shipload of needles. Each house in his realm, says the Chinese ruler, has provided a single needle. In reply, the Melaka ruler tricks him in this status quest by sending back a shipload of sago--each of his Melaka subjects, he claims, having rolled out a single grain. The Melaka envoys later display such "resourcefulness" themselves when they play a trick involving Chinese protocol. The latter prohibited an envoy from viewing the face of the emperor in a formal audience. The Melaka envoys outwit the Chinese by asking for kangkong (water spinach) when they are offered food. As this long-stranded vegetable is best eaten looking upwards, the envoys were able to gaze on the emperor--thus gaining enhanced prestige. (80)

Such preoccupation with nama negotiation rather than sovereignty may help to explain modern Malaysia's seeming comfort and skill in handling hierarchical relations, for instance with China. There has been abundant evidence of creative Malaysian attempts to achieve a beneficial relationship--a smart accommodation--with China over recent years, including in the early months of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government in 2018. (81) A nama perspective might also be a factor in Malaysia's easy acceptance of being "small"--an acceptance which is in a sense a departure point in much Malaysian thinking about foreign affairs. Prime Ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman, Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi all referred to Malaysia as a small country. (82) The conveying of such geo-strategic modesty is striking when contrasted with Australia, for instance, where at least one leader found even the phrase "middle power" to be demeaning. (83)

Inheriting a kerajaan/nama tradition might be significant as well with respect to Malaysia's regionalism. The observation needs to be carefully developed, but Malaysia is acknowledged to have been exceptionally active in promoting a transnational regional identity, and one which could be potentially sovereignty-threatening. Chairing ASEAN in 2015, Prime Minister Najib even spoke of ASEAN "coursing through our veins". (84) By the same token, a heritage stressing the ruler-subject not ruler-territory relation might throw light on the relatively relaxed approach to territorial concerns which Malaysia takes in handling disputes about sovereign territorial claims in the South China Sea. (85) To explore possible nama significance even further, could it help explain the very pronounced stress which the modern Malaysian leadership places on prestige? Apart from Malaysia's many terms of non-permanent membership on the UN Security Council, and its frequent contribution to peace-keeping forces, (86) the current foreign ministry website expresses this often-encountered concern when it declares the desire to make Malaysia the "preferred brand name in international relations". (87)

Mousedeer Diplomacy

Returning to the pre-modern era, the resourcefulness or shrewdness exhibited in Malay hierarchy diplomacy, influenced by the constant quest for nama, conjures up a popular image from Malay folklore. The stratagems or ruses of the renowned "wily mousedeer" (the "pelanduk jinaka")--which assume rather than deny his smallness --continue to be cited in modern times. Using his skill to frustrate bigger and more powerful animals, the mousedeer, in the words of the literature scholar Muhammad Haji Salle, "teaches the small man how to survive among the physical giants by using his wits". (88) One example of the modern relevance of the mousedeer ideal occurred in 1976, when Prime Minister Hussein Onn--concerned about the impact on Southeast Asia of Great Power rivalry--noted the "Malay saying that when two elephants fight, the mousedeer wedged in between will suffer." (89) More recently, when former Prime Minister Najib called Malaysia a small country, he added that it is also "deft and nimble", (90) invoking nicely the attributes of the mousedeer.

It was this mousedeer style of diplomacy that was demonstrated in August 2018, when Prime Minister Mahathir visited China seeking to renegotiate some large infrastructure agreements which he considered to be too expensive. The Chinese leaders were clearly not pleased, but Mahathir took pains to embed his negative message in much respectful talk about Malaysia's long history of friendship with China, and about China's welcome role in maintaining regional order. "We are a small country", Mahathir said, "what we have to do is make the best use of China's policy." (91)

Another continuing mousedeer strategy, it could be argued, is the continuing ambition to gain local advantage through hierarchical engagement with an external major power. This could help explain further modern Malaysia's relatively optimistic approach to the re-emergence of China. (92) As in the pre-modern era, Malaysia has exploited relations with China to enhance its position within Southeast Asia. Tun Razak, for instance, said his 1974 initiative in opening up relations with China--the first ASEAN leader to do so--had made Malaysia "special" in Southeast Asia. (93) Moreover, Cheng-Chwee Kuik has noted the way Malaysia "as a smaller state" capitalized on its working relationship with China in initiating and developing the East Asia Summit. (94)

