Malaysia is a land of driving on the left, three-point British-style plugs and an elite with plummy English accents who can discourse knowledgeably on Boris Johnson’s career plans. There’s even still an ancient concrete cricket pitch on Merdeka Square, the spot in Kuala Lumpur where the Union Jack was lowered on the night of Malaysia’s independence in 1957. And the country’s prime minister, Najib Razak, is an old boy of Britain’s Malvern College and Nottingham University.
If Brexiters have a plan, it involves upwardly mobile former colonies such as Malaysia and Singapore. These are supposed to replace European countries as the UK’s key trading partners. Many Brexiters also imagine “global Britain” as a swashbuckling trade hub à la Singapore. Daniel Hannan, theorist of Brexit, launched his free-trading think-tank last month by saying, “I’m looking at [the] high commissioner of Singapore [in the front row]. They have gone from being half as rich as us to twice as rich. What was the magic formula? Just do it. They dropped their barriers.”
Can Southeast Asia save Brexit? Visiting the region last week, I asked local investors and officials what they thought. Certainly, Britons once dominated business there. “When I first came to Kuala Lumpur in 1968, the bus tickets were printed in London,” one retired businessman told me, “and the British trading houses were everything.” That’s over. Most Malaysian elites now regard the UK chiefly as a place to study, buy property and watch football. Today the UK is only Malaysia’s 17th largest trading partner.
Might that be because we’ve been held back by the EU, which can’t even conclude free-trade deals with Malaysia and Singapore? Not exactly. Germany and the Netherlands out-trade Britain with Malaysia. And Singapore’s high commissioner, Chi Hsia Foo, told a gathering in London last month: “You will be surprised to learn you are not our largest trading partner in the EU.” The Germans, Dutch and French rank higher.
Britain and Singapore are already in informal trade talks, Foo told me. But British trade with the region would have to skyrocket to compensate for even the mildest dip in British-European trade. The UK’s trade with Malaysia in 2015 totalled 16.45bn ringgit (£2.75bn). British-Belgian trade was about £25bn.
I didn’t meet any Malaysian businesspeople who expected skyrocketing trade. One investor foresaw a failed Brexit putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. “Then Britain becomes uninvestable, like in the 1970s.” A very senior investor gave me his take on Brexit: “Odd!” He knows London intimately, and always considered it the obvious spot for a European headquarters. But as another businessman grumbled: “Now you will have to have two European offices, one in London and one in the EU. Knowing Malaysians, they’ll still have a London office because they like English football.”
Most Malaysian businesspeople talked about Brexit more as a personal than a business issue. The pound’s slide made flats and university fees cheaper. On the downside, an anti-immigration UK might not want their children — already, many Malaysians prefer to study in Australia.
I heard several complaints that Brexit was distracting British decision-makers from other issues. One entrepreneur said he’d been told by an overburdened British bank: “You are our last priority.” British officials, desperate for trade deals, don’t have the head space to brainstorm with Southeast Asians about the geopolitical risks of a rising China. Nor are they busy pressuring Malaysia’s leader Najib about his jailing of the country’s de facto opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, told me: “Right now the British concern seems to be better trade and economic ties between the countries.”
But Brexit isn’t keeping Malaysians awake. The fact is that they don’t need Britain any more. “There are too many other options now,” says Chandran Nair, the Malaysian who heads the Global Institute for Tomorrow think-tank. Empire is over. Towering over that Kuala Lumpur cricket pitch are Chinese-style skyscrapers. One evening, listening to the Islamic call to prayer fill the air, I wondered whether nativist Brexiters would really find Malaysia so congenial. Swiss investigators claim that billions were misappropriated from companies linked to a sovereign fund Najib created; he denies wrongdoing. Are Brexiters sure he's a better partner than Jean-Claude Juncker?
As for Britain becoming a cold Singapore, no one I spoke to could see it. Foo noted that Singapore is a much smaller country than Britain, in a much more populous region. Nor did she consider her country low-tax and low-regulation. Singapore regulates tightly, and its corporation tax rate is 17 per cent, exactly the level the UK had already decided to drop to pre-Brexit. Other people pointed out that Singapore has by some measures the world’s highest-ranked schools system, the world’s second-busiest port, and a majority-immigrant population — not like Britain, then. London could be Singapore. Britain can’t.
It’s easy to spin political fantasies about faraway countries. I flew home with the funny feeling that for many Brexiters trade is an afterthought, a retrospective justification for a Brexit driven by deeper instincts.
Illustration by Harry Haysom
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