FIFTY years ago, on August 23, a group of 60 young Americans arrived in Kota Kinabalu and began their service on a typical warm, humid day as Peace Corps volunteers in villages and towns throughout Sabah and Sarawak.
Along with the first groups of volunteers that arrived in Peninsular Malaysia, these 60 Americans were just the start. By 1967, the Peace Corps programme in Malaysia was one of the largest in the world.
During the 21 years that the Peace Corps served here, it brought more than 4,000 American volunteers to live and work in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.
American Peace Corps volunteers worked hand-in-hand with Malaysians to improve lives and promote livelihoods. Some volunteers taught math, science and English to tens of thousands of Malaysians.
Others helped establish agricultural organisations and public works programmes, or played critical roles in the fight against tuberculosis and improving public health.
These volunteers gave their time, energy and even their lives (six volunteers died during their service in Malaysia) helping the people of Malaysia to develop their nation.
When the Peace Corps programme concluded in Malaysia in 1983, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj stated, “we have been most grateful to (the Peace Corps) for the help they have given us and we feel proud to have met and known them. May this feeling continue for all time … the service they have rendered us will long remain in our memory.”
The Tunku’s comments continue to ring true almost 30 years later. I have been fortunate to travel to almost every part of this beautiful country. All across Malaysia, on the peninsula or East Malaysia, I’ve heard stories from Malaysian friends about their unforgettable experiences with Peace Corps volunteers.
I was equally touched reading comments from former Peace Corps volunteers who attended a dinner hosted by Prime Minister Najib in Honolulu last November. Happily, the spirit of the Peace Corps continues today.
In January 2012, precisely 50 years after the arrival of the first Peace Corps Volunteers, another group of young Americans arrived in Kuala Lumpur on another warm, humid day. These 50 Americans, part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program, have settled into local communities in Terengganu, Pahang and Johor.
They represent President Obama’s response to Prime Minister Najib’s request for US support for English-language education in Malaysia.
Following in the footsteps of Peace Corps Volunteers, these Americans are helping provide the critical English-language skills necessary to succeed in our globalised world while rejuvenating enduring ties among our peoples.
Peace Corps volunteers and English Teaching Assistants build the foundation of friendship and mutual understanding that underpins growing cooperation between our countries.
We are working together to promote shared prosperity. The United States is the largest foreign investor in Malaysia, providing many tens of thousands of jobs and helping Malaysia on its path to become a high-income, knowledge-based economy.
We hope to expand trade and investment even further with the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement among eleven countries.
We are also working together to promote sustainable development. This includes support for Malaysia’s efforts to sustainably manage forests and to protect coral reefs and endangered wildlife. We share goals to enhance energy efficiency and incentivise green growth.
And we are working together to ensure peace, stability and security in the Asia Pacific region, which enables the extraordinary growth and potential of the region.
Bilateral exercises, port calls and shared professional development programmes for our military personnel help both of our countries improve our abilities to respond to disasters, promote maritime safety and fight piracy.
Our educational exchanges promote a brighter future. Thousands of Malaysians have studied in the United States — You can find alumni of US universities and exchange programmes in every corner of Malaysia. Likewise, thousands of Americans have come to Malaysia for education and enrichment.
These experiences have etched lasting memories and remind us that we are connected beyond the material forces of politics and economics.
We are linked by thoughts, ideas and conversations. We share an openness of mind, a curiosity about the world and an appreciation for all that we are as human beings.
From President Kennedy to President Obama, from Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra to Prime Minister Najib, the United States and Malaysia have been partners and friends.
As we celebrate the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary here in Malaysia — and recently Malaysia’s 55th anniversary of its independence — we look forward to continuing this heartfelt spirit of friendship and cooperation for many years to come.