ISTANBUL, July 28 — More than once, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad mentioned in his official visit to Turkey this week that the last time he was here in a similar capacity was around two decades ago.
This time around, the visit has been a surprising one for him and Putrajaya, with Ankara and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulling out all the stops to make Dr Mahathir feel welcome: from an impromptu welcome when the prime minister touched down, to a cavalry welcome usually accorded only to heads of state, and a last-minute breakfast invite that subsequently delayed his return by around two hours.
Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah told Malay Mail at the sidelines that the visit has been “very good.”
Here are three things we learnt from his visit:
1. Malaysia may have found its new ‘big brother’
Prior to a joint press conference between Dr Mahathir and Erdogan, Malay Mail spoke to some in the Turkish media who confessed they hardly knew anything about Malaysia and its prime minister — despite his high profile in South-east Asia.
Dr Mahathir repeatedly praised Turkey as one rare example of a developed Muslim-majority country that has gracefully offered many generous deals — almost as if there were no strings attached.
By allying itself with Turkey, Malaysia has the enviable opportunity to use the former as a gateway to Europe, and in return, offer itself as a gateway to Asean for Turkey — a point Dr Mahathir made as he emphasised Malaysia’s ambition to become an aviation and energy efficient vehicle hub in the region.
However, of more consequence would be that of geopolitics. Despite being a member of Nato, Turkey has also kept cordial relationships with both Russia and China.
By keeping the same company, Malaysia can hedge its bets more against the United States and other European nations, furthering Dr Mahathir’s resistance against neo-colonialism.
2. Putrajaya strikes a bargain on defence
The resolve of Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu was questioned by some following a drastic defence budget cut of 10 per cent this year.
With Malaysia’s fleet of Sukhoi Su-30 and MiG-29 fighter jets mostly grounded, while the BAE Hawks are more than two decades old, defence pundits were left disappointed when Dr Mahathir remained coy about obtaining new Russian jets by bartering palm oil.
However, a visit to the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) may whet Putrajaya’s appetite to purchase more assets, especially its T129 Atak attack and reconnaissance helicopter, which a sources here said can be up to four times cheaper than other established competitors.
TAI is also developing its own fifth-generation fighter TF-X; if Putrajaya can acquire them, they would present a decent deterrent against Singapore which recently decided to acquire a small evaluation fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35s.
The prime minister said several times that he was impressed by the development since Turkey could only assemble F-16 previously.
What seemed to have impressed Dr Mahathir the most, however, were the unmanned aerial vehicles offered by TAI, especially its Anka medium-altitude long endurance model — with the prime minister saying that it would be the key to Malaysia being able to “leap-frog” in the field.
3. A new ‘Muslim world order’ is coming
Saudi Arabia and Iran should be shaking in their boots, as Dr Mahathir announced a tripartite pact between Malaysia, Turkey, and Pakistan to lead the renaissance of the Muslim world.
It would be interesting to see the trio play a leadership role in the Muslim world that by Dr Mahathir’s admission, has been worn down by colonialists, and facing a slew of problems — most notably the Palestinians, Rohingyas, and Uighurs.
The pact, notably, did not include any Middle Eastern country — considered to be the birthplace of Islam. If anything, the three continents represented by the pact — South-east Asia, Europe, and South Asia — are where the most vibrant Muslim communities are.
The first step is obviously to reform the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, but a renaissance needs more than that. The three countries need to step up in many fields: education, defence, and economy among others.
Both Dr Mahathir and Erdogan were coy about Beijing when asked at the joint press conference, but the former made his argument clear in an interview with Turkey news agency Anadolu — that China should treat their respective countries like any other.
Speaking up may be easy, as Dr Mahathir told reporters here, but now, the world waits for the trio to act.