What makes a foreign policy gaffe ‘significant’? As a student of history and a critic of world affairs, it’s interesting to note that it is never immediately clear which will be considered ‘significant’ and which will not. Each gaffe has the potential to either make headlines and pass or come to command historical intrigue. Yet, in the heat of the moment, very rarely does a ‘Mission Accomplished’ seem like a ‘Mission Accomplished.’
I imagine this is because, to a large degree, what we consider to be ‘significant moments’ in diplomatic history are more constructions of a wider context than random cosmic coincidences. A gaffe could be considered a career-ending disaster or a singular embarrassment, the classification of which depends almost entirely on the level of contextual significance it comes to hold. If a false step seems to betray an ulterior motive or Freudian slip – in turn shedding light on a wider controversy – the gaffe will surely command more attention.
If this is the framework by which we will identify ‘significant’ gaffes in the present, the social media firestorm and political fallout from Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s ‘elder brother’ fiasco ticks almost every box. The faux pas in question came during a joint live television conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi where, while celebrating “the true friendship between China and Malaysia”, Hishammuddin declared with a smile: “you will always be my elder brother”.
Appearing to immediately catch on to the difficulties associated with that phrase, Wang Yi quickly clarified: “We are brothers”. However, the damage was already done, and opposition members, ex-diplomats, and Netizens alike were already in the process of pitching the gaffe’s significance.
He later clarified on Twitter that “the phrase I used was not referring to our bilateral relations.” Instead, he claimed that he was simply using the English translation of the Mandarin ‘Dàgē’ (大哥), a socio-cultural term of courtesy for an older and more senior diplomat and Foreign Minister. A similar line came from his supporters, claiming that critics were ignoring the subtleties and nuances of the Chinese language. “Being respectful,” he concluded, “does not signify weakness.”
But the criticism failed to subside. “This is not the language and style that should be used in the world of diplomacy and international relations because it seems to put Malaysia’s status as a foreign puppet,” argued opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Ex-foreign minister Anifah Aman published a statement on social media, writing that the phrase “was not only inappropriate but had put State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a difficult and embarrassing position.” International media outlets quoted the gaffe as “big brother”: a subtly different term but with significantly different connotations.
Why does this gaffe in particular seem so significant? At first, while making for slightly awkward viewing, the gaffe could be written off as an unfortunately faux pas. After all, diplomatic events are often highly contrived events – disguising the clockwork of the global political process under the veneer of a formal social engagement – so there’s usually no shortage of awkward interactions. Furthermore, familial metaphors are clunky but often well-tread territory in international diplomacy. For instance, a continent will often be likened to a “family of nations”, particularly when the common interests of the region are under the microscope. Or who could forget former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s enthusiasm for sibling metaphors: after an official state visit in 2018, Dr Mahathir said that “Malaysia and Singapore are like twins, except maybe the elder twin is a little bit bigger than the younger.”
In this regard, and especially considering the Confucian significance of using terms of respect for elders, there is a good defence to be made of the ‘elder brother’ fiasco. Yet, history’s critical gaze will not be satisfied by a superficial consideration of the niceties of the diplomatic process. Underneath the embarrassment may rest something more significant than a simple slip-of-the-tongue, particularly when it is situated in the wider context of China-Malaysia relations.
In the on-again-off-again tensions between China and the US, Malaysia has remained rhetorically neutral. Throughout the last decade, however, succeeding Prime Ministers have received increasing criticism for what critics perceived to be closer ties to China. For instance, China has been Malaysia’s largest trading partner for eleven years and reports claim that swathes of major infrastructure projects have received Chinese financial backing. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak faced criticism for encouraging so-called ‘economic colonialism’: kowtowing to Chinese investors for short-term political gain. But criticism of Malaysia’s policy toward China has not just been economic. As 2019’s reports of Uyghur persecution in China’s Xinjiang region were of growing concern internationally, Prime Minister Mahathir stated that Malaysia would not take an outrightly confrontational approach. “We do what we can,” he explained in a radio interview with Turkey’s TRT World, “we don’t knock our heads against a stone wall simply because it is there.” This doesn’t much gel with a foreign policy that otherwise has put great emphasis on cooperation between Muslim Nations for the sake of Ummah, especially through the OIC.
