This essay is part of the series “Turkey Faces Asia,” which explores the development of cultural, political, and economic links between Turkey and the Asia Pacific region. See more ...
Malaysia and Turkey lie nearly 5,000 miles and seven time zones apart. They have different historical experiences and state structures. The role that religion plays in their public life also differs markedly. Yet Malaysia and Turkey have more in common than is widely acknowledged. Both are newly industrialized, middle-income, predominantly Muslim countries and mid-sized powers in their respective regions. Both are also expected to assume a greater regional and global role in the coming years.
In recent years, senior officials from both countries have recalled their historical ties and have trumpeted the bilateral relationship’s potential, especially in the economic sphere. Some envision Turkey serving as Malaysia’s diplomatic and economic gateway to Europe, with Malaysia becoming Turkey’s entry point to the Asia Pacific region. One can also envision Malaysia and Turkey—as both stable and successful moderate Muslim countries—working together to promote global peace and understanding.
This article will focus on four important questions that will largely determine the future of Malaysia-Turkey relations. First, what was the basis, extent, and legacy (if any) of the historical relationship between pre-republican Turkey and pre-independence Malaysia? Second, based on the evidence available, has the promise or potential of a more extensive and mutually beneficial relationship been fulfilled? Third, what have been the main impediments to the development of a more robust relationship? Last, what are some specific opportunities for the further development of the relationship?
Malaysia and Turkey have a long tradition of interaction. During the Ottoman era, the Ottoman caliph’s influence extended far eastward into Southeast Asia. There are numerous accounts of regular interactions between the Malay Sultanates and the Ottoman Empire, mainly involving the former’s request for military assistance and political support from the latter, as opposed to da`wa or maritime trade.
The people of the Malay Archipelago had generally favorable views of the Ottoman Empire, which they called “Rum” (great world kings). Malay historical records recall several storied instances of interaction, including the account of Hang Tuah, the fifteenth-century Malaccan warrior who was sent to “Stambul,” the capital of Rum, to purchase cannons.
After the fall of Malacca in 1511 at the hands of the Portuguese, the Aceh Sultanate (1496-1903) rose to become the new center of Islam in Southeast Asia. During the reign of Sultan Suleiman (r. 1520-1566), the rulers of Aceh sought military and political help from the Ottomans as a counterweight against Portugal. This cooperation continued for centuries. When the Dutch invaded Aceh in 1873, for example, the Ottomans offered to serve as a mediator.
From the nineteenth century onward, relations between the Malay Sultanates and the Ottomans remained intact, bolstered by close personal ties between Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor (1833-1895)—who made several visits to Istanbul—and Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918). On the occasion of Sultan Abu Bakar’s visit in 1890, he and his brother, Engku Abdul Majid, married Turkish women. These marriages not only further strengthened the bilateral relationship but produced a line of mixed Malay-Turkish descendants, which included the renowned scholars Naquib al-Attas and Ungku Aziz, as well as the late Tun Hussein Onn, the third prime minister of Malaysia.
The above clearly shows that Malaysia and Turkey have shared ties for centuries. Although they do not enjoy geographical proximity, they were able to establish mutual historical links. The success of this relationship can be partially explained by the fact that the Malay Muslim community during the Malay Sultanates considered the Ottoman Sultan as the caliph, a world Muslim leader.
As Malaysia and Turkey are now modern nation states, the pattern of their relationship is inevitably bound by the contemporary practice of diplomatic interaction. Their bilateral relationship holds great promise in diplomatic, economic, and religious-political terms.
Diplomatic relations began between Malaysia and Turkey in 1964 with the arrival of Turkish Ambassador Hasan Istinyeli to Kuala Lumpur. Then followed several high-level official visits, beginning with Prime Minister Tun Hussein’s trip to Turkey in February 1977. Important groundwork for a bilateral relationship was laid during another of Tun Hussein’s visits to Turkey, in 1983. On that occasion, three treaties were signed, the first regarding the establishment of the Islamic University of Malaysia; the second consisting of a standard agreement on air flight services and the establishment of twin cities between Kuala Lumpur-Ankara and Johor Bahru-Istanbul; and a third concerning the future exchange of academic staff.
Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan visited Malaysia in 1996. Erbakan was widely acknowledged for his success in forming the Group D-8 (Developing 8), which functioned as an intergovernmental cooperation for development among eight member countries, including Malaysia.
Malaysia-Turkey diplomatic relations began to flourish in the 2000s, punctuated by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Malaysia in 2003 and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s call in 2009. The Malaysian government greatly appreciated these visits, and it reciprocated with a visit of its own, by its sixth and current prime minister, Najib Razak, in 2011, after a lapse of 28 years. This series of visits appears to have ignited both countries’ interest in further developing their diplomatic as well as socioeconomic interactions.
