The Hamas onslaught upon Israel on October 7 and the resulting military response by Israel prompted a wide range of responses across Southeast Asia. Some are motivated by political and religious ideology, particularly in Muslim-majority nations, and others by pragmatism, self-interest and established relationships.
In Indonesia, numerous leaders expressed support and admiration for the Hamas terror attacks in the immediate wake of October 7. Hopes in Israel for improved ties with Indonesia look likely to be sidelined for some time.
This forthright support for Hamas surprised long-time Indonesia watchers. Unlike Malaysia, Indonesia has always referred to a two-state solution when backing the Palestinian cause. Though Israel and Indonesia lack formal diplomatic relations, Indonesian tourists visit Israel and Israelis have in the past done business with and visited Indonesia.
Moreover, Jakarta seeks to play a role in international politics commensurate with its status as the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and its growing economic clout. It also seeks to export the moderate brand of Islam which most Indonesians practise. Top leaders in Jakarta have thus long been eager to play some sort of positive role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking – which requires having a relationship with Israel.
A growing trend against ties with Israel was already present before the Hamas attack on October 7. In the lead up to Indonesian general elections scheduled for February 2024, leaders from the ruling party publicly objected to the participation of Israeli sportsmen in two international sporting events scheduled to take place in Indonesia – which cost the country the rights to host both events.
President Joko Widodo’s response to October 7 was to urge an end to the bloodshed, adding, “The root cause of the conflict, which is the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel, must be resolved immediately in accordance with the parameters that have been agreed upon by the UN.”
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s former vice president Jusuf Kalla described the Hamas attacks as an “extraordinary act carried out in the name of freedom and independence,” while Fadli Zion, Chairman of the Gerindra Party of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, compared Hamas to Indonesian groups that fought the Dutch for independence.
The Ulema Council of Indonesia said the October 7 terrorist assault was a reaction to the “arbitrary actions” of Israeli authorities “who have systematically undermined the sovereignty of the Palestinian people and nation. Combined with the numerous violations of various agreements by the Israeli authorities, it is evident that Israel must pay a heavy price. Hamas’ significant attack serves as a reckoning for Israel, and Israel will have to bear the consequences on its own,” said the Ulema Council’s Foreign Relations Chairman Sudarnoto Abdul Hakim in a press statement.
Malaysia is one of Hamas’ key international backers, alongside Iran, Turkey and Qatar.
Malaysia has hosted Hamas leaders Khaled Mashal and Ismail Haniyeh, while former PM Najib Razak met Hamas leaders in Gaza in 2013. Hamas operatives have made Malaysia a key base.
US analyst James Dorsey, writing in Modern Diplomacy, noted that the Kuala Lumpur-based Palestinian Cultural Organisation Malaysia, which organises well-attended public events, also serves as Hamas’ unofficial embassy for public outreach and fundraising.
Palestinian engineer Fadi Mohamed al-Batsh, allegedly a key player in Hamas’ rocket and drone development, was assassinated by suspected Israeli operatives in Kuala Lumpur in April 2018. Media reports said that al-Batsh may have been negotiating an arms deal with North Korea.
In 2014, the Israeli military said that a captured Hamas commander had told Israel’s domestic intelligence service that he was one of ten fighters who trained in Malaysia in the use of motor-powered hang gliders – an ominous portent in light of the October 7 attacks.
Malaysian politics have long been suffused with anti-Zionism as well as antisemitism. Virtually every election features candidates accusing their opponents of being secretly allied with Jews and Zionists.
Malaysia’s immediate response to Hamas’ attacks on October 7 was to reiterate its “solidarity with the struggles of the Palestinian people.” In a post on X (Twitter), Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said, “The confiscation of land and property belonging to the Palestinian people is done relentlessly by the Zionists. As a result of this injustice, hundreds of innocent lives were sacrificed.”
After Friday prayers on Oct. 13 in Kuala Lumpur, a crowd of around 15,000 assembled to condemn Israel. According to the Malay Mail, protesters wore keffiyehs and held aloft placards reading Israel cuak (“Israel is frightened”). The usually rancorous Malay politics gave way to rare unanimity, with a diverse array of prominent politicians in attendance from former prime ministers Muhyiddin Yassin and Mahathir Mohamad to the ethnic Chinese-oriented Democratic Action Party.
American diplomatic pressure on Malaysia to label Hamas a terrorist group has been rebuffed. Congress’s passage on November 1 of a bill to impose sanctions on countries financially supporting Hamas prompted a comment from PM Anwar. Conceding that trade could take a hit if Washington were to sanction Kuala Lumpur under the proposed bill, Anwar said, “We will continue our relationship with Hamas and we do not view Hamas as a terrorist organisation.”
