Malaysia draws fire for hosting Israel’s weapons suppliers at defence expo

The Israel-Gaza war has triggered an outcry in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where a boycott movement has caused sharp losses for once-favoured US companies – from McDonald’s and KFC to Starbucks, all of which have been accused of supporting Israel in the midst of its war, now in its seventh month.

Yet the decision to invite Lockheed Martin and BAE to exhibit at the DSA Expo has raised questions about the consistency of Anwar’s criticism with the actions of Malaysia’s government.

In the days leading up to the expo, which runs from Monday to Thursday, Anwar’s administration came under fire from opposition and boycott groups who demanded that Lockheed Martin and BAE be barred from the event for enabling the “genocide” of Palestinians.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaks at the ‘Malaysia Stands with Palestine’ rally in Kuala Lumpur last year. Anwar has been a vocal critic of Israel. Photo: EPA-EFE

According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, more than 34,000 people have been killed in the war so far – mostly civilians, including many women and children. The months-long offensive was launched in retaliation for an attack by Hamas on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of over 1,200 people in southern Israel, with around 250 more taken hostage.

Responding to the criticism, Defence Minister Khaled Nordin said on Tuesday that Malaysia, as a free trading nation, allows for all global players to market their products and services, and does not interfere with any business dealings between companies and any country.

“The ties between several global defence manufacturers and certain nations are business dealing and Malaysia will not get involved,” Khaled said in a statement posted on his Facebook page early on Tuesday.

“This expo does not take sides with or give an advantage to any country or company.”

The DSA is organised by a Malaysian company. This year’s edition is officially supported by the defence and interior ministries as strategic partners.

Two-time former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said the fact that Lockheed and BAE had taken part in past editions of the DSA did not excuse them from responsibility for the deaths of thousands of Palestinians, and that their presence was an insult to the memory of those killed and Malaysia’s opposition to the war.

“It is true that they have attended previous expos. But the situation this time is extraordinary and the Zionist genocide on the Palestinians is so cruel and without even an ounce of humanity,” he said in a statement on Monday.

The Malaysian chapter of the pro-Palestinian boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement said in an earlier statement that allowing the presence of Lockheed and BAE at the expo showed that Malaysia’s government was ignoring the continued violation of human rights in Gaza and violence suffered by the Palestinians.

“Failure to address these concerns will not only betray the principles of accountability and justice, but also ignores those who stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine,” BDS Malaysia said in a joint statement with 13 other civil society groups.

Edgard Kagan, the US ambassador to Malaysia, said he was aware of the opposition to Lockheed’s involvement, but stressed that the US government played no part in determining the participation of American firms at the event.

“This is something that is at the invitation of Malaysia, so I would refer you to the organisers of the show for any question about participation,” Kagan told reporters on Monday on the sidelines of the DSA.

Protesters march towards the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur during a rally held in solidarity with the Palestinian people last month. Photo: EPA-EFE

Tuesday’s protest, which is being organised by the Palestine Solidarity Secretariat – a coalition of dozens of political parties, civil society groups and youth movements – will also train its sights on American firms L3Harris, which has been linked to the purchase of an Israeli spyware firm; and firearms maker Colt’s Manufacturing, which on Wednesday last week won a tender to sell US$26 million of M4 rifles, suppressors, and flash suppressors to Israel.

Other companies being targeted by the protesters include US companies Leupold and Shield AI, Sweden’s Aimpoint, European conglomerate MBDA and Italian defence firm Leonardo.

Anwar did not address the criticism as he opened the expo on Monday. The prime minister spent a good hour touring the event, visiting booths and pavilions set up by participating firms and countries including Iran, Pakistan, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the US.

In his speech at the official launch, Anwar said participants at the expo had gathered with the shared vision to “fortify global peace and security through collaboration and innovation”.

“We convene not just as representatives of our nations, but as partners in a collective endeavour to address the pressing defence and security-related challenges of our time,” he said.

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