By H G Rahman

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Malaysians were treated with the horrifying prospect of having billions of dollars in the country's assets being seized over an obscure dispute on Tuesday.

The issue? The Malaysian government was instructed by a French arbitration court to pay at least RM62.59 billion (US$14.92 billion to the descendants of the last Sulu Sultan.

This ridiculous dispute dates back to an 1878 agreement between the then sultan of Sulu, Sultan Jamal al Alam, and Baron de Overbeck, the then Maharaja of Sabah, and British North Borneo Company’s Alfred Dent.

But in 2013, after the Lahad Datu incursion which left 10 Malaysian dead, Malaysia stopped paying the sultan of Sulu’s heirs their annual compensation, which is equivalent to RM5,300.

Let's get it clear here. Malaysia was honouring this deal until this so-called Sultanate of Sulu (which was formally dissolved in 1915) decided to launch an armed invasion of Malaysian soil. By any standard the deal is null and void and Malaysia does not owe this self proclaimed sultanate a cent.

Western pressure tactics?

Coincidence or not this ruling right after Malaysia refused to call the special military operation in Ukraine by Russia an 'invasion', with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob expressing Malaysia's "serious concern" over the situation in Ukraine.

Ismail Sabri had refused to be dragged into taking sides over this distant, European conflict and called the crisis an "escalation of conflict" instead of an “invasion” much to the disappointment of the West which is seeking to conscrit support against Russia.

The ruling was preceded by news that an apparently Russian-connected named Linda, was on its way to making port at Kuala Linggi port in Malaysia. Within hours of the ruling in favour of the Sultanate of Sulu, Malaysia’s transport ministry announced that it would deny the docking request.

According to the United States, Linda is owned by PSB Leasing, a unit of Russian lender Promsvyazbank, which has also been hit by international sanctions. Provsyazbank, however, has denied that its subsidiary owned the vessel.

So it looks like there is no room for neutrality. It is ironic that the West, which frequently thumps its chest over the right of countries to independently determine their alliances, foreign policy and actions are being bullied and pressured into toeing the line.

Naturally it is not just Malaysia but many other countries that are facing such pressure:

European embassies pressure Pakistan over UN vote on Ukraine war

"We urge Pakistan to join us in condemning Russia's actions and to voice support for upholding the UN charter and the founding principles of international law," said a statement signed by the envoys from EU member states, as well as Britain, Canada, Japan, Norway and Switzerland.

Pakistan on Monday abstained from a UN Human Rights Council vote calling for an urgent debate on the war, which was nevertheless pushed through and is due to take place on Thursday.

West still stuck in colonial mindset

Once upon a time it was “gunboat diplomacy”, when a Western power would sail a naval vessel up to foreign territory and threaten the use of force if demands were not met but now colonialism is pursued in much more sophisticated ways: sanctions, threats to seize national, deploy sophisticated misinformation campaigns and pressure campaigns against sovereign governments.

With Malaysia refusing to take sides in a distant conflict that Malaysia has nothing to do with and wants no part of, down sails the “gunboat” - a variety of threats being hurled behind the scenes to draw Malaysia into taking a side. Today it is the threat over the Sulu Sultanate, who knows what will come next?

No, it is not enough that Malaysia would likely have voted in favour of an emergency resolution on Thursday to condemn Russia’s actions in its own backyard. Now the West demands that Malaysia comply with enforcing sanctions as well.

Malaysian leaders must ask themselves, is this the kind of partners they want to work with? Partners who will threaten their assets and businesses in order to pressure them to take sides in a distant conflict? What will happen when Malaysia is reassured to act against China seeing that the two are already on a collision course? Our leaders need to deliberate very carefully.

Malaysia has always been committed to neutrality, being a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Malaysia in fact championed the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) with the Kuala Lumpur Declaration in 1971.

Malaysia is also a key player in the Non-Aligned Movement, being admitted in 1970. The movement was expressly created to protect smaller countries, allowing them to group together and resist pressure to take sides, chiefly against Western imperialist blocs.

It has always tried to walk the middle path on a range of complex international disputes while not washing its hands of its international obligations. Malaysian peacekeepers have served and even sacrificed their lives in Congo, Somalia and elsewhere. No one can fault us for lacking commitment to a peaceful and just world order.

With its latest actions, the West is shamefully seeking to undermine and indeed undo decades of careful diplomacy and the foreign policies that Malaysia embarked on.

The West has always been an unreliable partner

Western hypocrisy has reared its ugly head again and again. We have seen how they condemn the struggle of the Palestinians while keeping silent as Saudi Arabia bombs the impoverished people of Yemen.

It was Western intervention that caused tragedies in Syria and Libya, sparking one refugee crisis after another. And when these refugees reach the shores of the European Union (EU) seeking a better life from the bombed out wrecks of their own countries, the result of thoughtless adventurism and itervenion from the West itself.

Even among its own ranks the West is unable to demonstrate a united front. Let us not forget the AUKUS scandal when the US played out the French in securing a submarine supply contract with Australia. France has retaliated by peddling its arms to traditional US customers in the Middle East.

Are these the kinds of international partners Malaysia is looking to work with?

Playing with fire

The West has not learnt its lessons. Pumping Ukraine full of weapons while having no mechanism to ensure these are used for their intended purpose, these weapons will return to Western Europe in the hands of radicals who will use man portable surface to air missiles to shoot down civilian airliners or perhaps fire anti-tank missiles at government buildings.

Think this is far fetched? Well as recently as December 2021, just months before the events in Ukraine, it was found that arms trafficking from Ukraine into the EU was in fact happening.

Attempts to smuggle illegal firearms into Poland from the Ukraine are on the rise, according to an internal EU document.

"Although large-scale trafficking of firearms has not yet become apparent, an increasing number of attempts to smuggle firearms from Ukraine to Poland has already been observed," notes the document, dated 30 November.

Again and again the West sows the seeds of its own destruction. Uncontrolled arms supplies into Ukraine with little oversight will flood the blackmarket with high-tech weapons and small arms which will end up in the hands of terrorists, criminals and others who will inevitably use them to murder innocent people.

Drop the West and start looking East

Is it any wonder why the West is seeking to connect events in Ukraine to China’s interests in Taiwan? Of course we need to remember that Taiwan or Chinese Taipei is an inseparable part of the People’s Republic but what has the West been doing since 949? Supporting a breakaway region with arms and using it as a thorn in China’s side. No irony is lost.

For little Malaysia, caught up in this geopolitical storm, we best remember who our biggest trading partner is and what is the distance from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing as opposed to Kuala Lumpur and Washington or Kuala Lumpur and Brussels.

Geography counts and would it not make sense to draw closer, work together and cooperate with China, a country which has not carried out aggressive and bloody imperialistic wars, which has not colonised Malaysia, unlike the West which did so from 1511 to 1957?

China’s rise has been Malaysia’s gain. The shared prosperity is real and is reflected in trade numbers, foreign direct investments and a genuine desire for friendship and business. The West on the other hand comes with its “values” which it aims to impose while offering little else.

Let us not get dragged into problems that are not ours. Let us not fall into the same trap that has destroyed so many nations before us. Reject Western pressure and strengthen ties with our real friends.