Competing for Subjects

Royal concern about subjects, so vital for nama, is evident time and again in hikayat texts; and it is not surprising that the term for prosperity, ma'mor, suggests both "prosperous" and "populous". (95) Prosperity in this worldview immediately refers to population numbers rather than territorial extent, and given such a preoccupation, competition for subjects was a continuing inter-polity dynamic. One way of gaining subjects was by force. In the Hikayat Hang Tuah, when Hang Tuah attacks the kerajaan of Inderapura (or Pahang), what he takes from the defeated polity--apart from material gifts of submission (harta persembah)--is 1,600 subjects. When he brings these people to Melaka, the text indicates they are of special interest to the Melaka ruler, even more than the other, material goods. (96)

In many instances, however, it was a ruler's personal qualities--his generosity, fairness, proper ceremonies--that attracted new subjects, and thus (as we have seen) enhanced his nama. The opening section of the Hikayat Hang Tuah is focused on the migration of people to join the Palembang ruler, and then another migration to join his son, the future Melaka ruler (also reputed to be "just and generous"). (97) The text highlights the motive of one talented official, who decides to transfer allegiance from his ruler (in Java) to the future Melaka ruler. His earlier Javanese ruler had brought "shame" on him by not acknowledging his loyal service. Hearing the future Melaka ruler was "very fair, always consulting widely"--and both generous and polite--the official decides not to commit treason, but to migrate with all his chiefs and loyal supporters. (98)

The historical records of pre-modern Archipelago contain many references to both the voluntary migration and plundering of subjects. (99) It is possible here also to note affinities with modern Malaysia, with its enormous influx of foreign workers. This influx has created numerous problems; and yet the rapid expansion in the country's population does seem to be a matter of pride as well as anxiety. (100)


There is more in the non-Westphalian heritage of the Malay world that might illuminate the country's modern behaviour in international relations. The priority given to building strong and emotive inter-polity relations may be one example; the emphasis on what might be called "moral balance"--and not just balance-of-power--may be another. (101) In this article we bracketed one of the fundamental organizing concepts of IR, state sovereignty, and explored possible implications of a kerajaan/nama-based approach. The local concepts are somewhat unfamiliar in IR, and carry consequences that in some cases differ radically from those flowing from assumptions about the centrality of sovereignty. A kerajaan/nama perspective accepts and even welcomes hierarchy, rather than yearning for some egalitarian relationship; also, the specific skills required by a smaller kingdom are likely to be highly developed, attaining what could be described as mousedeer virtuosity.

Downplaying the territorial dimension of the polity has many consequences, as does the stress on the personal ruler-subject relation, and the persistent desire of the ruler to acquire subjects. Given the continuing need to define nama-status, the importance of ceremony and manners in all types of interaction, including between rulers, is critical.

The heritage of pre-modern, inter-monarch relations has been largely ignored by IR scholars. As noted above, however, understanding kerajaan and nama as foundational principles may help explain Malaysia's relatively comfortable acceptance of being "small" compared to China and other major powers--and also the seeming contradiction that Malaysia's leaders are, at the same time, sharply concerned about their country's international reputation. (102) Nama considerations might also bear on why Malaysia demonstrates a relative willingness to tolerate very large number of immigrants (including illegal immigrants). The embedded, pre-modern view, after all, was that a regime's nama was boosted by attracting population, and the historic encouragement given to foreign merchants and workers has certainly continued into the post-independence period. Sovereignty considerations, by contrast, can discourage such openness, especially towards unregulated people movement.