As a result, Professor James Chin of the University of Tasmania described the gaffe as more of a “Freudian slip” than a simple faux pas, writing that it “touched on a number of core Malaysian anxieties about China.” The question is not: “how can the concept of an independent nation square with being a ‘little brother’”. Rather, the question should be: “how can the concept of an independent nation square with unprecedented economic integration with, and lack of public criticism of, a global superpower?”
Hishammuddin Hussein was quick to rebuff claims of a policy shift towards China, writing that “Malaysia remains independent, principled, and pragmatic in terms of our foreign policy – founded on the values of peace, humanity, justice, and equality.” And perhaps he is right. After all, agonising over gaffes has always been more a matter of politicking than politics.
But history won’t have much regard for the specifics of the gaffe. Rather, it will be captivated by the complex geopolitical relationships that it appears to represent. Perhaps history will conclude that, to some extent, the potential for such gaffes may have just been a natural by-product of maintaining such a precarious position of pro-China economic policy – and a resistance to confront the superpower directly on other diplomatic issues – while maintaining supposed rhetorical neutrality.
If that’s the case, then expect the faux pas to keep coming. After all, it’s easy to misstep when you are walking on eggshells.
Moving forward, it seems clear that this position is increasingly untenable. The only way to convincingly continue such a diplomatic policy is to reaffirm that it isn’t just rhetoric – Malaysia is equally robustly natural in policy. Reaffirming this point in written and off-the-cuff rhetoric is certainly just the beginning, but a launch pad nonetheless in lifting Malaysia out the den of an ambiguous standing towards China.
To some extent, this correction is already underway – at least, it is rhetorically.
@HishammuddinH2O, “Rest assured that Malaysia remains independent, principled and pragmatic in terms of our foreign policy – founded on the values of peace, humanity, justice, and equality. We will continue to contribute meaningfully towards a just and equitable community of nations.” Twitter, 3 April 2021, 9:47 am, https://twitter.com/HishammuddinH2O/status/1378268025003012102?s=20.
@HishammuddinH2O, “The phrase I used was not referring to our bilateral relations as strong [Malaysia China] ties are based on mutual trust and equality. Respecting that Wang Yi is older, and a more senior Foreign Minister; hence ‘elder brother’ to me personally. Being respectful does not signify weakness.” Twitter, 3 April 2021, 9:47 am, https://twitter.com/HishammuddinH2O/status/1378268023086190593?s=20.
@imnormgoh, “Former foreign minister Anifah Aman chides Hishammuddin Hussein for committing a “diplomatic faux pas”.” Twitter, 4 April 2021, 6:34 am, https://twitter.com/imnormgoh/status/1378581816563486726.
“Enhance foreign investment policy to boost Malaysia-China investments.” The Star, Star Media Group Berhad, 31 Dec. 2020, https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2020/12/31/enhance-foreign-investment-policy-to-boost-mal
“Malaysia is independent, says Hishammuddin who called Chinese counterpart ‘elder brother’.” Channel News Asia, Mediacorp TV, 3 April 2021, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/malaysia-hishammuddin-hussein-wang-yi-elder-brother-criticism-14550200.
“Malaysia Is Independent, Says Minister Who Called Chinese Counterpart ‘Elder Brother’.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, L.P., 3 April 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-04-03/malaysia-is-independent-says-minister-who-called-chin ese-counterpart-elder-brother.
“Malaysia: Mahathir Careful Not to Condemn China’s Treatment of Uyghurs.” Radio Free Asia, U.S. Agency for Global Media, 31 July 2019, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/malaysia-uyghurs-07312019175631.html.
“Sibling rivalry normal, will help growth, says Dr M as he repeats ‘bigger twin’ comment.” Today World, Mediacorp, 7 Dec. 2018, https://www.todayonline.com/world/sibling-rivalry-normal-will-help-growth-says-dr-m-he-repeats-bigger-twin-comment.
Chin, James. “Malaysian FM’s ‘Big Brother’ China Gaffe: Faux Pas or Freudian Slip?” The Diplomat, Trans-Asia Inc., 12 April 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/04/malaysian-fms-big-brother-china-gaffe-faux-pas-or-freudian-slip/.
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