Malaysia’s PM Anwar Ibrahim has not minced his words in upbraiding Israel and its supporters for their response to the worsening crisis in the Gaza territories. His motivations are driven by compelling domestic factors and a long-held political stance on Palestine.
Since the events of 7 October in Israel and the Gaza territories, Malaysia has been the most strident of the ten ASEAN countries in its support for the Palestinian people. Compared to Indonesia’s president and foreign minister, who has spoken in more general terms to call for a cessation of violence and focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Malaysia’s prime minister has been noticeably more forceful in his official comments and actions.
Speaking in Parliament on 16 October during Ministerial Question Time, PM Anwar Ibrahim firmly rejected what he termed “pressure” from “Western governments” to “condemn” Hamas’ actions and stressed that Malaysia would continue its relationship with that organisation. Anwar noted that Hamas was elected “freely” (his word) by the people of Gaza and was thus entitled to lead the nation.
The next day, Anwar spoke to Hamas’ political chief Ismail Haniyeh, announcing Malaysia’s contribution of humanitarian relief while calling for the immediate “cessation of bombardment and the establishment of a humanitarian corridor in Rafa” and for Israel to “genuinely” pursue a peaceful resolution with Palestine. He committed RM100 million in humanitarian aid. Putrajaya formally issued a statement reiterating Anwar’s main points, which ended with a plea to the “international community to take decisive action to prevent ethnic cleansing” and the expulsion of the Palestinian population in Gaza.
Anwar has since taken the plight of Gazans onto the international stage. He raised the issue at the ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh on 20 October and discussed it at length in his private meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The topic also featured prominently in Anwar’s discussions with President of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, during his respective working visits to Istanbul and Cairo. Upon his return to Malaysia, Anwar spoke in support of Palestinians at a rally held in a Kuala Lumpur (KL) stadium, which was attended by some 16,000 people. He stated that the situation had reached a “level of insanity” and was the “height of barbarism”.
There are several underlying drivers for Anwar’s hard-hitting stance. The Malaysian state has had a consistent stance towards Palestine and Israel since the 1960s. Consequently, unlike countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Bahrain, which have extended diplomatic recognition to Israel, Malaysia adheres to the policies of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). As a result, it does not diplomatically recognise Israel or recognise the state of Israel. Malaysia has categorically stuck to the principle that no such recognition will be given unless the Palestinians achieve a free and independent nation-state of their own.
In addition, the Palestinian cause is genuinely popular among Malaysian voters. In the past two weeks, there have been several mass gatherings, sermons in mosques, and rallies in support of Palestine. On 13 October, the first Friday after the Hamas attack occurred, thousands of Malaysians rallied at mosques nationwide after Friday prayers. What was significant about the gathering at the National Mosque in KL was the attendance of politicians from different camps, including sitting ministers and opposition leaders, reflecting the extent of Malaysians’ sympathy for the Palestinian people.
In addition, the Palestinian cause is something that Anwar has supported for decades. His first incursion into politics was by leading the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) in the 1970s, which has taken a consistent stance on Palestine. ABIM was one of the organisers of the rally where Anwar spoke on 24 October. Anwar portrays himself as a Muslim leader through his writings and speeches. He has made much of his close personal ties to leaders of other Muslim nations, notably Türkiye.
Palestine is a topic on which other senior Malaysian politicians, such as Anwar’s nemesis Mahathir Mohamad, have long been vocal. Consequently, the PM can ill afford to be seen as equivocating on this issue.
Taking this strong pro-Palestinian stance is politically expedient in today’s Malaysia. Surveys consistently indicate that younger Malaysians are growing more religiously conservative. The opposition coalition, Perikatan Nasional, has been gathering momentum in the past year, garnering one-third of seats in Parliament and control of four state governments. Palestine is a topic on which other senior Malaysian politicians, such as Anwar’s nemesis Mahathir Mohamad, have long been vocal. Consequently, the PM can ill afford to be seen as equivocating on this issue.
These domestic drivers foreshadow that Anwar will maintain a staunch pro-Palestinian position going forward. He has protested fiercely against criticism from the U.S. and Europe, stating that critics have “picked the wrong person to threaten”. Ground sentiment among Malaysians for the Palestinians is likely to ratchet up as violence continues, with mounting death tolls (6,500 in Gaza as of 25 October) and a deepening humanitarian crisis. On 20 October, some 1,500 people marched towards the U.S. embassy in KL following speeches by Mahathir and others.
Yet, Malaysia’s economy and policy frameworks are reliant on foreign direct investment, as seen from the enthusiasm which greeted recent investments by Tesla and Infineon. Some finesse is needed to ensure that foreign sentiment vis-à-vis Malaysia is not spooked, although Western leaders would understand that Anwar must allow some space for his fellow citizens to vent their feelings. Anwar has explained to Malaysians that the country will not soon send its armed forces to Gaza. The prime minister will need to draw on his fabled oratorical skills, backing them with nimble diplomacy, in the weeks ahead.
Julia Lau is a Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and Editor, Fulcrum at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.