Australia/Israel Review

Asia Watch: Degrees of separation

May 30, 2024 | Michael Shannon

Saudi religious scholar Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa in Kuala Lumpur (Image: Bernama)
Saudi religious scholar Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa in Kuala Lumpur (Image: Bernama)

In Malaysia, to be linked in any way with Israel or be perceived as insufficiently anti-Israel, let alone defending the Jewish state is, at the very least, problematic. 

Even the stridently pro-Palestinian Malaysian Government has been accused of hypocrisy after several defence companies that have supplied arms and military technology to Israel were cleared to take part in a military exhibition in Kuala Lumpur.

More than 1,300 companies from 60 nations participated in the concurrent Defence Services Asia and National Security Asia exhibitions from May 6-9, hosted and co-organised by Malaysia’s Defence and Home Affairs Ministries. The companies included the US-based aerospace and defence firm Lockheed Martin and British aerospace and weapons firm BAE Systems, both of which have been accused of complicity in Israel’s military invasion of Gaza. 

As the domestic outcry began, the Malaysian Defence Minister Khaled Nordin announced the Government would not directly prevent business dealings between domestic companies and foreign arms manufacturers, even those that have defence contracts with Israel. Khaled said Malaysia opposes all forms of injustice against the Palestinian people but is also a “free trade country” and that “the relationship of some global defence companies with certain countries is a business matter that Malaysia will not interfere with.”

The Solidarity for Palestinians group held a protest outside the event on May 7, demanding that companies with connections to the Israeli military be banned from the event, a call echoed by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who thundered: “Let them know that there is no place in Malaysia for anyone who supports or conspires with Israel to commit genocide against the Palestinians.” 

PM Anwar Ibrahim defended the Government’s stance, saying it was not a problem as long as the companies are not registered in Israel.

However, Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) Malaysia insisted that the question was not whether the companies were registered in Israel, but whether they were involved in “helping the Zionist state commit genocide” in Gaza.

“If the government is serious about defending the people of Palestine, it must re-evaluate its ties with these companies because we want them to immediately stop abetting with Israel in its oppression of the Palestinian people,” BDS Malaysia president Nazari Ismail told MalaysiaNow.

Anwar was under attack for the trade show stance in the same week that he played host to a prominent Saudi scholar who has been criticised by Muslims for taking part in events organised by (Zionist) Jewish leaders. 

Mohammad Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, was an honoured guest at the International Conference of Religious Scholars and the Asian Council of Ulama on May 8, launched by PM Anwar. But he was visibly irritated by media questions on his contact with Jewish pro-Zionist groups – in 2020, then a former Saudi justice minister, Al-Issa took part in a trip with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to visit the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. 

“I have no relationship with Israel at all,” Al-Issa insisted. “The only relationship I have with (those in Israel) has to do with engaging the People of the Book as mentioned in the Quran (Muslims, Christians and Jews). As Islam mentions, we have a greater mission in this world and we welcome all the People of the Book and (my engagement with them) has nothing to do with politics.”

While the Universiti Malaya awarded Al-Issa an honorary doctorate, it was earlier embroiled in controversy for hosting an openly pro-Israeli professor from the US. Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, was invited to give three lectures and a keynote address over ten days in late April as part of a visiting professor program in the international studies department at Universiti Malaya. 

On social media site X, Gilley posted a grab from his keynote address on Malaysia’s foreign policy titled Will Malaysia Become an Active Middle Power?: “A country whose political leaders advocate a second Holocaust against the Jewish people will never be a serious player in world affairs and will certainly never be a friend or partner of the US.”

US academic Bruce Gilley in Kuala Lumpur (Image: X)

The reaction was swift as outraged Malaysians demanded that action be taken. The Higher Education Ministry ordered Universiti Malaya to cancel all Gilley’s events, which it duly did. The institution also apologised and pledged that “action will be taken against those found to be involved.” 

Forced to leave hurriedly, a “very disappointed” Gilley told TIME magazine, “The whole event proves the point of my paper: Malaysia is not fit to be a responsible actor in global governance.”

As if to prove Gilley’s point, PM Anwar’s official visit to Qatar in mid-May included a meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Reiterating Malaysia’s full support, Anwar lauded Hamas for its “readiness to release hostages… and its willingness to accept the peace plan proposed by the Arab world, the OIC, and the international community.”


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