MALAYSIA: 'We have to emphasize the commonality'
Karin Palmquist

Last fall, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Southeast Asia's longest serving head of government, stepped down after 22 years as prime minister of Malaysia. Mahathir oversaw the transformation of Malaysia from a commodity-exporting economy to one of Asia's richest countries, where manufactured goods now make up 85 percent of all exports. When Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi became Malaysia's fifth prime minister on October 31 of last year, his biggest challenge was to 'manage the success.' met with Dato Ghazzali Sheikh Abdul Khalid, Malaysia's ambassador to Washington, to ask what lies ahead for his country.

"I think the impact of the new Prime Minister [Dato' Seri Abdullah] is reflected in the March 2004 election where the ruling party got 90 percent of the seats in the federal and state assembly," Ambassador Ghazzali said. "They also managed to win back one of the two states that the Islamic party controlled. Taking over [from Prime Minister Mahathir] in November 2003, [Dato' Seri Abdullah] had his own set of reformist ideas for bringing the country forward. Crucial for this initiative was the emphasis on the quality of human capital. He remarked that he was taking over a country that was successful economically and politically. He said his challenge now is to 'manage the success.' He concentrated on improving the 'software' of Malaysia, the mindsets of Malaysians. We have had a very successful economic development in Malaysia. We have a strong foundation, a good infrastructure with road systems, ports, power sources and a modern telecom network."

"Now we need to enhance our competitiveness," the ambassador continued. "Between Chinese low-cost producers and India trying to find its niche, we have to keep up in the game. We see that we must reduce the cost of doing business in Malaysia. If you look at our economic development it has been largely powered by foreign investments. To remain attractive we must remain competitive. The concentration now is on how to make the entire machinery of the government efficient."

"We're concentrating on stemming corruption," the ambassador said. "To do this you have to target the mindset, to make clear it is ethically reprehensible. We are targeting on the integrity of the individuals. We have established an entity called Regional Anticorruption Academy, with the task not only to train the officials carrying out the anticorruption measures of the government, but also to provide training for the people in the region. [Fighting] corruption is an issue that must embrace the entire population. We're the 18th largest trading nation in the world. We must make sure that people want to keep trading with us. Under the National Integrity Plan we have established the National Integrity Institute. We have instructed party leaders to declare their assets. Members of parliament are supposed to submit a report every three months on their performance according to a performance index established. [The initiative] has been well received by the population, including the opposition, which believes this is good for the country."

"We have changed prime ministers but the government is still formed from the same coalition of partners. There is a continuation of policies. The macroeconomic policy still comes from the same philosophy," the ambassador summed up.

Recent foreign direct investment in Malaysia has grown enormously - from $170 million last year to 1.7 billion this year. What is behind this remarkable growth in investments?

"I would say it is due to the package of incentives that we provide," the ambassador said. "The government has persistently pursued business-friendly policies to attract international investments. Another reason is the peace and stability of the country. And then there is the enormous investment that the government has made over the years in our educational development. We now invest 20 percent of the annual budget to education."

"Before we were a commodity-exporting economy, famous for our rubber, timber, palm oil - we're the world's largest producer of palm oil - pepper and other commodities," the ambassador continued. "This remains a very strong foundation of our economy, but today 85 percent of our exports are manufactured goods, in areas of technology - computers, microchips, semiconductors, etc. Malaysia is no longer a low-cost country. We can't compete with cheap labor, so we have to move to higher value-added products. We are still manufacturing for foreign companies but we're pushing our own designs, our own technology. We need to move the Malaysian economy into a knowledge-based economy. Also, the full potential of the agricultural sector has not been realized. Malaysia imports food for $1 billion every year. We have good land. We could be exporting more agricultural products. We're exploring the possibility of agriculture becoming another engine of growth of the Malaysian economy. We expect a growth of the Malaysian economy of six to seven percent this year. Malaysia is bouncing back."

In Europe and Asia, Malaysia has been running a very successful advertising campaign with the catch line 'Malaysia - truly Asia.' Looking at the demographics of Malaysia, it couldn't be better encapsulated. Malay and other indigenous groups make up 58 percent of the population, Chinese 24 percent, Indians 8 percent, and various smaller groups the remaining 10 percent. This mosaic of ethnicities practice similarly diverse religions: Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and in East Malaysia Shamanism.

"Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-religious society," the ambassador said. "This could be a recipe for disaster but we have made an enormous effort to sustain national unity.

