Malaysia is independent, says minister who called Chinese counterpart 'elder brother'

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s foreign minister stressed on Saturday that his country remained independent in foreign policy after some social media users and opposition politicians lambasted him for referring to his Chinese counterpart as his “elder brother”.

FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's Minister of Foreign Affair Hishammuddin Hussein leaves after a meeting at United Malays National Organization (UMNO) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo

Hishammuddin Hussein, on his first visit to China as foreign minister, had expressed hope that he and Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi would pursue closer ties between the nations, including post-COVID-19 cooperation and fighting the pandemic.

However he provoked controversy back home when he told his counterpart in a joint press briefing on Thursday: “You will always be my elder brother.”

China is Malaysia’s largest trade partner, but relations between the two countries have been tested in recent years by Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy in the region, particularly its maritime claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, some of which conflict with Malaysia’s own claims.

Some Malaysians took to social media to chide Hishammuddin, saying he appeared to be appeasing the global superpower, while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim demanded the minister retract his comment and issue an apology to the country.

“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,” he said on Saturday.

“As a country that is neutral and not in favour of any great power in the world, his statement is clearly a form of insult to our own country,” Anwar said.

Following the criticism, Hishammuddin said on Twitter that he had said “elder brother” to show respect to Wang Yi, and that the words did not refer to Malaysia’s relationship with China.

He said he had been “respecting that Wang Yi is older, and a more senior foreign minister; hence ‘elder brother’ to me personally”.

“Being respectful does not signify weakness,” he added.

“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.”

Reporting by Mei Mei Chu and Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Pravin Char