Malaysia’s Unique Diplomatic Position and the Efforts it can Engage at the OIC Context

Amman, Yordania, – Malaysia is a Muslim state which over the course of its history has evolved from being pro-Western at the outset of its independence in 1957 to a nation that possessed the spirit of Pan-Islamism, particularly under the leadership of Prime Minister Tun Mahathir, who enabled Malaysia to experience rapid economic growth following the state’s ‘Look East Policy’ which remains relevant (Harun, 2022). The diplomatic position that Malaysia has is something that is considered unique, as it is a mixture of ‘Third world egalitarianism. pacifist, multilateralism, selective globalism, “Asiatism” and Islamic particularism’ (David, 2012), Tun Mahathir has provided this direction and as Malaysians look to the future (Nambiar, 2018), the government in Malaysia is carrying out these six diplomatic positions with different degrees and priorities.

The idea of “conservative modernity” was created by Malaysian leaders, and the image that Malaysian Muslims wish to project is one of “rational and moderate” people (David, 2012; Aziz, 2021). With such firm stance, the federation has also strengthened its ability to carry out initiatives ranked in the Muslim World, and the activeness of the initiatives that Malaysia has is something that is well-known. Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate Muslim-majority state can enhance its credibility as a mediator in this context. Like their neighbor Indonesia, who also actively supported interfaith initiatives, both domestically and internationally, Malaysia has also taken these efforts. However, in the context of the OIC, Malaysia has played a far larger role in the OIC, with their open call for Pan-Islamism.

Malaysia brings forward the critical debate about the OIC’s stagnation and inability to move beyond a state-centric logic during Mahathir’s administration from 1981 to 2003. Such critical debate was yet again put forward by Mahathir during his return to office in 2018. Seeing the ineffectiveness of the OIC to tackle issues within the Muslim World following the severance of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2016 and the increasing hostilities and the escalating instability and insecurity in the Middle East region namely in states like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, Mahathir come out with a controversial initiative by convening a summit which he hoped to bring about strategic realignment in the Muslim world. The 2019 Kuala Lumpur Summit which brings states like Türkiye, Iran, and Qatar that accepted the invitation was a subject of criticism by those who opposed the Summit mainly the KSA who sees it as a maneuver that can highly affect the status quo and the centrality of the Saudi-led OIC as an organization that binds the Muslim world together. While others see it as a ‘awakening’ after years of absence of the Muslim major states due to the ‘state centric logic’ that was the center of the matter according to Mahathir (Waikar, 2020).

Malaysia extends their invitation to major Muslim states that are all members of the OIC. However, the Summit was only attended by major Muslim states namely Türkiye, Iran, and Qatar, with Iran and Qatar having shared hostilities with the Saudi Arabia that year. While other Muslim states that didn’t answer the invitation sees the KL Summit of Malaysia as a subject that can risk their relations with the KSA and an ‘awakening’ that could potentially create further divisions and crisis within Muslim world. Indonesia didn’t answer the invitation, one reason being that it too can threaten their strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia which is the number one strategic economic partner in the Middle East and with other Gulf states. While Pakistan’s Imran Khan was thought to be supportive of the KL Summit but was then pressured by Saudi Arabia for him not to answer the invitation (Jamal, 2019). Mahathir led the way for Malaysia with the ideals he introduced for Malaysia as a roadmap for the state to gained prestige in the Muslim world dynamicity.

As member of the OIC, Malaysia can play a major role within the OIC context, with the potential to expand its economic ties with Muslim states, they could offer their diplomatic services as a neutral mediator between Muslim states, like for example, the previous conflict that was successfully brokered by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Malaysia can offer their diplomatic services by utilizing the OIC platform. Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate Muslim-majority country can enhance its credibility as a mediator in this context.


Aziz, I. (2021). Rethinking Modernity: The Construction of Modern Malaysian Society. KOMEC Journal, 16, 76-99. DOI:

David, D. (2012). Malaysian Extraversion towards the Muslim World: Ideological Positioning for a “Mirror Effect”. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31(4), 3-29. 

Harun, N. (2022). Dr M: Look East Policy remains relevant. The Straits Times. Available at (Accessed: November 20, 2023)

Jamal, U. (2019). The Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019 Shows Pakistan’s Diplomatic Subservience to Saudi Arabia. The Diplomat. Available at (Accessed: November 20, 2023)

Nambiar, S. (2018). Mahathir’s foreign policy reset. East Asia Forum. Available at (Accessed: November 27, 2023) Waikar, P. & Osman, M. (2020). The 2019 Kuala Lumpur Summit: A Strategic Realignment in the Muslim World? Berkley Center. Available at (Accessed: November 27, 2023)

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