Implications of the Israel-Palestine Conflict in Southeast Asia with Mr. Gregory Poling

Gregory B. Poling is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a leading expert on the South China Sea disputes and conducts research on U.S. alliances and partnerships, democratization and governance in Southeast Asia, and maritime security across the Indo-Pacific. He is the author of the recently published On Dangerous Ground: America’s Century in the South China Sea, along with various works on U.S. relations with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Southeast Asia at large. His writings have been featured in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal, and the Naval War College Review, among others. Mr. Poling received an MA in international affairs from American University and a BA in history and philosophy from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Jim Sangsvang '26 interviewed Mr. Gregory B. Poling on December 1, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Mr. Gregory B. Poling.

Many Southeast Asian governments, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, have remained neutral in regards to the outbreak of violence in Israel-Palestine, unlike some of their fellow ASEAN members, such as pro-Palestinian Malaysia and Indonesia and pro-Israeli Singapore. Is the neutrality of the first group of countries a result of a low level of importance for these nations at the domestic level, or can it be attributed to their relationships internationally?

I think it's more their desire to remain non-aligned and retain their own freedom of movement and agency. Most of the countries who have not weighed in publicly, like Vietnam, maintain some degree of relations with Israel, but also close ties with the Muslim-majority world. They don't see any value in alienating either the West and Israel or the Arab world. There's not a lot of pressure being put on them. This is not like Russia-Ukraine, mostly because Hamas is not a sovereign state. There's not the same call for sanctions or a ton of incentives that would lead them to jump to one side.

The Southeast Asian Islamic governments of Malaysia and Indonesia have been more vocal in their support for Palestine in comparison to governments in the Arab world. What motivations might they have that Middle Eastern actors do not?

Indonesia has begun more or less the same position that most of the Arab states have taken, condemning Israeli colonization and arguing that this violence is the outcome of decades of Israeli policy. It's reiterated support for a two-state solution with an independent Palestine and call for ceasefire and humanitarian aid. All of that is consistent with the broader call from the Global South. Where Malaysia is different is that Malaysia maintains semi-official relations with Hamas, including having a de facto Hamas ambassador for decades. Prime Minister Anwar has come out explicitly blaming Israel for this event, refusing to condemn Hamas in any way.  His rhetoric has been far more problematic blaming Zionism and equating Hamas with the overall Palestinian cause, something that most other Arab states and Muslim majority states are very careful not to do, because they recognize that Hamas is not Palestine. For example, Indonesia recognizes Palestine, not Israel; it has an embassy of Palestine, which is run by the PLO. Anwar publicly blames the US and Europe, whereas President Joko Widodo has been very careful to work with the Americans and try to minimize how much this negatively affects Indonesia’s broader relationship with the West.

Beyond a shared religion, what factors contribute to the staunch support of Palestine by Malaysia and Indonesia? For example, is there a strong anti-Western sentiment in these populations? Are there other dimensions shaping their positions?

In the case of Indonesia, public opinion is still broadly pro-American. Around 60% of Indonesians usually felt somewhat positively towards us. Most of the rest is ambivalent. There's not a lot of anti-Americanism and anti-Western sentiment in Indonesia. The Palestine issue is relevant among the 83 to 85% of Indonesians who are Muslim, but it's not politicized in the same way. There is a much more nuanced problem religious organizations face to support Palestinian independence and condemn Israeli excesses, without also condemning the West and without endorsing Hamas, which is a key differentiator here. It's also inaccurate to assume Indonesian political parties have had the same direct connections with the Middle East and Palestine that Malaysians have, despite there being an Indonesian-run hospital in Gaza. For Malaysia, Malaysian politicians have talked about and directly intervened in the Palestinian issue for decades. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was a huge proponent of this, getting wrapped up in anti-Western sentiment that has remained part of the political platform of some Malay based parties. Add to this is the fact that Anwar Ibrahim, the current Prime Minister, despite being somewhat liberal and cosmopolitan, is also deeply religious. He came up as the head of the Malaysian Islamic youth organization, and has long sympathized with the Palestinian movement. And now, Anwar sits atop the somewhat shaky, multiracial multi-religious coalition and all of his political attacks are coming from the religious right, the Malay based parties under the Perikaatan Nasional Coalition, who are increasingly using religion as a wedge issue. It seems like Anwar is giving into the proclivities of the Coalition and doubling down to try to protect his right flank. He runs the risk of alienating the Chinese and Indian Malaysians who support him.

Many Malaysians supported Prime Minister Anwar because of his strong stance on economic reform in a stagnant Malaysian economy, but recently his supporters have grown frustrated with the lack of economic progress. Has Anwar has used the Israel-Hamas conflict to draw attention away from his shortcomings in the economy and garner support? 

