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Malaysia country brief

Bilateral relations

Australia and Malaysia have a long-standing friendship built on shared history, exceptional people-to-people links and strong bilateral cooperation - from World War II through to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020 marked 65 years of Australia’s diplomatic presence in Malaysia. The Australia-Malaysia relationship continues to grow, based on mutual respect and our common interests as two mid-sized democracies and open trading nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

In January 2021, our prime ministers elevated the bilateral relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). The CSP commits leaders to meet annually and is underpinned by three streams of cooperation: economic prosperity; society and technology; and defence and regional security. Under the CSP, Australia and Malaysia will expand cooperation on economic recovery and growth, health, education and the digital economy, as well as in new areas of science and innovation. The prime ministers also committed to increase cooperation on strategic and maritime issues to support a secure and stable Indo-Pacific region.

Our prime ministers had in 2015 elevated the relationship to a Strategic Partnership, which provides for regular high-level meetings, including annual meetings of foreign ministers and trade ministers’ meetings every two years. In 2018, we instituted annual defence ministers’ talks.

Trade and investment

Australia’s economic and trade relationship with Malaysia is strong and mature. In 2019, Malaysia was Australia’s second-largest trading partner in ASEAN and ninth largest partner overall [PDF]. Around 3,800 Australian companies trade with Malaysia, of which 300 have a physical presence in Malaysia.

We share a common interest in a free and open trading system. We have two free trade agreements with Malaysia that are in force: the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement (MAFTA) and the Agreement Establishing the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA). We are both signatories to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) (not yet in force) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Malaysia is yet to ratify the CPTPP.

Defence and security

Our shared history in defence and security cooperation stretches back to World War II where Australian soldiers fought in defence of Malaya and the subsequent liberation of Sarawak, Sabah and Labuan. In 2020, Australia and Malaysia commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Sandakan Death Marches, an important marker in our shared history. The events of Sandakan were followed by Australia’s involvement in the Malayan Emergency (1950-1963) and in the Confrontation (1963-1966).

The defence relationship between Australia and Malaysia has continued to develop under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Malaysia Australia Joint Defence Program. Malaysia also hosts an ongoing Australian Defence Force presence at Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth. These long-standing links form the foundation of Australia and Malaysia’s continuing close defence cooperation.

Australia and Malaysia cooperate closely on security threats facing the region. There are close links between Australian and Malaysian police, security, counter-terrorism and immigration agencies.

People to people links

The Australia and Malaysia relationship is underpinned by long-standing education links, tourism and migration.

Australia is proud of its close education links with Malaysia, which stretch back to before Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Malaysians formed the largest number of original Colombo Plan participants (4,000). We estimate there are now over 300,000 Malaysian alumni of Australian education institutions in Australia and Malaysia, including more than 125,000 Malaysians who have studied in Australia since 2002.

Australian expertise in education and training is highly regarded in Malaysia. In 2019, Malaysia ranked sixth as a source country for international students overall, with over 24,000 students currently studying in Australia. Many of these students chose to stay in Australia during COVID-19.

A further 20,000 Malaysian and international students were studying for Australian qualifications in Malaysia in 2019. There are now four Australian universities with a significant presence in Malaysia; Curtin University, Monash University, Swinburne University, and Wollongong University.

Malaysia is the sixth most popular destination for Australian undergraduate students supported by the New Colombo Plan (NCP). Since Malaysia joined the NCP in 2015, over 3,000 Australian undergraduate students have been supported to undertake study and internships in Malaysia.

There were an estimated 176,000 Malaysian-born people living in Australia in 2019. In 2019, Malaysia was Australia’s eighth largest market for international arrivals with almost 385,000 Malaysians visiting Australia. Over 273,000 Australians visited Malaysia in the same year.

On 29 November 2019, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Women, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, announced that Malaysia would be the 2020 focus country for Australia now. The impact of COVID-19 meant the program will now take place in 2021. Details of the program will be announced shortly on the Australia now website.

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