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Name of Event:  "The Third ICWA-ISIS India-Malaysia Strategic Dialogue"
Date:  12-13 April, 2012
Venue:  Sapru House, New Delhi


The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in association with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia, hosted the third India-Malaysia Strategic Dialogue at Sapru House, New Delhi on 12-13 April 2012. The dialogue spanned into seven sessions, including five working sessions. The last ICWA-ISIS India-Malaysia Strategic Dialogue was held at ISIS, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2010.

The 3rd Strategic Dialogue took place in the backdrop of growing convergence of interests of the two countries, both at the government and track-two levels. Both the countries wish to strengthen their relationship and develop common stakes in the future of a stable and peaceful Asia-Pacific. The seminar intended to discuss the following issues: international issues of mutual interests, broadening of security cooperation and greater role for the private sectors in the economic integration. Approximately fifty scholars and professionals from academia, diplomatic services, media and young researchers from India and Malaysia shared their views in a free and frank manner.

12 April 2012
Inaugural Session

The seminar was inaugurated by Shri Sarvajit Chakravarti, Acting Director-General (ADG), ICWA and Dato’ Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin, Chief Executive, ISIS, Malaysia. During his welcome remarks, Shri Chakravarti characterised the strategic dialogue between the two institutions as a success story. The dialogue has offered an important avenue for an in-depth discussion on economic, security and international issues of common interests and the future trajectories of the relationships of two countries.

Dr Mahani in her opening remarks said that this Dialogue was important in view of the developments in the Middle East and Myanmar, and added that India and Malaysia could come together to enhance the potential of India’s Look East policy and its engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. She also highlighted the importance of “people-to-people” contact.

While delivering the keynote address, Shri Sanjay Singh, Secretary (East), Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, underscored that India and Malaysia were maritime neighbours and had common interests, and that Malaysia could look towards India as a “trusted partner” as it had played a “constructive role” in ASEAN. He highlighted the historical linkages between the two countries and added that there had been a “paradigm shift” in India-Malaysia bilateral relationship. He assessed that a remarkable progress had been registered in the relationship in recent past. Shri Singh said that the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) could work as the “mainstay” of bilateral economic relationship and expressed hope that the target of US$50 billion bilateral trade could be achieved even before the target year of 2015. While focusing on institutional linkages between the two countries, he explored the possibility how India could further facilitate to build the regional architecture in ASEAN. Shri Singh identified non-traditional security challenges and natural calamities as important areas of bilateral cooperation.

Session – I
India-Malaysia Strategic Partnership

The first business session of the day focused on various aspects of India-Malaysia strategic partnership. The relationship of the two countries was revisited. It was observed that the fundamental positive changes had occurred during the period of the incumbent Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. Growing level of connectivity at different levels between the two countries; government-to-government, business-to-business and people-to-people was lauded.

The representative from Malaysia in this session presented the Malaysian view on India-Malaysia Strategic Partnership. Alluding to the historical linkages between the two countries in their colonial past, it was emphasised that India and Malaysia had come closer after the end of the Cold War, India’s initiation of ‘Look East’ policy, subsequently, becoming ASEAN’s dialogue partner. The role of the Indian diaspora in building the relationship was also highlighted briefly during this session.

The participants discussed the India-Malaysia relations within the larger conceptual framework of ‘strategic partnership’. It was affirmed that a relationship became “strategic” when there was an angle of defence cooperation between the two countries to deal with a common threat. The scholars were of the view that the defence cooperation between the two countries, especially in the maritime sector, had been increasing.

About the bilateral economic development, it was suggested that the trend in business-to-business contact had been “positive” and there was an ample scope to develop this further. India’s trade with Asia has surpassed its combined trade with Europe and the US. The Malaysian participants called for Indian defence industry’s greater involvement in the Malaysian defence acquisitions to further boost the economic cooperation between the two countries.

The importance of people-to-people contact was underscored by all speakers. Both the countries need to enhance sharing of each other’s experiences in this area as both are plural societies believing in “unity in diversity”. However, “managing pluralities” has been a complex issue and both the countries need to address it with sensitivity. It was also highlighted that the relationship should go beyond defence cooperation and there should be greater ‘visibility’ in the media of the two countries underlining India-Malaysia relationship. The two countries could work together in the areas of human trafficking, drug trafficking, terrorism and renewable energy.

The session ended with a Q & A and open discussion focusing on three issues – the role of the Indian diaspora in strengthening the bilateral relations, common stakes in the bilateral relations and the role of the media. It was noted that Indians had been very successful in Malaysia and suggestions were made for increased people-to-people contacts through Indian diaspora to increase its engagement with Malaysia as well as ASEAN. However, it was also suggested that people-to-people relations should not remain limited to the Indian diaspora alone. A suggestion was made to set up a Joint Council of Social Interaction. Two common stakes in the relationship were identified - freedom of navigation in the Bay of Bengal, Strait of Malacca and South China Sea, and stakes in the sustenance of regional multilateral organizations and disaster management.