A kerajaan priority--in placing emphasis on the regime rather than the sovereign state as the primary referent for foreign and defence policy--could be useful as well in considering Malaysia's approach to region-building. Although studies of ASEAN tend to stress sovereignty as a guiding principle, this investigation of pre-modern thinking underlines that it is by no means an indigenous concept. As chair of ASEAN in 2015, Malaysia promoted a quite organic concept of a "People-Centred ASEAN". Noting the usual scholarly insistence that ASEAN countries put national sovereignty ahead of regional interests, it ought as well to be surprising to see Malaysia so apparently laid back in handling territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and also in its approach to the development of ASEAN "growth triangles". These tend to bond a subregion in one ASEAN country with a subregion in another, potentially at some risk to national territorial unity for the countries concerned. (103)

Modern Malaysia is of course entangled in interstate relations globally as well as in Asia, and the perspectives and preferences guiding the country's foreign policy behaviour are inevitably influenced by international trends of thought. These include a stress on state sovereignty. Analysis of Malaysia's approach to foreign relations also needs to take note of such material factors as its geographical positioning at the heart of Southeast Asia, its long experience as a trading state, and the presence in the country of a large Chinese minority (some 28 per cent of the population). Nevertheless, with respect to ideational influences, some puzzling features in the country's international statements and actions do seem to be easier to comprehend if we factor in the Malay heritage of foreign-relations thinking. Malaysia's foreign relations choices, it must be said, do not flow directly, mystically from a pre-modern political culture. But preferences established long ago may well continue to be points of reference that in one circumstance or another can influence policy choices.

As to the potential of this Malay tradition to enrich IR theory, we have noted specific historical Malay assumptions about what interests are at stake in interstate relations. The so-called "international order" is conceptualized differently in pre-modern Malay writings: without the sovereign territorial state as the key constituent unit, even the distinction between domestic and "international" politics seems blurred. The range of variables that might be included in IR analyses expands when we investigate Malaysian and other non-Western traditions, and when we acknowledge that perspectives in several registers--the religious and social in the case of nama, and not merely the political--may be significant.

Although nama and mousedeer diplomacy, at a glance, are specifically local concepts, they may have analogues in other contexts. Even in analyses of issues between Western countries, the investigation of these Malay concepts may stimulate insights and an appreciation of factors that are often ignored. Is there not a kerajaan/nama dimension in American as well as Chinese international policy: giving priority to regime above state, highlighting international prestige, assuming hierarchy while publicly endorsing sovereign equality and so forth? Has too little attention been given to Australia's mousedeer manoeuvring with respect to its seemingly dominant ally, the United States? In these and other matters, the study of Malay perspectives on foreign relations--drawing together expertise from both IR and Area Studies--may contribute in a more general way to developing a "global" rather than essentially Western IR.


(1) Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, "Why is there No Non-Western International Relations Theory? An Introduction", International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 7 (September 2007): 287-312; Barry Buzan, An Introduction to the English School of International Relations: The Societal Approach (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014), p. 169.

(2) Amitav Acharya, Rethinking Power, Institutions and Ideas in World Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 53. See also, Arlene Tickner, "Seeing IR Differently: Notes from the Third World", Millennium 32, no. 2 (June 2003): 295-324. For ways in which "Western" and "non-Western" approaches can intertwine with (and sometimes mimic) one another, Bilgin Pinar, "Thinking Past 'Western' IR?", Third World Quarterly 29, no. 1 (December 2007): 5-23.

(3) Amitav Acharya, "Global International Relations (IR) and Regional Worlds: a New Agenda for International Studies", International Studies Quarterly 58, no. 4 (December 2014): 652.

(4) Ole Waever and Arlene B. Tickner, "Introduction: Geocultural Epistemologies", in International Relations Scholarship around the World (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 1.

(5) David C. Kang, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Anthony Reid and Zheng Yangwen, Negotiating Asymmetry: China's Place in Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009); Peter Borschberg, Hugo Grotius, the Portuguese, and Free Trade in the East Indies (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011); Amitav Acharya, The Making of Southeast Asia: International Relations of a Region (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2013); Acharya, Rethinking Power, op. cit.

