Malaysia’s support for Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s proposed East Timor asylum seeker processing centre could hinge on who’s expected to pay for it.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Thursday said his government would be as cooperative as possible in working with Australia and the region to combat people smuggling. Asked specifically about the East Timor plan, Mr Najib was non-committal.
“We need a bit of time to study Australia’s proposal but we will be as positive as we can,” he said in a press conference with Ms Gillard in Canberra. But in a subsequent exchange with journalists Mr Najib expressed some reservations, noting the East Timorese were themselves still divided on the proposal.
Mr Najib said he was still unsure whether Malaysia would be asked to contribute financially to the centre. “Certainly payment is a major factor,” he said.
“We’d consider all things that we can do together but of course how do we apportion responsibility financially and all that – these are big questions that we have to address.” Ms Gillard praised Mr Najib for his “impressive leadership” combating people smuggling.
The leaders also discussed the war in Afghanistan, education links and trade.
They agreed to finalise long-running bilateral Free Trade Agreement negotiations within the next 12 months. Malaysia is Australia’s 11th biggest trading partner.
But Mr Najib said there was room for improvement. “Our total trade is in the region of $10 billion, which is a good level, but we believe we can push it to even greater heights,” he said.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott welcomed Mr Najib’s visit and made a joking reference to the diplomatic spat former prime minister Paul Keating sparked when he labelled Malaysia’s then-leader Mahathir Mohamad “recalcitrant”.
“When it comes to the relationship with Malaysia we stand united in our determination never, ever to be recalcitrant,” Mr Abbott told a lunch in Mr Najib’s honour.
Mr Najib said: “We will delete the word recalcitrant from our dictionary. None of us are recalcitrant, every one of us is very positive.”