As with other countries, Malaysia expresses concern about national sovereignty and issues related to the distribution and balance of power. But Malaysia's foreign policy behaviour has some distinctive features, and these may be explained partly in terms of the heritage of pre-modern thinking. That heritage of non-Western International Relations (IR) — which includes perspectives on the character of the state, the interests of the state and international order (moral as well as political) — differs radically from post-Westphalian thinking. This article seeks to promote a dialogue between IR and Area Studies. It employs a textual analysis approach from the history of ideas in order to uncover concepts and perspectives which informed inter-polity behaviour in the pre-modern Malay world. It examines the consequences of the absence of national sovereignty as a key articulating concept, and also identifies a number of alternative local concepts that shaped Malay thinking about foreign relations, in particular the ideas of kerajaan (the ruler-centred polity) and nama (reputation, status). The article makes preliminary observations about the way pre-modern Malay ideas might be an influence on Malaysia's foreign relations today — for instance, in its China policy and particular approach towards ASEAN regionalism. It is argued that such ideas at the very least have provided reference points in the process of developing Malaysia's foreign policy. Detailed investigation of the Malay heritage, it is argued, is also valuable in advancing the study of non-Western IR.