Malaysia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Saifuddin Abdullah (front row, sixth from right) receiving the memorandum from 43 NGOs in support of the government's decision to ban Israeli athletes into Malaysia for the World Para Swimming Championship 2019 in July at Wisma Putra on Wednesday (16 Jan). Source: Danisha Hakeem/TOC

Malaysia refuses to host any events involving Israeli participants, says Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah; discreet economic relations with Israel “booming” despite Malaysia’s diplomatic hostility?

Following the announcement by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad regarding the ban on Israeli athletes against entering Malaysia and subsequently participating in the upcoming 2019 World Para Swimming Championships in Kuching, the Malaysian government has decided to prohibit Israeli representatives from entering the country for any kind of programme in the future.

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah mentioned, in addition to the ban on entry, Malaysia will not host any programme that will involve Israeli participation.

Datuk Saifuddin made the announcement in a speech after receiving a joint memorandum from 43 NGOs in support of the Malaysian government’s decision to ban Israeli athletes from entering the country for the World Para Swimming Championships this year, in tandem with Malaysia’s stance of not having any diplomatic relations with Israel as a protest against Israel’s policies against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

“In regards to the cabinet’s decision made two weeks ago, I can say it is the most firm (regarding Malaysia-Israel ties),” he said.

Discreet, yet robust, economic ties with Israel despite Malaysia’s diplomatic hostility?

A report by the longest-running Israeli newspaper Haaretz in Oct last year listed Malaysia as one of the many countries that have allegedly purchased “espionage and intelligence-gathering software” from private Israeli companies.

Responding to queries from the media regarding the aforementioned report by Haaretz, Parti Keadilan Rakyat president Anwar Ibrahim said: “So far as I know, our policy has been firm (on ties with Israel)”.

In Sep 2014, The Times of Israel reported: “Official data published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) tells of a booming, but very discreet, trade relationship that is blossoming” between Malaysia and Israel.

The Israeli paper added: “Total trade between the two countries in 2013 reached $1.529 billion, almost double that of 2012, according to the CBS. That figure consists mostly of Israeli exports, at $1.457 billion. Trade continues to accelerate: Between January and July this year, Israeli exports to Malaysia soared to $884.7 million, a 27% jump over the same period last year [2013].”

“A significant chunk of the trade boom,” The Times of Israel highlighted, “can be traced to Kiryat Gat in Israel’s sandy southern plains, where global giant Intel has a plant churning out computer chips”.

“It exports these to a second assembly plant in Malaysia. Every shipment is duly recorded in Israel’s foreign trade statistics but studiously ignored by Malaysia.

“Intel is a US-based company, but the Israeli government promised a 5% co-investment in its Kiryat Gat plant that could amount to one billion shekels ($290 million),” the paper added.

“In addition to the officially recorded movement of goods, there is a heavy current of trade flowing beneath the surface, making it hard to calculate the value,” noted The Times of Israel.

On the contrary, the paper reported that “Malaysia’s foreign trade figures don’t carry any mention of Israel at all,” adding that “trade with Israel is included in an entry for “Other Countries” in Malaysia’s annual data for 2012.

The article by The Times of Israel also highlighted that “a raft of Israeli exporters and eager buyers in Malaysia and also neighboring Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim nation — are braving the political headwinds in order to do business — largely through third countries such as Singapore”.

“Israel’s embassy there says that most trade is done this way, and in the case of Indonesia, with the embassy’s assistance.

“Including deals done through a third country, the estimated value of trade between Israel and Indonesia runs as high as $250 million last year, 10 times the $24.9 million of direct trade detailed in official figures,” wrote The Times of Israel.