(6) See, for example, Kim Hyung Jong, Lee Poh Ping, Mohammad Raduan and Mohammad Ariff, "East Asian Developments and Contrasting Views among ASEAN Member Nations over East Asian Regionalism", Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 23, no. 3 (January 2011): 393; Rosemary Foot, "Thinking Globally from a Regional Perspective: Chinese, Indonesian, and Malaysian Reflections on the Post-Cold War Era", Contemporary Southeast Asia 19, no. 1 (June 1996): 27; Donald K. Emmerson, "Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore: A Regional Security Core?", in Southeast Asian Security in the New Millennium, edited by (New York: ME Sharpe, 1996), pp. 34-88; David Camroux, "State Responses to Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia: Accommodation, Co-option, and Confrontation", Asian Survey 36, no. 9 (September 1996): 852-68; Peter J. Katzenstein, A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in The American Imperium (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2005), p. 79.

(7) See, for instance, Muthiah Alagappa, ed., Asian Security Order: Instrumental and Normative Features (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 86. Tan See Seng notes regarding the Constructivist trend in IR that it too "does not, cannot and would not tell us how states are produced; they are always and already 'out there' or at least 'in here'--always and already given in constructivist discourse, that is" in Tan See Seng, "Rescuing Constructivism from the Constructivists: A Critical Reading of Constructivist Interventions in Southeast Asian Security", The Pacific Review 19, no. 2 (August 2006): 239-60, 255.

(8) The modern understanding of sovereignty emerged in Europe with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years' War--a series of treaties that are said to have created an international order in which state governments were no longer subject to higher secular or religious power. See, Hent Kalmo and Quentin Skinner, eds., Sovereignty in Fragments: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Concept (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010). See also, Muthiah, Asian Security Order, op. cit, pp. 108-9.

(9) Ralph Emmers, Cooperative Security and the Balance of Power in ASEAN and the ARF (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 76.

(10) On the continued legacy of suzerainty relations in modern Asia, see Peter J. Katzenstein, Rudra Sil and Rudra Sil, "Rethinking Asian Security: A Case for Analytical Eclecticism", in Rethinking Security in East Asia: Identity, Power and Efficiency, edited by (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press), p. 97; Michel Oksenberg, "The Issue of Sovereignty in the Asian Historical Context", in Problematic Sovereignty: Contested Rules and Political Possibilities, edited by (New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), pp. 83-104.

(11) Bilgin, "Thinking", op. cit, p. 11. Although Hedley Bull wondered whether "a significant body of non-Western theory" had been "overlooked because of our Western starting point", Hidemi Suganami saw ignorance regarding non-Western cultures as a characteristic of English School writings. Hidemi Suganami, "British Institutionalists, or the English School, 20 Years On", International Relations 17, no. 3 (September 2003): 264-65.

(12) Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1983); Reynaldo Clemena Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution in the Philippines, 1840-1910 (Quezon City, Philippines: Atenao de Manila University Press, 1979); Greg Lockhart, "Autonomous History and the Invention of Politics", Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 29, no. 1 (March 1998): 162-77.

(13) Bilgin, "Thinking", op. cit., pp. 7, 10. See also Amartya Sen, "Democracy isn't 'Western'", Economist's View, 24 March 2006, available at <>.

(14) Bilgin, "Thinking", op. cit., p. 14, quoting L.H.M. Ling. Muthiah Alagappa notes that Asian countries "had to relate to an international system still dominated by Western powers to protect their new-found sovereignty and consolidate their statehood". Muthiah Alagappa, "International Relations Studies in Asia: Distinctive Trajectories", International Relations of the Asia-Pacific 11, no. 2 (May 2011): 223.

(15) Jiangli Wang and Barry Buzan, "The English and Chinese Schools of International Relations: Comparisons and Lessons", Chinese Journal of International Politics 7, no. 1 (January 2014): 1-46; Lily H.M. Ling, "Worlds Beyond Westphalia: Daoist Dialectics and the 'China Threat'", Review of International Studies 39, no. 3 (February 2013): 549-68; Yongjin Zhang and Barry Buzan, "The Tributary System as International Society in Theory and Practice", The Chinese Journal of International Politics 5, no. 1 (February 2012): 3-36; David Chan Kang, China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia (New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995).

(16) Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 4-6.

(17) Ling, "Worlds Beyond Westphalia", op. cit., pp. 555-67.

(18) Ibid.; See also Barry Buzan and Richard Little, International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 29.

(19) Malaysia 159.7; Australia 42.3. World Trade Organization statistics, available at <>.