The 28-year interval between prime ministerial visits to Turkey from Malaysia, as well as the lapse of seven years between Erbakan’s and Erdogan’s trips to Malaysia from Turkey can be explained by factors external to the bilateral relationship. The 28-year hiatus is closely associated with the “Look East Policy” of Prime Minister Tun Mahathir’s government (1981-2003), whereby Malaysia’s foreign policy was heavily focused on Asia. This policy aimed to imitate the giant Asian economies, especially Japan and South Korea, in order to bring Malaysia closer to its goal of becoming a developed nation by 2020.
In the post-Tun Mahathir era, Malaysia’s foreign policy has changed. New approaches, such as “Islam Hadhari” (Islamic Civilization) by former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, and “Wasatiyah” (moderation) by Najib, have created opportunities for Malaysia to revive and expand its relations with Muslim countries, including Turkey.
The lapse of seven years between Erbakan’s and Erdogan’s trips can be linked to the unstable domestic political situation in Turkey, which culminated in the “post-modern coup” of February 28, 1997 that precipitated Erbakan’s resignation. The introduction of a new foreign policy in the Erdogan era with openings toward immediate Eastern neighbors as well as Africa and remote Asia, which Turkey had largely ignored due to its mainly Western-oriented policies, has paved the way for Turkey to bolster its relations with Malaysia.
Despite the sound diplomatic relationship between the two countries, a number of delicate issues require Malaysia and Turkey to exercise caution. These include the fact that the Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had some contacts with Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). When Ibrahim took shelter in the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur in 2008 after being charged with sodomy and corruption, the Malaysian government regarded this as a sign of interference in its internal affairs. This matter, however, was resolved after a meeting between the Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Rais Yatim and Turkish ambassador Barlas Ozener.
Another delicate matter is that Turkey has diplomatic relations with Israel, while most Muslim countries, including Malaysia, do not. Turkey also prevents the wearing of the headscarf in certain public spaces, unlike Malaysia. However, Malaysia considers these issues Turkey’s internal matters, and they do not ultimately hamper harmonious relations.
Despite many pledges following the high-level diplomacy between the countries, the expansion of economic relations has yet to occur. The total trade volume between Turkey and Malaysia remains modest, amounting to $1.75 billion in 2011. Furthermore, bilateral trade is skewed in Malaysia’s favor, with Malaysian exports to Turkey amounting to $1.56 billion and Turkish exports to Malaysia at a mere $182 million in 2011.
In terms of trade composition, Malaysia’s major exports to Turkey include electrical and electronic products, textiles, chemicals and chemical products, and crude rubber and rubber products. Turkey’s chief exports to Malaysia are iron and steel products, chemicals and chemical products, machinery, appliances and parts, and electrical and electronic products.
As with bilateral trade, there has been relatively little cross-investment. During the period 2002-2011, Malaysian Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Turkey amounted to $54 million, while Turkish FDI in Malaysia was only $0.5 million. However, in late 2012, several investment projects got underway, including Turkey’s leading soap and personal care products manufacturer, Evyap, committing $130 million to build a palm oil factory in Malaysia.
The defense sector has shown some promising developments. In February 2011, for example, Turkish FNSS and Malaysian DEFTECH reached an agreement on a $600 million sale of 257 armored combat vehicle frames to the Malaysian armed forces, the largest single arms sale between the two countries.
There also may be signs of progress in the services sector. In July 2013, Malaysia’s Khazanah Nasional Berhad announced that its insurance holding company, Avicennia Capital, had entered into an agreement to acquire a 90 percent stake in Istanbul-based Acibadem Sigorta, a leading provider of insurance services, for a purchase consideration of $252 million.
In 2009, Malaysia and Turkey began negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) in an effort to boost bilateral trade. Since 2010, seven rounds of talks have been held. In addition, as a result of the latest visit by Najib to Turkey in 2011, both sides agreed to sign bilateral agreements in tourism, trade, business, transportation, and construction. They also agreed to lift the visa requirements for their respective citizens to visit the other country and to increase the volume of annual bilateral trade to $5 billion in the near future.
A factor that might discourage economic expansion between Malaysia and Turkey is an economic policy that is common among many developing countries, that is, the tendency to emphasize forging economic cooperation with developed countries in order to seek technological know-how and access to wider markets. Such a policy may mean that Malaysia and Turkey look elsewhere than to each other for economic collaboration.
Malaysia and Turkey are also putting more emphasis on bolstering their regional economic blocs, particularly ASEAN and its European counterparts, respectively. Turkey is trying to become a negotiation party in the ongoing talks between the European Union (EU) and the United States in regard to the establishment of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP). Many predict that once the pact is concluded it will have a significant impact on Turkey’s ties with the United States and Europe, essentially allowing Turkey’s goods preferential access to the U.S. market.
