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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 previously elevated our relationship to a Strategic Partnership in 2015, which provided 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.

As an acknowledgment of the strength and depth of our bilateral ties and cultural connections, the Australian Government’s flagship public diplomacy program Australia now is taking place in Malaysia.

Trade and investment

Australia’s economic and trade relationship with Malaysia is strong and mature. In 2020, Malaysia was Australia’s third-largest trading partner in ASEAN and 11th largest partner overall [PDF].

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) 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). More than 125,000 Malaysian students have studied in Australia since 2002, and are valued alumni of our Australian institutions.

Australian expertise in education and training is highly regarded in Malaysia. In 2020, Malaysia ranked sixth as a source country for international students overall, with over 20,000 Malaysian students studying in Australia, compared to 24,000 in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Malaysia hosts more Australian universities than any other country, with four that have a significant presence in Malaysia:  Curtin University, Monash University, Swinburne University, and the University of Wollongong. In 2019, close to 20,000 Malaysian and international students were studying an Australian qualification in Malaysia.

Malaysia is one of the most popular destination for Australian undergraduate students supported by the New Colombo Plan (NCP). Since Malaysia joined the NCP in 2015, around 2,000 Australian undergraduate students have been supported to undertake study and internships in Malaysia.

There were an estimated 177,460 Malaysian-born people living in Australia in 2020. In 2019-20, Malaysia was Australia’s seventh largest market for international arrivals with over 353,000 Malaysians visiting Australia. Malaysia has maintained its position as a top ten source country for international arrivals throughout COVID-19.

In 2019 Australia’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Women, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, announced that Malaysia would be a focus country for Australia now. Due to COVID-19, the current program focuses on engaging digital content that supports priorities under the CSP, particularly promoting trade and Australia’s economic recovery. Curated around the themes of Creativity & Culture, People & Potential and Tastes & Technology, the program promotes trade and agriculture, regional tourism, education, health and science, digital technology and innovation, Australia’s Indigenous culture, and creative industries. Further information on the program is available on the Australia now website.

COVID-19 response

Australia and Malaysia are cooperating closely on COVID-19, including through technical health exchanges on immunisation registers/certificates, vaccine strategic communications and mental health. 

Under the $523 million regional COVID-19 Vaccine Access and Health Security Initiative (VAHSI), Australia has allocated $2.9 million to Malaysia over 2020-23. This will fund technical assistance and support for COVID-19 vaccine delivery. In addition, Australia is contributing $100 million to the Quad Vaccine Partnership which will support access to COVID-19 vaccines in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia.

Under VAHSI, Australia is contributing $21 million to the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. The Centre will assist Malaysia and all ASEAN member states prepare for, detect and respond to emerging diseases. Australia has contributed $1 million to the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund for ASEAN to procure vaccines for the region in partnership with UNICEF.

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