(20) At the end of 2014 there were 6.7 million foreign workers in Malaysia, with only 2.1 million having valid work permits; "Govt Can Keep Tabs on Foreign Workforce be Legalising Pati, says Unionist", The Sun Daily, 10 February 2016, available at <>.

(21) See the overview in Anthony Milner, Nama, Group-Binding and Moral Balance: Themes and Origins of Malaysian Foreign Policy (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 2015), pp. 1-18.

(22) For example, Johan Saravanamuttu, Malaysia's Foreign Policy: The First Fifty Years: Alignment, Neutralism, Islamism (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010); Chandran Jeshurun, Malaysia: Fifty Years of Diplomacy, 1957-2007 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: The Other Press, 2007).

(23) Charles Henry Alexandrowicz, An Introduction to the History of the Law of Nations in the East Indies: 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1967).

(24) Buzan, An Introduction, op. cit., pp. 70-71; Amitav Acharya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 53, 71 note 57; Borschberg, Hugo Grotius, op. cit.

(25) The phrase "Malay history" is used for convenience--although Brunei, Pahang and other communities are not treated as "Malay" in the influential text. See Kassim Ahmad, Hikayat Hang Tuah (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1968), pp. 381, 193. On the use of "Malay" in the pre-colonial period, see Anthony Milner, The Malays (Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2011), Chapter 4.

(26) See, for instance, the use of the term in Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., p. 461.

(27) Rollin Bonney, Kedah 1771-1821: The Search for Security and Independence (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 1971); Barbara Andaya, Perak, the Abode of Grace: A Study of an Eighteenth-Century Malay State (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 1979); Maziar Mozaffari Falarti, Malay Kingship in Kedah: Religion, Trade, and Society (Lanham, Massachusetts: Lexington, 2013).

(28) Mohd Jamil Mukmin, "Sejarah Hubungan Diplomas! Kerajaan Melayu: Satu Tinjauan" [History of Diplomatic Relations among Malay Kingdoms: One Perspective], Jurnal IKSEP (Institut Kajian Sejarah dan Patriotisme Malaysia) [Journal of the Institute of History and Patriotism] 2 (2011): 71-80.

(29) Alan Chong, "Premodern Southeast Asia as a Guide to International Relations Between Peoples: Prowess and Prestige in 'Intersocietal Relations' in the Sejarah Melayu", Alternatives 37, no. 2 (April 2012): 87.

(30) John Greville Agard Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985); James Tully, ed., Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988).

(31) Most modern analyses of the pre-colonial states of Southeast Asia are articulated around key concepts external to the society under study, for example, J.M. Gullick's "working system of social control and leadership". See J.M Gullick, Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya (London, UK: Athlone Press, 1965), p. 1; Clifford Geertz's "theatre state' in Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980); and S.J. Tambiah's "galactic polity" in S.J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity against a Historical Background (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1978). Although sometimes illuminating, this approach can hinder the identification of local perspectives.

(32) Kang, China Rising, op. cit.; David C. Kang, East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (New York City, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Amitav Acharya, "Will Asia's Past Be Its Future?", International Security 28, no. 3 (Winter 2003/4): 149-64.

(33) In the European context, Philip Bobbitt discusses the way the specific character of states influences--and is influenced by--state-to-state relations. Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History (New York City, New York: Knopf, 2002).

(34) The modern Malay term for "sovereignty" is "kedaulatan". In the pre-modern Malay writings "daulat" is used, but is usually translated as "good fortune" or "divine power". For the way "kedaulatan" and "sovereignty" were employed in the post-Pacific War period in Malaya, see Ariffin Omar, Bangsa Melayu: Malay Concepts of Democracy and Community, 1945-1950 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Oxford University Press, 1993), Chapters 2, 6 and passim.

(35) Anthony Milner, Kerajaan: Malay Political Culture on the Eve of Colonial Rule, 2nd ed. (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2016).

(36) Peter Borschberg, ed., Journal, Memorials and Letters of Cornells Matelieff de Jonge: Security, Diplomacy and Commerce in Uth-Century Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015), p. 191.

(37) Milner, The Malays, op. cit., p. 59.

(38) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., p. 70.

(30) Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., p. 109.