Yes, I think Anwar believes fully in the issue. He's standing in soccer stadiums trying to rally sympathy toward Palestine and Hamas, he's publicly airing dirty laundry about Israel and Europe and the US rather than keeping that stuff behind closed doors, like diplomacy would normally mandate. Taking these purely symbolic actions like mandating a Palestinian solidarity week in Malaysian schools. This is because he also sees this as politically advantageous at a time when the broader reform agenda has moved slowly at best.

Activists criticized Anwars National Palestine Solidarity Week in October after images surfaced of children playing with toy guns and wrapping their heads with Keffiyeh scarves. Critics asserted that this campaign detracted from the Palestinian cause because it seemed to conflate Palestinian oppression with violence. Could instances of support like this damage the Palestinian cause and be misused by Israel?

Anti-Israeli sentiment runs high throughout the Muslim world, although the polling that does exist (usually quite old) shows far less hostility to Israel in Indonesia and a bit less in Malaysia compared to the Middle East. In particular, far less support for Hamas in Indonesia than you find in many other places. What this speaks to is among the public, particularly in Malaysia, given how far away they are, is that they have virtually no Jewish communities within their populations. Those who exist in Indonesia are forced to register as Christian. The idea of a Jewish faith is very abstract for most citizens in Malaysia and Indonesia. They often don't distinguish between Israel and Jews or between settlers and Israel, which creates a noxious mix. Generally, elite political leaders have tried to be careful not to ignite this into a broader anti-Jewish, anti-Zionist rhetoric that would be damaging to the international community. The other problem is, even though you have not had nuance when it comes to that side of the issue, you have had some degree of nuance separating Hamas from the Palestinian cause, especially in Indonesia. And what Anwar is doing is completely demolishing that distinction. He is making it politically impossible in Malaysia to be pro-Palestinian without being pro-Hamas.  He is conflating the Palestinian cause with violence. Activists have every right to say that he has eliminated the space for Malaysia to have any nuance on this position. He is also making it very hard to imagine how the West and other pro-Israel countries like Japan, Singapore or the Philippines can work with Malaysia in the future on this issue. He's erasing Malaysia’s role as a potential mediator. President Biden spoke to the nation on prime time to support Israel’s right to self-defense, but also called on Israel to act with moderation. He has publicly called for a two-state solution over and over. Yet Anwar goes out in public, and says that the US provides blanket support to Israel and anything Israel does opposes, and Palestinian independence, none of which is true. In a sense, he is lying about the Western position. How is the West then supposed to come back and work with him to potentially mediate in Palestine?

Indonesia recently called for Palestines full membership in the UN, and the Security Council will vote on whether to allow accession to full membership status. In your opinion, what is the likelihood that Palestine will actually gain UN membership? Will the US and its allies veto this again?

Yes, it's a 0% chance. The US supports a two-state solution and has for decades. But I cannot imagine President Biden not vetoing this resolution, if there's going to be recognition of Palestine in the UN, It is going to have to be after a negotiated settlement between Palestine and Israel to set the parameters for peace, not before.

Do you think that the vote can be interpreted as light pressure on Europe and the West to take a step back and reconsider some of its positions, especially now that we're seeing so many other countries in the Global South vocally supportive of Palestine, or at least anti-Israeli excess?

Sure, but we have seen this every year for my entire life. There has been an annual series of votes in the UN General Assembly calling for Israel to stop its human rights violations and Israel overwhelmingly loses those votes every single year. This comes at a time of greater tension on the issue, but it's not new. It doesn't break the paradigm in any way. Israel's own actions, particularly under Netanyahu’s leadership, have steadily alienated most of his supporters in Europe and the US. Particularly on the American left, there's not a lot of love for Hamas, but there's deep sympathy for the Palestinian cause. I don't think  that's necessarily changing because of this, nor is it being activated. I don't see this changing what is now a decades-long shift in the West away from Israel and toward exasperation with the Israeli government and demand for a two-state solution.

​​What is Singapores motivation to remain so staunchly supportive of Israel besides its ruling conservative coalition and powerful economic and security ties?

It's the same as the Philippines, which has not been a reliable backer of all issues for the US and NATO. It remains strongly supportive of Israel's right to self-defense. Hamas’ attacks in October were acts of terrorism. And they were indiscriminate. States like Singapore and the Philippines have long been concerned about national security and the threat of terrorism, given their history of violence. They are supportive of a two-state solution, but can't possibly endorse the kinds of attacks we saw in October as a legitimate way to avenge grievances.

Chumnan (Jim) Sangsvang '26Student Journalist

© Vyacheslav Argenberg /, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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