As the global economy has become more volatile, it is time to look for new markets. By merely relying on stagnant trade partners, a state will be at a disadvantage. All countries, including Malaysia and Turkey, must find ways to access new markets and products. Hence, Malaysia and Turkey are pursuing various initiatives to bolster their economic cooperation as well as looking for emerging markets in different regions.
In religious-political terms, both countries have often been referred to as models for each other and the rest of the Islamic world due to their soft power credentials, such as a relatively functioning democratic order, emerging economic prowess, and rising diplomatic clout. However, because of the ongoing process of gradual “Islamization” in daily life, Malaysia is increasingly perceived as a negative model for Turkey by secular-minded segments of the Turkish media and public who are displeased by the rise of the governing AKP. Others, however, draw attention to the positive elements of the Malaysian model, such as its rapidly growing economic power and its promotion of “Wasatiyah” (balanced moderation in domestic and external affairs).
In championing dialogue and moderation, Malaysia and Turkey can cooperate and act together against the rise of Western Islamophobia and the popularity of the “clash of civilizations” theory. They are placed as moderates in response to such bias against Islam; they neither condone violent religious extremism nor remain silent in the face of the demonization of Muslims. Indeed, both countries, as progressive democracies, have been touted as models for the countries of the “Arab Spring.”
On the global level, as members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Developing 8, Malaysia and Turkey have an increasingly dissenting voice in regard to international issues and the West’s prerogatives. They have both opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, and after the Mavi Marmara flotilla crisis, the Malaysian government and opposition joined the Turkish government in condemning the Israeli aggression and killing of nine Turkish activists. The two governments have also been supportive of democratization for Arab Spring countries, although they diverge over a few issues, such as the role of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in the process of democratization. While Malaysia has been careful to remain neutral in regard to these groups, Turkey has been keener to give its support to them.
The bilateral relationship between Malaysia and Turkey signals much promise. The countries have enjoyed interaction with one another since the fifteenth century, and their current leaders are also invested in a bilateral relationship. However, there are a number of impediments that might disrupt these relations, from domestic issues to regional as well as global challenges. Nevertheless, as time goes by, Malaysia and Turkey will likely continuously work together to promote a positive example of moderate-democratic Islam to their global audience.
This contribution is part of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute.
 Kadir Dikbas, “Türkiye, Malezya Olur mu?” (Does Turkey Become a Malaysia?), Zaman, 5 October 2012, http://www.zaman.com.tr/kadir-dikbas/turkiye-malezya-olur-mu_1354429.html.
 Mohammad Redzuan Othman, “Malay Perception of the Supremacy of the Turks and Its Significance before the Demise of the Ottoman Empire,” Malay in History 29 (2005): 39-48.
 The Sultanate of Aceh is now one of the Indonesian territories. The purpose here is only to show a continuous historical interaction between the Malay Archipelago and the Ottoman Empire.
 Affan Seljuq, “Relations between the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim Kingdoms of the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago,” Der Islam 57 (1980): 301-310; Anthony Reid, “Islamization and Christianization in Southeast Asia: The Critical Phase, 1550-1650,” Anthony Reid, ed., Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power and Belief (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).
 The Turkish women were Khadijah Hanum (married Sultan Abu Bakar) and Ruqayyah Hanum (married three times, first with Engku Abdul Majid, then with Dato Jaafar Muhammad (the first chief minister of Johor), and then with Syed Abdullah al-Attas (a successful Arab trader).
 Wan Mohd. Nor Wan Daud, “Al-Attas: A Real Performer and Thinker,” Knowledge, Language, Thought and the Civilization of Islam: Essays in Honour of Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Wan Mohd. Nor Wan Daud and Muhammad Zainiy Uthman, eds. (Skudai, Johor : UiTM Press, 2010); Abd. Jalil Borham, “Pengaruh Khilafah Othmaniyah Turki Dalam Pentadbiran Kerajaan Johor Bagi Memartabatkan Sebuah Negara Islam Merdeka di Asia Tenggara,” Simposium Isu-Isu Sejarah dan Tamadun Islam, ATMA, UKM, April 8-10, 2011, http://umpir.ump.edu.my/3355/1/JOHOR_TURKI.pdf.
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 “Lawatan Rasmi ke Turki, Datuk Hussein Onn dan Datin Suhaila Diberi Sambutan Meriah, di Lapangan Terbang Istanbul, 11.02.1977,” National Archive of Malaysia, G.14789 2001/0044231.
 “Lawatan ke Turki, Perdana Menteri, Dato Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad di Upacara Menandatangani Tiga Perjanjian, Angkara, 13.05.1983,” National Archive of Malaysia, G.18443 2001/0048310.