(40) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., p. 307 and Andries Teeuw and David K. Wyatt, Hikayat Patani (The Hague, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970), p. 131.

(41) Bonney, Kedah, op. cit., p. 173.

(42) See the discussion of the Hikayat Pahang (and other texts) in Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., pp. 41--15. See also the description of the ruler at Bukit Seguntang, Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., pp. 6, 16. For an example of an elaborate ceremony relating to a marriage between royal houses, see M.C. Sheppard, "A Short History of Trengganu", Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS) 22, no. 3 (June 1949): 70-74.

(43) Anthony Milner, "Identity Monarchy: Interrogating Heritage for Divided Malaysia", Southeast Asia Studies (Kyoto) 1, no. 2 (August 2012): 191-212.

(44) Haji Zakaria Ahmad, "The Structure of Decision-making", in The 2nd ASEAN Reader (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003), p. 30; Alice D. Ba, [Re] negotiating East and Southeast Asia: Region, Regionalism, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 39-40.

(45) The term "negeri" is sometimes defined as "state", but in these hikayat it is better defined as "settlement" or "concentration of people". The phrase "isi negeri"--"contents of a negeri"--means the people of the negeri, not the territory. A ruler might have a number of negeri under him. The term negeri does not appear to imply any specific political structure. A kerajaan can have authority over people in numerous negeri; and there is no implication in the Malay texts that a negeri is in itself a separate political unit or political protagonist. What we today call "international relations" took place between rajas, not negeri. See Milner, The Malays, op. cit., p. 59.

(46) Milner, The Malays, op. cit., p. 58. Cheah Boon Kheng explains that "no real attempt was made to demarcate the Kelantan-Terengganu boundary until the advent of British rule" in Cheah Boon Kheng, To' Janggut: Legends, Histories, and Perceptions of the 1915 Rebellion in Kelantan (Singapore: NUS Press, 2006), p. 13.

(47) Milner, Nama, op. cit; see also endnote 20.

(48) See, for example, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian, Thai-Malay Relations: Traditional Intra-regional Relations from the Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 52-57.

(49) Abdul Razak Baginda, China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 216 and passim.

(50) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., p. 1.

(51) Ibid., p. 319.

(52) Ibid., p. 70.

(53) Ibid., p. 392; Richard Olof Winstedt, "The Malay Annals of Sejarah Melayu", Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 16, no. 3 (132) (December 1938): 75, 116-17; Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., pp. 27, 131. In the Riwayat Kelantan it is said that "from day to day the population increased so that the negeri Serendah became famous (termasyhurlah)", see Zahir Ahmad, "Riwayat Kelantan: Analisis Teks, Interteks dan Konteks" [The Story of Kelantan: Textual, Intertextual and Contextual Analysis], PhD thesis, University of Malaya, 1997, p. 356.

(54) Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., p. 27. In certain cases the term for "shame" is directly linked to "nama"; Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., p. 421.

(55) Ibid., p. 79.

(56) Ibid., p. 76.

(57) Ibid., pp. 100, 249, 421, 79; Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., pp. 74-76, 78, 147.

(58) Winstedt, "Malay Annals", op. cit., p. 188; Teeuw and Wyatt, Hikayat Patani, op. cit., p. 78.

(59) Siti Hawa, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1970), pp. 14, 125.

(60) The term is discussed in Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., pp. 24-25. The Malay scholar, Za'ba, explained many years ago that the Malay language included no terms equivalent to "financial" or "economic", cited in ibid., p. 25.

(61) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., pp. 9, 17, 413, 486; Zahir, Riwayat Kelantan, op. cit., pp. 343, 356; Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., pp. 40, 42.

(62) To suggest nama as a key dynamic in interstate relations may be viewed with scepticism by some political analysts. Yet this is how it is presented in Malay writings. A similar interpretive challenge from Northeast Asia concerns the sixteenth-century Japanese leader, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Intending to conquer Korea and China, he declared that his "sole desire" was to "have our glorious name revered". Although modern scholars tend to seek economic and domestic political explanations for his actions, one recent study warns that Hideyoshi's declared objective ought not to be trivialized. See the discussion and citations in Kang, China Rising, op. cit., p. 95.