Meanwhile, calls for boycotts against companies with alleged links to Israel have been strong on social media platforms. High profile targets are American food franchises – McDonalds, Starbucks, and Pizza Hut – due to the US Government’s pro-Israel stance.
The ride-hailing company Grab Malaysia also became a target of the boycotts after screenshots of several Instagram stories posted by Chloe Tong – the wife of Grab CEO Anthony Tan – circulated on social media. Ms. Tong had said that she had fallen “completely in love” with Israel because of her past visits there.
Among foreign countries, Thailand was the most directly affected in terms of lives lost and number of nationals taken hostage. An estimated 30,000 Thais live in Israel, many working as farm labourers. Hamas gunmen killed 29 Thais on October 7 and seized 31 as hostages.
The Thai foreign ministry responded by simply calling upon “all parties involved to refrain from any actions that would further escalate tensions and [condemned] any use of violence and indiscriminate attacks.”
The new Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin went further to denounce Hamas as “inhumane” while extending his “deepest condolences to the government and people of Israel.”
His later televised comment, that if he were Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu he would turn Gaza into “the world’s biggest cemetery,” drew criticism from Muslim leaders in the nation’s south.
Subsequently Thailand remained quiet about the war and focused on getting their hostages released via Iranian intervention.
The Thai Government appointed House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, a prominent Muslim politician allied with the government, to run its mission to liberate the hostages. Saiyid Sulaiman Husaini, the influential leader of a Thai Shi’ite Association, then organised a trip to Tehran on October 27 for Wan Noor’s advisors. During that visit Thailand was given assurances from Hamas that Thai hostages would be released as soon as a truce was declared. On October 31, the Thai Foreign Minister visited Qatar meeting with his Qatari and Iranian counterparts.
During the week-long pause in the fighting between Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 23 Thai hostages were released separately from the Israelis released as part of the deal. Eight Thais are believed to be still held as hostages.
Like Thailand, the Philippines was directly affected by the Hamas attack. There are approximately 40,000 Filipinos in Israel. Three were killed by Hamas on October 7, while 20 others were rescued by Israeli forces, Philippines officials said.
At the political level, the Philippines’ long history of support for the Jewish state was reflected in the words of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr: “My heart is heavy upon hearing confirmation of the deaths of two Filipinos in Israel. The Philippines condemns these killings and stands firmly against the ongoing terror and violence.”
Following the release of a hostage by Hamas on Nov. 24, Marcos said, “I salute the work of the Philippine Foreign Service in securing his release, and once again thank the State of Qatar for their invaluable assistance in making [Jimmy Pacheco’s] release possible.” The final remaining Filipino hostage was released on November 28.
Vietnam said after October 7 that it was “profoundly concerned by the Hamas attack.” Despite its increasing economic ties with Israel, Hanoi has taken a stance similar to that of Beijing and Moscow: not condemning the Hamas massacre of October 7 and simply calling for an end to the violence.
Long-time Israeli ally Singapore strongly condemned Hamas. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote to Israeli PM Netanyahu on October 8, saying that he was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of so many Israeli lives” as a result of Hamas’ terrorist attacks. “On behalf of the Government of Singapore, I extend our heartfelt condolences to the government and people of Israel, especially the families of the victims, and wish the injured a speedy recovery. I am confident that Israel will remain strong and united to overcome the difficult challenges ahead.”
Singaporean Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Oct. 12, “Hamas’ attack on Israel – attacking and massacring civilians is a massive terrorist attack. The kidnapping and unjustified murder of children – the acts of cruelty are shocking and horrifying. And this extreme violence must be condemned in clear, unequivocal terms. These atrocities cannot be justified by any rationale whatsoever, whether of fundamental problems or historical grievances.”
Public discussion in Singapore has focused largely on the threat to Singaporean security and harmony from the Gaza war. On November 6, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong warned about terrorist groups in the region using the war to radicalise more individuals, and about a rise in offensive remarks or actions targeting members of the Jewish or Muslim communities in Singapore. He also warned that some Singaporeans have in recent years been detained after falling for pro-Hamas narratives to the extent that they wanted to take up arms overseas, and there has been a recent “three-fold” increase in “regional internet traffic on extremist sites.”
All of the Southeast Asian countries responded predictably to October 7, from the hostility to Israel in Malaysia to the support for Israel in Singapore and the Philippines. The one possible surprise may be Indonesia, where growing Islamist movements, funded from the Gulf, may be gradually changing the country’s political orientation. Widespread political-level support for Hamas may be an early sign of this evolving shift in the biggest and most important country in Southeast Asia.