 “Lawatan Rasmi TYT Prof. Dr. Neomettin Erbakan, Perdana Menteri Republik Turki ke Malaysia - 16.8.1996-18.8.1996,” National Archive of Malaysia, 356 1999/0025650.
 Other members are Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey, which represent more than 930 million people. The Istanbul Declaration of Summit of Heads of State/Government officially established the group on June 15, 1997. Dipo Alam, “A Glimpse at D-8 Achievements,” http://www.mfa.gov.tr/data/Kutuphane/yayinlar/EkonomikSorunlarDergisi/sayi32/dipoalam.pdf
 “Ucapan Perdana Menteri YAB Dato Seri Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad di Majlis Makan Malam Sempena Meraikan Lawatan Rasmi TYT Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Perdana Menteri Turki dan Madam Emine Erdogan ke Malaysia Pada Hari Jumaat, 13 Jun 2003,” National Archive of Malaysia, 2004/0005516.
 This does not necessarily mean, however, that the Tun Mahathir government completely ignored the interests of other regions, especially the Middle East.
 “Death of 'Erbakan Hoca' Closes Out an Era of Turkish Politics,” Hürriyet Daily News, 27 February 2011, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=turkey-former-pro-islamic-prime-minister-dies-2011-02-27.
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 Ozener explained that his office’s acceptance of Anwar taking refuge did not have a political objective, but was based on humanitarian reasons. “Ambassador to be Summoned to Wisma Putra,” The Star, 30 June 2008, Http://www.thestar.com.my/story.aspx?file=%2f2008%2f6%2f30%2fnation%2f21696134&sec=nation; “Malaysia's Anwar Leaves Turkish Embassy, Vows to Run for Parliament,” Hurriyet 30 June 2008, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/home/9308024.asp?scr=1; “Anwar Quits Turkey Embassy Refuge,” BBC, 30 June 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7481301.stm.
 The legal framework of bilateral commercial and economic relations of Turkey and Malaysia revolves around a number of agreements, including the Trade Agreement (1977), the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (1977), the Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreement (1996), and the Reciprocal Protection and Promotion of Investments Agreement (2000).
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 Ministry of International Trade and Industry, “Malaysia-Turkey Free Trade Agreement (MTFTA),” 27 November 2012, http://www.miti.gov.my/cms/content.jsp?id=com.tms.cms.section.Section_1a589d8a-c0a81573-430a430a-d98b0768.
 Turkish Foreign Ministry, “Relations between Turkey and Malaysia,” http://www.mfa.gov.tr/relations-between-turkey-and-malaysia.en.mfa.
 Ministry of Economy, Republic of Turkey, http://www.economy.gov.tr/index.cfm?sayfa=countriesandregions&country=MY®ion=6.
 “Turkey, Malaysia Seek 'Strategic' Ties, Sign Deals,” Hurriyet Daily News, 23 February 2011, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=turkey-malaysia-seek-strategic-ties-sign-deals-2011-02-23; “Turkey Seals Largest Single Defense Export Deal with Malaysia,” Today’s Zaman, 24 February 2011, http://www.todayszaman.com/news-236494-turkey-seals-largest-single-defense-export-deal-with-malaysia.html.
 “Khazanah Insurance Unit Avicennia Buys 90% in Istanbul-Based Acibadem Sigorta,” The Star, 14 November 2013, http://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2013/11/14/avicennia-completes-stake-buy-khazanah-insurance-unit-acquires-90-in-istanbulbased-acibadem-sigorta.aspx.
 Ministry of International Trade and Industry, 2012.
 “Turkey, Malaysia Seek 'Strategic' Ties, Sign Deals,” Hurriyet Daily News, 23 February 2011, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=turkey-malaysia-seek-strategic-ties-sign-deals-2011-02-23.
 Ata Akiner, “Now is the Time for a US-Turkey Free Trade Agreement,” Policy Analysis, 23 July 2013, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/now-is-the-time-for-a-u.s.-turkey-free-trade-agreement.
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 Mehmet Özkan, “Turkey’s ‘New’ Engagements in Africa and Asia: Scope, Content and Implications,” Perceptions 16, 3 (Autumn 2011): 130.
 Abdullah al-Ahsan, “The Rise of Turkey in the Arab-Muslim World: A Malaysian Perspective,” Encompassing Crescent, 2 May 2011, http://encompassingcrescent.com/2011/05/the-rise-of-turkey-in-the-arab-muslim-world-a-malaysian-perspective/.
 “Turkey and Malaysia Held up as Beacons of Hope,” Financial Times, 23 February 2011, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/77a2a2c6-3f7e-11e0-a1ba-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2ZJ4FEuwJ; Khaidir A. Majid, “Draw Lessons From Egypt Upheaval, Says Najib,” New Straits Times, 6 July 2013, http://www.nst.com.my/nation/general/draw-lessons-from-egypt-upheaval-s….