Session – II
India, Malaysia and Multilateral Institutions: Building a Common Regional Agenda

This session primarily dealt with India’s engagement with multilateral institutions of Southeast Asia and how India and Malaysia could work together towards developing a common agenda at these forums and strengthen them. It was observed that India had shown enthusiasm in the recent years about its participation in the ASEAN multilateral forums.

Changing strategic dynamics in the region in view of the “rise” of India and China was discussed. It was observed that the East Asian Summit (EAS) was linked with the Asian security, and the EAS had broadened the scope of “inclusive security”, “cooperative security” and “comprehensive security”. India’s increased support to Malaysia-based Southeast Asia Regional Cooperation to Counter Terrorism (SEARCCT), set up in 2003 was highlighted. The recent developments in Myanmar were also discussed. India and Malaysia’s common interests in Myanmar’s rehabilitation to the ASEAN community were analyzed, and it was suggested that the country should not be allowed to become a “proxy” of any major power. The speakers suggested that the two countries should work together towards strengthening ASEAN-driven forums, identify potential agenda for deliberation and implement them in a time-bound manner. The challenges facing the two countries are managing diversity and pluralism, strengthening counter terrorism cooperation. India and Malaysia should collectively propose a Joint Working Group to oversee different aspects of maritime security cooperation within the forum.

There is a need to bring issues to the table for deliberations and India-Malaysia cooperation in these forums can be valuable in managing regional uncertainties in future. It was proposed that India and Malaysia should spearhead the EAS agenda of sustainable development, climate change and energy security, facilitate softer areas of engagement. The two countries, at the ARF, should work together towards the implementation of the Vision Statement of 2009 and the Hanoi Plan of Action of 2010.

The presentations were followed by a comment and question-answer session. During this session, the panellists agreed that the countries could enhance facilitation to each other. Malaysia can be India’s “gateway” to ASEAN and vice versa, to SAARC and BIMSTEC. In this manner both the countries can play an important role in bring the South Asia and Southeast Asia closer, resulting into increased stability and prosperity in both the regions.

Session – III: Enhancing India-Malaysia Defence and Security Cooperation

The third session of the Dialogue discussed various dimensions of India-Malaysia defence and security cooperation. Remarks were made that the defence relationship had been “cordial” and “long-standing” between the two countries. An outline of bilateral defence and security relationship was drawn and it was found that the relationship had been “below par”. The participants suggested that there was an ample scope to grow this relationship in the security paradigm in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca. Greater interactions between the two countries in the areas of non-traditional security challenges such as food security, human trafficking, disaster management etc. as well as in the areas of sea monitoring were sought. The Malaysian representative in the session rather focused on military-to-military cooperation, and the ways to devise working relationship between the two countries. Rejecting the idea of the ‘below par’ level of India-Malaysia defence relations, it was argued that since security objectives of India and Malaysia were different, imperatives for greater defence cooperation had been absent.

During the Q & A session, it was agreed that Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean or Indo-Pacific fell within the ambits of India’s Look East policy. It was suggested that more focus should be given to promote economic cooperation and the bilateral security cooperation should focus on softer security issues such as immigration, drug trafficking and piracy. The participants also expressed concerns over the presence of large number of regional and extra-regional navies in the South China Sea area.

The third session concluded with the screening of a documentary on the history of ICWA by Mr. Suhas Borker. After the documentary, the Acting Director-General thanked all participants for their contributions during the day.

13 April 2012
Session IV: India-Malaysia Economic Integration

While discussing the strategic partnership between India and Malaysia, it was suggested that the economic integration would depend upon how the economic factors figure in the mutual partnership. Putting India-Malaysia relations in the multilateral context of ASEAN, the economic determinants in India’s Look East policy were also discussed. Locating India-Malaysia economic relations within the larger context of India’s Look East policy imperatives, it was underscored that the policy represented a strategic shift in India’s world view. Major challenge for the Indo-Malay partnership is to scale up the economic relations. A lack of production and manufacturing network between India and Malaysia exists that in return is affecting the potentials of the two countries.

Trade and investment between the two countries has increased substantially after the signing of CECA in 2011and various policy initiatives put in place for further improvement in the bilateral economic relations. The CECA has the potential of reshaping the partnership between two countries and would facilitate movement of business people and help boost cross-border investment between the two countries. A study group has been created.

