Raising the expectations of a “substantive visit” to India, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said on Monday that India would be a major player in the region and beyond.

“We are hoping that the visit will enhance political and economic relations with India,” Mr. Najib told a group of visiting Indian journalists at Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.

Citing a global projection of China emerging as the world’s biggest economy in terms of GDP by 2050, he said India was expected to follow. This was also why Malaysia attached much importance to his visit to New Delhi and Chennai from January 19 to 21.

The scope of Malaysia’s defence-related cooperation with India now was “not sub-optimal,” he said. Kuala Lumpur would look at some of the equipment developed by the defence companies in India and study the capabilities of its weapon systems.

Mr. Najib said the bilateral discussions would cover highways and road construction, education, oil and gas exploration, information and communication technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, tourism, renewable energy and green technologies.

He said a number of agreements might be signed during his visit. Most of them would be in the private sector — “13 and still counting.” Taking note of the sensitivities in India to the ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement that came into force on New Year’s Day, Mr. Najib hoped both countries could reactivate talks on a comprehensive economic cooperation agreement. He evinced interest in attracting the burgeoning Indian middle class to Malaysia as a destination for medical and eco-tourism.

Asked about Malaysia’s withdrawal of visa-on-arrival for Indians, Mr. Najib said the decision was based on the fact that nearly 40,000 Indians went “missing” by the end of 2009 after the scheme was introduced. Chennai was the port of embarkation in these cases, he said.

For peaceful negotiations

As for the move by the Organisation of Islamic Conference to appoint a special envoy for Jammu and Kashmir, Mr, Najib said any follow-up action would be possible only if both India and Pakistan were agreeable to it. Kuala Lumpur felt that the issue should be settled through peaceful negotiations.

No talks with Hindraf

On Malaysia’s domestic issues, Mr. Najib ruled out any dialogue with the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), saying the group had “really exaggerated and manipulated the situation” of the ethnic Indian minority. “Most [ethnic] Indians want the [Malaysian] government to be sensitive to their needs, and the government has been responsive.”

The tension over the recent attacks on churches subsided, he said, and the incidents did not tarnish Malaysia’s secular image.

Protests in Kerala

PTI reports:

Mr. Najib said the India-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement was put on the “backburner” because of protests in Kerala. The issue was put “on the backburner owing to the adverse reaction from one of the Indian States [Kerala]. I would like to see this move forward. Time is now ripe to put it back on track,” he said.

“We want to conclude it by the end of this year. I will raise the issue [with Indian officials] during my visit,” he said, asked when the FTA was likely to be signed.

Fishermen in Kerala are unhappy because imports from the ASEAN countries such as Malaysia and Singapore will affect the traditional and small-scale fishery. There has been a strong agitation from coconut, cashewnut and spice growers, who fear the deal will jeopardise their livelihood.