"At independence we had a GDP per capita of $300, the same as Kenya or Haiti. Today it is over $5,000. The foundation of democracy is a strong middle class," he continued. "Ben Franklin said a sack can't stand up on its own unless the middle is strong. We have made tremendous efforts since independence in 1957. Our massive rural development programs and our investments in health, education and infrastructure are now paying off."

This multiculturalism makes for an exciting tourist destination. After a dip in tourism figures due to the 9/11 attacks and last year's bird flu virus, Malaysian tourism is now picking up. Malaysia received 10 million tourists in 2003, and the forecast for this year is more than 12 million visitors.

"Malaysia is a living, dynamic, multiracial fashion show. It is a microcosm of the world. It makes for enjoyable traveling. Malaysia is a one stop shop for tourism," the ambassador jokes. "English is widely spoken and it's a hospitable society. It's a safe and cheap destination -- a night in a five-star hotel is only $100. It has one of the best scuba diving spots in Asia and we have pristine beaches and real jungles with orangutans. And because it's a multicultural society, there is almost always a cultural or religious festival."

Since the 9/11 attacks, Asia has been rocked by several terrorist attacks, most severely the October 12, 2002 bombing in the town of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali, which killed 202 people and injured a further 209, most of them foreign tourists. Jemaah Islamiyah, a Indonesia-based terrorist group was blamed for the attack, as well as last year's attack on Jakarta's JW Marriott Hotel. What terror threats does the ambassador see to the region?

"By the grace of God, we have been spared violence and senseless killing," the ambassador said. "Indonesia has had several incidents. The Malaysian government has taken firm action. In May of 2001, several members of a Malaysian militant group were arrested. In October that same year, the government detained another 40. The back of the organization is now broken. The group probably had ideological links to Jemaah Islamiyah. The government has been vigilant, leaving no stone unturned. Islamic zealotry is against the very heart of Islam, the very core message."

"The majority of Muslims are moderate, occupied with building a better future for their children," he continued. "But the extremists get the most oxygen in the media and the best representatives of the religion are lost to the public eye. There are 57 percent Muslims in Malaysia. Islam is under scrutiny. Islam has to acquit itself." 

"We have to emphasize the commonality and isolate those who have reached a dead end. We have to differentiate religious beliefs from political agendas. Malaysia had dealt with Communist insurgents for 20 years, and the method has been two-pronged. We have used arms, but military action alone won't do it. We have also targeted the hearts and minds by, for example, addressing the issues of the Chinese community. They were granted citizenship, land, education which brought them into full participation in the political life of the country." the ambassador said.

As extremists and media emphasize differences rather than commonalities, is the ambassador concerned about the clash of civilizations?

"When it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue for example, Muslims feel the plight of the Palestinians. This is a key issue for turning around the Muslim perception [of the United States]. We embrace the two-state solution, as we embraced the road map, the Arab League initiative, and the Oslo talks," the ambassador said.

Now more than ever is cooperation between nations needed. What are the areas of cooperation between Malaysia and the United States in the war on terror?

"After the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, we were able to provide US intelligence agencies with information, which led to the conviction of one of the perpetrators," the ambassador said. "In January of 2001, Malaysian intelligence agencies worked with their US counterparts and provided a video recording of one of the terrorists [who took part in the attack on the World Trade Center in September that same year]. There are enormous amounts of intelligence exchanged between the United States and Malaysia. Malaysia was the first ASEAN country to sign with the U.S a declaration to combat terrorism in May of 2002. That declaration became a model for the U.S - ASEAN agreement. In 2003, we established a center called Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counter Terrorism. The United States has sponsored a number of courses at this center. We have also co-operated with the US within the framework of the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and of 20 ports that have agreed to a prescreening of containers, two ports are Malaysian."

Fighting common threats the United States and Malaysia are emphasizing their commonality.



DATE OF CREDENTIALS: April  19, 1999

DATE/PLACE OF BIRTH: March 20, 1946 / Penang, Malaysia

Ambassador Ghazzali is a career diplomat since 1971. Immediately prior to his appointment to Washington, he served as the Deputy Secretary General I at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia.

Over the years, his overseas appointments have included Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, Thailand, the United States in New York, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe.

Dato' Ghazzali holds a B. Economics (Hons) from the University of La Trobe, Australia and speaks Malay and English.  He is married to Datin Faridah Ghazzali.