India can be a big market for Malaysian palm oil especially after the reduction of the import tariffs and an important destination for Malaysian investment in the development of infrastructure. While discussing India’s infrastructure development programmes, such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), it was noted that the number of cities was increasing and urbanization was picking up pace in India, thereby, offering immense scope for the Malaysian investment in infrastructure and construction sectors. On the other hand, Malaysia is the largest market for India’s engineering goods in the ASEAN region. It was argued that India-Malaysia partnership was a classic case of mutual benefits and trust. To expand the partnership, double taxation should be avoided and medicine and energy should be included in the partnership.

There are immense opportunities for greater bilateral economic integration and investment in the infrastructure sector. Several initiatives have been taken by the government of Malaysia for the promotion of FDI, such as a special chapter for the FDI and business people. Malaysia and India have created the CEO Forum to promote business-to-business networks between the two countries.

The concept of Islamic banking was also discussed. It was explored that how can it promote business and investment in India. A suggestion was made that the Islamic banking should not be looked only through religion. The idea and mission of the Islamic banking is quite broad and compatible with India’s secular social and political ethos. It can promote Malaysian investment in India. In relation to the low level of India-Malaysia economic relations in comparison with that of Malaysia-China, it was argued that the economic partnership with India should not be compared with China.

Session V: India-Malaysia People-to-People Contacts

People-to-people contacts were discussed in the final session of the dialogue. A need was felt to adopt a cautious approach while dealing with people to people relations, which was a sensitive issue between India and Malaysia. Despite some contentious issues, India and Malaysia share a long history of their cultural relations. Tamil movies, foods, cultural strands can be easily found in Malaysia. Earlier doctors and lawyers in Malaysia were predominantly from India.

The Malaysian perspective on India has generally been derived from the Indian diaspora present in that country. It generally portrays a partial image of India represented only by the IT professionals and unskilled workers. For broad-base relations, common people should be included and some of the best ways to promote these relations are through cultural functions, dances, music and films. This is a kind of multi-layered cultural exchange. Malaysia India Foundation should be set up and the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas should be expanded. An India culture centre has already been established in Malaysia.

Generally, media ignores positive aspects of India-Malaysia relations. It often sensationalises ethnic issues in Malaysia. Malay foods and dresses are popular in India. Indian films and film actors, especially the Khans, dances, music and arts are very popular in Malaysia.

It was noticed that approximately 26 per cent of the affluent Indians liked to travel Malaysia for tourism. The Malaysian conditions in terms of foods, culture, weather and services costs are favourable for Indians. Former Indian President Abdul Kalam mooted the idea of Indo-ASEAN knowledge hub. People-to-people contacts should be carefully nurtured and governments of both the countries should play the role of facilitators.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, the panellists during all sessions were unanimous that India-Malaysia relations are getting stronger and the two countries must explore new vistas to deepen bilateral cooperation and strengthen their joint presence at multilateral institutions.

The 4th session of ICWA-ISIS India-Malaysia Strategic Dialogue is scheduled in Malaysia.


Following suggestions for deepening and widening the India-Malaysia cooperation were made during the dialogue.

Defence and Security Cooperation
• To increase defence cooperation, especially in the maritime security, to deal with non-traditional security and natural calamities such as tsunami
• To cooperate to control human trafficking, drug trafficking and terrorism
• To increase the involvement of Indian defence industry in Malaysia
• To work together on climate change

Economic Cooperation
• To work together in the areas of renewable energy
• To explore the area of bio-fuel, bio-diesel, using waste cooking oil and vegetable waste
• To work on increasing visits by tourists in each other’s countries
• To cooperate in WTO negotiations
• To bring the issue of food security, energy security and disaster management in the domain of bilateral relationship

Public Diplomacy and People-to-People Contacts
• To establish connectivity at different levels, government-to-government, business-to- business and people-to-people
• Regular visits by countries’ leadership and parliamentarians
• To explore the possibility of Indian diaspora playing a role in furthering the country’s engagement with Malaysia, and using them as “bridge builder” between two countries
• To establish India-Malaysia Foundation on the pattern of Japan Foundation
• To sensitize people, establishment of a Malaysian Cultural Centre in India
• To urge media to increase coverage of India-Malaysia relationship
• To create a joint council on social interaction
• To establish India Chair in different Malay universities
• To increase exchange of students

Cooperation at Multilateral Fora
• India and Malaysia should work together towards strengthening the ASEAN cooperative forums and develop a common regional agenda in these forums
• Malaysia as India’s “gateway” to ASEAN
• India as Malaysia’s gateway to SAARC and BIMSTEC
• Increased interaction among civil societies of the two countries.

Report by:     Dr. Athar Zafar and Dr. Dinoj Kr Upadhyay, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs