Malaysia–Vietnam relations

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Malaysia–Vietnam relations
Map indicating locations of Malaysia and Vietnam



Malaysia–Vietnam relations (Malay Hubungan Malaysia-Vietnam ; Vietnamese Quan hệ Malaysia-Việt Nam) dates back to at least 15th century. Malaysia forged diplomatic ties with the modern-day Vietnamese state in 30 March 1973 which have lasted until today.[1] Relations between two countries were frosty in the late 1970s and 1980s as a result of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War and the influx of Vietnamese boat people into Malaysia. The subsequent resolution of these issues saw the cultivation of strong trade and economic ties, and bilateral trade between the two countries grew exponentially with an expansion to other areas especially in information technology, education and defence.

The two countries share a maritime border in the Gulf of Thailand as well as the South China Sea and have a few overlapping claims in the Spratly Islands. Both have an embassy located on the other's capital; Vietnam has an embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia has an embassy in Hanoi as well as a consulate office in Ho Chi Minh City. Historical records showed that Vietnamese have visited states and Sultanates consisting of modern-day Malaysia in small numbers since the 18th century, and Malaysia is currently home to a large Vietnamese expatriate community consisting of migrant workers, mail order brides and students numbering around 100,000 people.[2] Vietnam also hosts a small Malaysian expatriate community, consisting mostly of businessmen based in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.[3]


Early contacts (15th-18th century)[edit]

The earliest record between present day Malaysia and Vietnam date back to 1469. Soldiers from Tonkin had captured a Malaccan tributary mission en route to China, killing some and castrating and enslaving the survivors. In the incident, the Tonkin expressed their intent to conquer Malacca, which was conveyed to the Chinese emperor in a later mission in 1481. The Chinese emperor ordered Malacca to raise soldiers in the event of a similar attack.[4][5] The Malay Annals also mentioned of a Cham prince bringing some of his followers to form a small Cham colony in Malacca when Vietnam invaded Champa in 1471,[6] and deploying military assistance to Johor to fend off a botched military conquest in the 1590s. In the mid 17th-century, the Cham vassal state of Panduranga and Kelantan cultivated close diplomatic ties when they led a long-term diplomatic mission to Kelantan to learn more about Malay culture and Islam.[7] Subsequent kings after Po Rome, beginning with his son Po Saut, periodically received Malay Muslim missionaries from Kelantan in the 17th and 18th century.[8]

British colonial era (18th-mid 20th century)[edit]

Not long after the establishment of Penang by the British as a port at the end of the 18th century, Vietnam junks began to visit the area for trade at the instruction of the Vietnamese emperor in Hue. An early account showed Nguyen Anh's (later Emperor Gia Long) merchant ship docking in Penang in the late 1790s carrying cargoes of sugarcane en route to India.[9] Early Annamite visitors included merchants, soldiers referred to Penang in its Sino-Vietnamese terminology, Tan-lang-du (Chinese: 槟榔屿); a royal narrative in 1810 showed that the Vietnamese began to refer to Penang as Cu Lao Cau, literally meaning Palm Island.[10] Vietnamese Catholics also travelled to Penang to pursue seminary studies from the 1840s, these included illuminaries such as Pétrus Ky.[11] To the east in the Sultanate of Terengganu, ethnic Chinese from Cochinchina had sailed there to engage in poultry and rice trading. Some had also settled down and assimilated with the local Chinese.[12]

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ho Chi Minh played a key role in facilitating the formation of the Nanyang Communist Party (later renamed as the Malayan Communist Party; MCP) and visited Malaya on several occasions, notably an official ceremony marking the formation of the Malayan Communist Party in Buloh Kasap, Johor in April 1930. Ho Chi Minh's influence in the MCP facilitated the entry and subsequent appointment of Lai Teck, who is also of Vietnamese origin as the MCP's Secretary General in 1934 and 1938 respectively.[13] Collaboration and communications between the MCP and the Vietnamese Communists increased following Lai Teck's disappearance in the late 1940s; and the MCP had briefly facilitated the shipping and transport of light ammunitions to the Viet Minh around this time. While in World War II, both the Viet Minh and Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) were against the Japanese invasion of French Indochina and Malaya.[14] Closer ties between Communist cadres from Malaya and Vietnam were forged following successful efforts by the Communist victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the Viet Minh provided small-scale logistical and communication support and training to the MCP in the 1950s and 1960s.[15]

Vietnamese refugees (1975–2005)[edit]

The jetty of Pulau Bidong refugee camp taken in 1985, where up to 10,000 refugees maybe housed at any point of time. Pulau Bidong's refugee camp was later closed in 1991.

The Fall of Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War saw the first Vietnamese refugees escaping in boats beginning in 1975. The first refugee boat arrived in Malaysia in May 1975 carrying 47 people,[16] although the number of refugees landing on Malaysia remained small until 1978 when the Vietnamese government imposed a policy of confiscating private property from the South Vietnamese. As a result, a large number of Vietnamese, mostly those of Chinese descent fled en masse from the country. Governmental statistics indicated that Malaysia hosted 19,000 refugees in November 1978, as compared to 500 in 1977.[17] The Malaysian Home Ministry established Federal Task Force VII in 1978 to limit the rising number of refugees landing in Malaysia,[18] and the press indicated incidences whereby they were turned away by Malaysian police and army. In response, Vietnamese refugees landing in Malaysia resorted to deliberately sinking their boats to gain admittance onto Malaysian shores.[19] When such tactics were made known to the government, then Deputy Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad announced in June 1979 that legislation would be enacted to empower the police and navy to shoot Vietnamese refugees attempting to land on Malaysia,[20] although Mahathir's superior, Prime Minister Hussein Onn quickly recanted Mahathir's shooting threat.[21]

The first Vietnamese refugee camp was established in Pulau Bidong in August 1978 with United Nations assistance and 25,000 refugees quickly populated the island. Other refugee camps were also set up at Pulau Tengah, Pulau Besar, Kota Bharu, Kuantan, Sarawak and Sabah. A transit centre was also established at Sungei Besi in 1982 where refugees would be housed, awaiting deportation to Western countries willing to accept them.[22] The number of Vietnamese refugees arrivals saw a fluctuating pattern of increases and decreases between 1981 and 1983,[23] before a period of significant decrease from 1984 to 1986.[24] In 1987, Malaysia and other neighbouring countries witnessed a surge in the number of Vietnamese refugees landing on Malaysia. Members countries of ASEAN voiced their displeasure at a summit in June 1987 to the Vietnamese government for turning a blind eye on the refugees from leaving Vietnam.[25] A year later in August 1988, Malaysia and Vietnam jointly formulated an involuntary repatriation whereby Vietnamese refugees would be persuaded to return home.[26] A few Vietnamese government delegations conducted outreach sessions at some of the refugee camps,[27] which was considered unsuccessful as less than 40 individuals registered for the voluntary repatriation programme between 1980 and 1989.[28][29] A dateline was set on 14 March 1989 whereby all Vietnamese who arrived prior to the date would be automatically considered as refugees and all refugees that arrived after that date would undergo a screening process to assess if they qualify for refugee status.[30] The screening process was formulated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in June 1988. The process involved thorough background checks on refugees to determine if they qualify for such status to be sent to any Western countries who are willing to accept them.[29] Some 4,000 out of 9,000 refugees were sent off to Western countries within 10 months. However, in the same measure of time, an additional 11,000 refuges arrived in Malaysia.[28]

The implementation of stringent rules that require Vietnamese refugees to qualify for the status prompted a few of them to opt for the voluntary repatriation programme; between 1,000 to 2,000 refugees from Malaysia returned to Vietnam in 1989 alone.[30] Refugees who opted to return to Vietnam were provided with a monthly stipend for up to one year by the UNHCR. As Vietnam began to witness economic growth in the early 1990s, the number of refugee arrivals to Malaysia quickly dropped. The joint collaboration efforts between Malaysia, Vietnam and UNHCR to address the refugee problem enabled Malaysia to quickly downsize its Vietnamese refugee populace, facilitating the closure of the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in November 1991. Some 3,000[31] Vietnamese refugees participated in the voluntary repatriation programme,[32] and Malaysia was able to downsize its refugee populace to some 6,000 individuals by 1994.[33] Most of its remaining refugees were not able to pass the UNHCR screening process and were classified as illegal immigrants. However, the majority of the remaining refugees expressed a reluctance to be repatriated to Vietnam, and demonstrations and rioting ensued when news of its impending closure broke out in 1995. Sungei Besi refugee camp was later closed in June 1996.[34] The last Vietnamese refugee left Malaysia for Vietnam in 2005.[16]

Diplomatic ties[edit]

Malaysia established diplomatic ties with North Vietnam on 31 March 1973 at the ambassadorial level, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.[35] An agreement was reached between the two countries' ambassadors in 1975, and the following year, Malaysia first opened its embassy in Hanoi, while Vietnam opened its embassy in Kuala Lumpur on 29 May 1976.[36] Attempts to nurture close bilateral ties were not very successful in the mid to late 1970s, as Vietnam was unhappy with Malaysia's insistence on coaxing the former to embrace the ZOPFAN concept, which was interpreted by Vietnam as an version of the anti-communist Containment policy.[37] Prime Minister Hussein Onn had once nostalgised Vietnam's Communist regime as one that has a common goal of eliminating colonialism in the region during bilateral summit in August 1977, and also promised to provide economic and technical assistance to rebuild the then-war torn economy.[38] However, relations quickly soured when Vietnam invaded Cambodia, coupled with the influx of refugees into Malaysia in the late 1970s and 1980s which posed economic and national security issues as a result.[37] Bilateral ties normalised from 1988 onwards when Vietnam announced plans to withdraw from Cambodia.[37] In the early 1990s, government leaders of both countries held numerous diplomatic visits and summits which saw many deals and agreements with a key emphasis on economic co-operation and development.[39] Warming ties also saw the opening of a consulate office in Ho Chi Minh City in January 1991.[40] Vietnam also expressed its interest to join ASEAN with Malaysia's support in 1994 as both countries continued to foster close economic ties with each other.[41] Vietnam later joined ASEAN in 1995, whose entry was warmly welcomed by Malaysia.[42]

Bilateral ties was heavily characterised by trade and economic co-operation in the 1990s, and other areas of bilateral co-operation were explored from 2000 onwards.[43] In that year, an agreement on bilateral efforts in the suppression of trans-national drug trade and law enforcement.[44] A summit in 2004 also saw the signing of three MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding), namely in whereby the areas of Information and Technology, Education and Diplomatic ties and co-operation in general.[45] Bilateral co-operation between both countries was also extended to defence matters in 2008 when another MoU was signed whereby the Malaysian and Vietnamese armed forces would participate in joint military training and collaboration in the defence industry. Emphasis would be given to maritime security whereby Vietnamese fishermen have encroached Malaysian waters for fishing activities and piracy control.[46]

Relations with South Vietnam (1959–1975)[edit]

Malaysia–South Vietnam relations
Map indicating locations of Malaysia and South Vietnam


South Vietnam

Formal relations between Malaya and South Vietnam was established in 1959 following a bilateral summit between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Ngo Dinh Diem a year earlier. An agreement was reached between Malaya and South Vietnam to establish their respective embassies in Kuala Lumpur and Saigon respectively in 1960, although the plan did not materialise until 1964, by which time Malaya was renamed Malaysia. Having experienced a communist insurgency of its own, Malaysia was very supportive of supported American involvement in the Vietnam War for fear that a Communist victory in Vietnam would threaten Malaysia's existence in accordance to the Domino theory. Tunku Abdul Rahman expressed these concerns in December 1966 and called on the United States and United Kingdom to provide increased logistical support to war efforts in Vietnam.[47] Malaysia hosted public administration and jungle warfare training courses to government officials, and provided motorcycles to bolster the South Vietnamese police and military logistical capabilities.[48] Towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Malaysia closed its embassy in two stages, first with the withdrawal of the embassy dependants on 12 April 1975, before a complete closure 16 days later, 2 days before the fall of Saigon.[49] Malaysia had also extended recognition to the short-lived Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam within days of its formation in May 1975, citing the former's impartial position on political ideology and social system.[50]


The Embassy of Malaysia in Hanoi is currently located at 43-45 Dien Bien Phu Street, which it has been located since 2004. Malaysia also has a Consular Office in Ho Chi Minh City that was opened in 1991, and its executive functions was later upgraded to that of Consular-General one year later. The Malaysian embassy in Hanoi has shifted three times since 1976:

The Vietnamese embassy in Kuala Lumpur is located at 4 Persiaran Stonor and was opened in 1976 through the acquisition of the former South Vietnamese embassy.[51] The Vietnamese embassy also has separate offices catering to labour and defence matters in two separate locations within Kuala Lumpur set up in the 2000s.[52] In February 2013, the Vietnamese embassy secured the purchase of 0.69 hectares (2 acres) of land in Precinct 15, Putrajaya that would be used for the construction and subsequent relocation of the Vietnamese embassy.[53]

Economic trade[edit]

Vietnamese factory workers having a lunch break in their dormitory at Taiping, Perak

Bilateral trade between Malaysia and Vietnam stood at $2.2 million following the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975.[54] Within the first three years following the end of the Vietnam War, Malaysia quickly proposed to extend economic and technical assistance to the war torn country in the oil palm and rubber industries. Malaysia exported zinc with Vietnam and also signed a contract that would facilitate the import of Vietnamese vegetables into Malaysia. These early co-operations and proposals quickly fizzled out following Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1979. Economic co-operation slowly resumed from 1988 onwards when bilateral trade between the 2 countries stood at a mere $50 million.[37] In 1990, bilateral trade increased to $140 million and to $235 million in 1991. Around this time, Malaysian businessmen began to open hotels in Vung Tau to cater to its flourishing tourism industry.[55] At a bilateral summit in 1992, both countries agreed on the idea of joint oil and gas exploration, which Vietnam owns a sizeable number of oil fields in the South China Sea.

The warming of bilateral ties also saw the first Malaysian statuory boards and Government-linked companies including Bank Negara, MIDAS and Petronas to provide technical assistance programmes for the Vietnam.[56] Vietnam also sought Malaysia's assistance to develop its banking sector, and Malaysia's Public Bank formed joint ventures with VID bank (later BIDV bank) to open branches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City between 1993 and 1994.[39] By 1994, Malaysia became ASEAN's second largest investor in Vietnam. The variety of exports from Vietnam to Malaysia mainly consisted of rice, rubber, oil seeds and machinery, while Malaysia exported machinery equipment and chemicals which were mainly derived from the former's economic assistance to the country.[39] Malaysian businessmen were also responsible for the development of the An Don Export Processing Zone beginning in 1994 in Danang.[57] At an APEC meeting in 1994, then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad spoke of the belief that Malaysia need not be totally self-reliant on its food needs, and expressed his interest to procure some food from Vietnam as a means of strengthening economic ties.[58] Two years later, Malaysian-made Proton Wira cars were first sold in Vietnam.[59]

A joint commission meeting between the two countries in 1996 saw the arrival of skilled and semi-skilled workers entering Vietnam from Malaysia in the late 1990s.[60] Between 2002 and 2003, Malaysia saw the first wave of Vietnamese workers coming to Malaysia to provide for its labour demand in its expanding its manufacturing sector.[61] By 2003, there were 67,000 Vietnamese workers in Malaysia and both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding which exempted unskilled Vietnamese workers to having master a sufficient grasp of English or the Malay language to qualify for employment.[62] The number of Vietnamese work permit holders increased slightly to 80,000-90,000 by 2011, and their presence later expanded to other sectors including construction, housekeeping, agriculture and service sectors.[63] A few Vietnamese workers also found employment in Chinese restaurants as waiters, picking up some command of the Chinese language along the way.[64]

Social developments[edit]

A sizeable number of Malaysian men have foreign wives. According to statistics provided by the Malaysian National Registry Department, one third of these are Vietnamese. Accounts of such marriages first surfaced in the 1990s, but it was not until the 2000s when such marriages became especially popular with older Chinese Malaysian men. A thriving matchmaking industry has since surfaced whereby prospective grooms could select their Vietnamese brides based on road shows and profiling methods. Malaysian spouses cited the inability to find a local spouse due to career commitments, and cultural affinity between Chinese Malaysians and Vietnamese as their main motivations for finding a Vietnamese wife.[65] Couples of such unions have faced considerable issues, such as language barriers,[66] cases of wives abandoning their Malaysian spouses and bringing along their mixed-race children back to Vietnam,[67] and extortion.[68] A Chinese community leader, Michael Chong, suggested that the key reason for runaway Vietnamese brides was their inability to adapt to Malaysian life and society, and that many of the women married with the intention of escaping poverty in their homeland.[69]

Malaysia is also home to close to 100,000 Vietnamese nationals, mostly concentrated in the industrial hubs in West Malaysia such as Penang, Negeri Sembilan,[70] Selangor, and Johor.[71] Vietnamese migrant workers have occasionally been mistreated by employers, and have faced overcrowded dormitories, salary deductions, and physical abuse at work.[72][73] A sizeable number of crimes in Malaysia, including robbery, rape, murder, and prostitution have attributed to the Vietnamese community. Former Inspector General Musa Hassan claimed that the Malaysian police had handled more than 200 cases of crime involving the Vietnamese community in 2008.[2] Vietnamese women are common in the Malaysia prostitution trade,[74] and Malaysian clients have attributed their alluring physique and good hospitality practices to their success.[75] Some Vietnamese prostitutes have reportedly resorted to registering false student passes or false marriages with local men to gain employment in this trade,[76] and many were forced into prostitution after being tricked by unscrupulous agents promising them employment as waitresses or factory workers in Malaysia.[77]



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