(63) Richard New Lebow notes, for instance, that "Morgenthau's relegation of prestige-seeking from an end to a means is all the more surprising given his interest in Aristotle, who considered striving for recognition a fundamental human drive ... Morgenthau reversed the relationship between power and prestige, making the former subordinate to the latter, and theorized about how the power was achieved and maintained." See Richard Ned Lebow, A Cultural Theory of International Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 21-22.

(64) See also Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit, pp. 14, 69; W.G. Shellabear, Hikayat Seri Rama (Singapore: Malaysia Publishing House, 1964), p. 297; see statements in the text from East Sumatra, the Hikayat Deli, quoted in Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., p. 107; Teeuw and Wyatt, Hikayat Patani, op. cit., p. 131.

(65) For instances in which power balancing does seem to be taking place, see Adam Ahmat, Letters of Sincerity: The Raffles Collection of Malay Letters (1780-1824) (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society [MBRAS], 2009), pp. 38, 45; Bonney, Kedah, op. cit., p. v; R.O. Winstedt, "Notes on the History of Kedah", JMBRAS 14, no. 3 (December 1936): 156.

(66) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., p. 437.

(67) Siti Hawa, Hikayat Merong, op. cit., p. 43.

(68) J.M. Gullick, "Kedah 1821-1855: Years of Exile and Return", JMBRAS LVI, no. 2 (1983): 62; Bonney, Kedah, op. cit., p. 121; Cyril Skinner, The Civil War in Kelantan in 1839 (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1965), p. 18.

(69) Anthony Milner, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya: Contesting Nationalism and the Expansion of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 211.

(70) Winstedt, "Malay Annals", op. cit., pp. 116-17.

(71) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., pp. 358, 366, 367.

(72) Winstedt, "Malay Annals", op. cit., p. 62.

(73) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., pp. 93, 352, 450, 455-77. The Melaka text is also quite comfortable in expressing respect for the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Vijayanagara; see ibid., pp. 352, 450, 455-77.

(74) Oliver William Wolters, The Fall of Srivijaya in Malay History (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1970), pp. 25, 51.

(75) Ibid., p. 34.

(76) Ibid., p. 41.

(77) Ibid., Chapters 5 and 11.

(78) At the beginning of the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, it is stated that the text was meant to be an "account of the arrangements of all the Malay rajas and their customary ceremonial" in Siti Hawa, Hikayat Merong, op. cit., p. 1.

(79) Winstedt, "Malay Annals", op. cit, p. 85. In Zahir, Riwayat Kelantan, op. cit., p. 361, the level of ceremony is clearly linked to the seniority of a royal guest.

(80) Winstedt, "Malay Annals", op. cit., pp. 117-18. For an example of resourceful nama-defence, see ibid., p. 75.

(81) Anthony Milner, "Culture and the International Relations of Asia", The Pacific Review 30, no. 6 (April 2017): 865; Cheng Chwee Kuik, "Making Sense of Malaysia's China Policy: Asymmetry, Proximity, and Elite's Domestic Authority", Chinese Journal of International Politics 6, no. 4 (April 2013): 429-67; Bhavan Jaipragas, "We Like Rich Partners", South China Morning Post, 16 August 2018, available at <>.

(82) Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, Contemporary Issues in Malaysian Politics (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1984), p. 289; Mahathir Mohamad, Malays Forget Easily (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 2001), p. 146; Speech delivered by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at the Launch of the GLC Transformation Program, 29 July 2005, available at <>.

(83) "Australia More Than a Middle Power, Downer says", ABC News, 26 November 2003, available at <>.

(84) "We Are Now One Big Family", The Star, 23 November 2015. The Prime Minister also insisted that "only the more direct involvement of the peoples of ASEAN will truly advance regional integration"; Speech by Prime Minister Najib at the National Colloquium on Malaysia's Chairmanship of ASEAN 2015, 8 April 2014, available at <>. See also, Anthony Milner, Will ASEAN Continue to be the Cornerstone of Malaysian Foreign Policy: The Community-building Priority (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 2016).

