Malaysian refugee swap spells human rights disaster

The Conversation

On Monday, Australia and Malaysia signed a deal that will mean 800 refugees that have arrived in Australia will be swapped with 4,000 verified refugees from Malaysia.

This deal from both Australian and Malaysian perspectives seems mind boggling. For Australia, if the policy is not implemented properly and human rights of refugees are seen to be abused then Julia Gillard’s Labor government will face political disaster. For Malaysia, it’s out of character with its long-term foreign policy of limited engagement and could embarass the nation by putting a global spotlight on Malaysia’s terrible human rights record.

How the refugee deal fits in with Malaysia’s foreign policy strategy

The current Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak has a clear strategy when it comes to foreign policy. Firstly, to improve his personal international profile to compensate for declining domestic popularity. And secondly to directly improve Malaysia’s economic fortunes by convincing international investors & entrepreneurs to invest in Malaysia.

But there are serious implications to Najib’s strategy. Malaysia is very gradually moving away from its long-held position of non-alignment and limited engagement towards a tighter alliance with the US and two of its closest allies in the region – Singapore and Australia.

Under Najib, Malaysia’s relationship with the U.S., Australia and Singapore is the closest ever. The number of difficult deals that Najib has delivered with these countries has made him appear to be an important asset.

One perspective is that Malaysia has opted to resolve the refugee matter at the bilateral level rather than through regional (Bali process) or multilateral (UN) channels. But also the refugee swap deal falls into this broader trend of raising Najib’s international profile.

A puzzling policy

But what is puzzling is the fact that Najib would accept this trade-off between a higher profile for himself among government leaders for public humiliation. It is inevitable that due to the intense media scrutiny around this deal, Malaysia’s atrocious human rights record will be put under the spot light.

If this is the principle reason Malaysia signed such a deal, then whose objectives were really being considered – Najib’s personal needs or the country?

Another theory is that the generous payments from the Australian government maybe trickling in to companies related to the ruling regime. The Australian government will need to make public who are the beneficiary companies from this deal.