My first trip to Japan was in 1985, as a young boy transiting en route from Los Angeles to Narita for four days before continuing our trip back home to Subang Airport. My family and I stayed at Lieutenant Colonel Higuchi’s 650sq ft apartment, a Japanese army officer that my father attended together at the United States Command and General Staff College (USCGC) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. Higuchi-san and his wife Yuko-san were so kind to open their home for us to stay. We also stayed at Lieutenant Colonel Kameda’s home, another Japanese army officer of my father’s classmate. They were so kind and hospitable, the best part everyday was eating breakfast together with both families.

Japan in those days, were booming with its soft power of technology, cars, walkmans, culture, Karate Kid movies, sushi, kimonos and everything Japanese was cool, even in Malaysia. The trend of wearing a Rising Sun t-shirt in the streets of Kuala Lumpur with young actors such as Faizal Hussein in “Gila-Gila Remaja” (Crazed Teenagers) with break-dancing moves were the in-thing then. This after only four decades the Japanese invaded Malaya via Kota Bharu on 7 December 1941 and Japan again “invaded” Malaya through technology and culture.

In 1985, it was only about four years after the introduction of the “Look East Policy” by the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dato’ Seri (now Tun) Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the medical doctor turned politician who surgically transformed Malaysia from an intensive agriculture nation to a fast-paced industrialized nation in one generation. He knew the sentiments of ethnic Malays, Chinese, Indian and Sabahans and Sarawakians towards the Japanese Occupation in World War II, but he saw the opportunity arose when Japan became an economic powerhouse in the 1980s.

Mahathir became the first Malaysian Prime Minister who was a non-British educated compared to his predecessor. He attended the University of Malaya which was very much modelled towards the British-system. He grew wary of the west and thought that it was time for Malaysia to begin looking to the east. He believed that Asia has its own strengths and ingenuity, hardworking and making sacrifices to achieve success. Nations such as the Republic of China (Taiwan), South Korea and Singapore were making headways as Asian Tigers, and Malaysia did not want to be left out.

Mahathir invited Japan to invest in Malaysia, collaborated to manufacture the first ASEAN-based national car Proton with Mitsubishi company and sought the expertise of Japanese engineering in construction, science and technology especially in electronics and automotive industry. Hundreds of Malaysian impressionable young minds were sent to top Japanese universities or Daigaku to learn from. In that era, thousands of young Malaysians were also sent to American universities and the already established British universities network that has been a traditional destination for Malaysian students.

After four decades of Mahathir’s “Look East Policy” what are the achievements so far for Malaysia and Japan? First of all, Japan continues to be an important partner for Malaysia in many fields. Japan’s foreign direct investment (FDI) to Malaysia in the first financial quarter of 2020 contributed to RM0.9 billion (US$209,474,764) in the primary, services and manufacturing sectors data from the Malaysia Investment Development Authority, and the latest figures in March 2021 announced RM1.7 billion (US$415,089,850) investment in manufacturing sectors by Japan alone.

The Bahasa Melayu and Arab-speaking Ambassador of Japan to Malaysia, His Excellency Hiroshi Oka also assured that new companies are starting to grow in new areas in Malaysia by venturing into the health, medical device manufacturing, digital technology and halal food industries. “Japanese companies had started coming into Malaysia in the 1970s and, when the trends accelerated with the start of the “Look East Policy” in the 1980s, globally famous Japanese companies like Toray, Hitachi, Sony and Panasonic all rushed to operate in Malaysia. There are now about 1,500 Japanese companies in Malaysia and these companies have contributed to industrialising Malaysia.”

Malaysia as a trading nation, has always welcomed partnerships that benefits both investors and its potential growth. With the pandemic that has stunted and derailed many initial projects and planning, Malaysia hopes that this special bond that has been cultivated for over four decades would continue to be strengthen. Malaysia’s closeness to Japan’s does not only confine to business and industries.

One of the many things that the “Look East Policy” mission was to change the mindsets of Malaysians from being laid back and easy-going to being industrious, meticulous, attention to details, and seeking close to perfection. Though many has been achieved by implementing this policy by Malaysia, but there are still room for improvements.

At the same time, Japan is also facing dire challenges domestically, with its ageing population, low birth rate, and burdening national debts. However through many subsidies and assistances that foreigners or gaijins enjoy in Japan as such child allowances, education assistances, excellent national healthcare and insurances which Malaysia own healthcare has also achieved, but tough and strong questions needed to be asked and answered for policy-makers in Malaysia, whether our “Look East Policy” continues to be important, what more now with rising China comes into the radar. How east is our look east policy and what is our next step?

These questions should begin to be answered, on Malaysia’s own projected ageing society by 2030. Are we capable to care for our elders and have the best medical attention as Japan does? Are our younger generation getting married and start to have families of their own? With lesser salary and disposable income, will it be highly unlikely for Malaysians to procreate and increase our population?

Will we ease our immigration policies to encourage foreigners to migrate to Malaysia and become part of our integral society? What qualities do we seek of new Malaysians to become a part of us? With the pandemic showing no signs of closure, we are running out of time. Perhaps, some hard sacrifices are in dire need for us to move together as a nation. How ready are we?

* Afdal Izal Md Hashim is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of International Relations, International University of Japan, Niigata, Japan.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.