(85) For brief discussion and references regarding these aspects of Malaysia's approach to foreign relations, see Milner, Nama, op. cit, pp. 8-18, and Anthony Milner, "Regionalism in Asia", The Far East and Australasia (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 40-48.

(86) Milner, Nama, op. cit., pp. 7-8.

(87) Ibid., p. 17.

(88) Muhammad Haji Salleh, Romance and Laughter in the Archipelago: Essays in Classical and Contemporary Poetics of the Malay World (Pinang, Malaysia: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2006), p. 200; see also Vladimir Braginsky, The Heritage of Traditional Malay Literature (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2004), pp. 340-41; Ian Proudfoot, "Variation in a Malay Folk-Tale Tradition", Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs 18 (1984).

(89) Acharya, Constructing a Security Community, p. 64.

(90) Prime Minister Najib Razak, Keynote Address, National Colloquium on Malaysia's Chairmanship of ASEAN 2015 (document kindly given to the authors by Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob of the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 7 September 2015). See also the Prime Minister's comments quoted in "Najib: Who Are We to Question Obama?", Malaysia Today, 26 April 2014, available at <>.

(91) Jaipragas, "Rich partners", op. cit.; Lokman Mansor, "Malay to Remain Friendly with China", New Straits Times, 11 June 2018, available at <>; "Mahathir Clarifies His Position on China", South China Morning Post, 19 June 2018, available at <>.

(92) Kuik, "Making Sense", op. cit.; Joseph Chinyong Liow, "Malaysia's Post-Cold War China Policy: A Reassessment", in The Rise of China Responses from Southeast Asia and Japan, edited by Jun Tsunekawa (Tokyo, Japan: National Institute for Defense Studies, 2009), pp. 47-79.

(93) Jeshurun, Malaysia, op. cit., p. 132.

(94) Kuik, "Making Sense", op. cit., p. 455.

(95) Milner, Kerajaan, op. cit., p. 131.

(98) Ibid., pp. 423-24. A seventeenth-century Perak ruler complained to the Portuguese that the ruler of Aceh's fleets attacked his country "taking the people captive". See Andaya, Perak, the Abode of Grace, op. cit., p. 44. After Siam conquered Kedah in 1821 the Siamese took a thousand of Kedah's people to Bangkok to serve the Siam ruler. See Sharom Ahmat, Kedah, Tradition and Change in a Malay State: A Study of the Economic and Political Development 1878-1923 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1984), p. 13.

(97) Kassim, Hang Tuah, op. cit., p. 16.

(98) Ibid., p. 42.

(99) See, for instance, Milner, Invention, op. cit., p. 97.

(100) In his first prime ministership, Mahathir spoke enthusiastically of achieving a population of 70 million by 2050; Wong Sai Wan, "How Many M'sians is Enough?", The Star Online, 5 August 2011, available at <>.

(101) These dimensions are examined in an exploratory manner in Milner, Nama, op. cit.

(102) For a preliminary investigation, see Anthony Milner, "Sovereignty and Normative Integration in the South China Sea: Some Malaysian and Malay Perspectives", in Southeast Asia and China: A Contest in Mutual Socialization, edited by Lowell Dittmer and Ngeow Chow Bing (Singapore: World Scientific, 2017), pp. 229-46.

(103) Milner, Nama, op. cit., p. 28.


ANTHONY MILNER is Visiting Professor in the Asia Europe Institute, University of Malaya, Professorial Fellow in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne and Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. Postal address: Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Hedley Bull Building, 130 Garran Road, Acton ACT 2601, Australia; email:

SITI MUNIRAH KASIM is a Curator in the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture and was formerly Social Research Officer at the Centre for ASEAN Regionalism University of Malaya. Postal address: Jabatan Muzium Malaysia, Jalan Damansara, 50566, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; email:

DOI: 10.1355!cs40-3b
COPYRIGHT 2018 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Milner, Anthony; Kasim, Siti Munirah
Publication:Contemporary Southeast Asia
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9MALA
Date:Dec 1, 2018
Previous Article:Unpacking ASEAN Neutrality: The Quest for Autonomy and Impartiality in Southeast Asia.
Next Article:A Role Theory Approach to Middle Powers: Making Sense of Indonesia's Place in the International System.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |