MALAYSIA’s bilateral relationship with the United States has improved over the years under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and US President Barrack Obama, especially in the fight against terrorism, such as the threat of the Islamic State (IS) and with the stance taken by Malaysia based on moderation.
In an exclusive interview with thesundaypost recently, US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur deputy chief of mission Edgard Kagan, who has served in Malaysia since July 25, 2014, discussed a wide range of issues vital to the bilateral ties of the two nations.
Q: Can you share with us about your visit here?
My visit here is about learning as a diplomat, to learn more about the grassroots such as schools, colleges, museum and the hospital.
Q: Can you describe the current bilateral ties between the two countries?
This is an incredible time in our bilateral relations, the relationship in many ways is stronger as it has ever been, stronger than it has ever been in many years. Having a good relationship doesn’t mean that we agree on everything. But I think we have built a high level of cooperation in the last five to six years. That’s quite extraordinary compared to quite a long period of time before that.
And we see that as a strong product of shared interest, which is built on people to people interest but also the strong relationship of our leaders as well as the growing Malaysian appreciation of the US’ role in Asia and the feeling of the US’ engagement in the region as positive from Malaysia, from Asean and Asia as a whole.
There is a lot of areas in the relationship but what struck me from the embassy’s point of view is that we are doing more than we have ever done before. Issues ranging from law enforcement to security operations and military exercise, to working on trade issues to political cooperation.
The wide range of issues that we are working together on is extraordinary. And one of the products is that almost every section of the embassy is revamped and there is more exchange of ideas back and forth than we have had for a long time. Overall the relationship is quite good and of course there are challenges.
But there are things that we don’t fully agree on, there are things where we have different perspectives and I think there is no surprise that the US and Malaysia, often we have goals together but the ways to achieve these goals are different. The challenges including our statements in the Anwar verdict as well as the Sedition Act issue.
We have longstanding issues on views like that. We feel that as the relationship is going stronger, it is much in our interest to move to the direction which we consider as moving towards a stronger relationship with each other, in private or in public and where I think we try to make sure there is clear understanding of our perspective, views. I think we also have concerns in the area of trafficking of persons and forced labour, and there are some reports by the US on this.
We are equally impressed with the Malaysian government in addressing these problems. I mean we have seen the downgrade of the Malaysian status. In terms of government commitment, there is a desire to make real progress as we have seen what’s happening now.
The US Congress report on trafficking in persons around the world basically focuses on various criteria. Malaysia was in Tier 2 in the watch list. This is for countries which have challenges that are put on warnings that they could be downgraded to Tier 3; which carry a number of consequences but most importantly repercussions and symbolic as much of the impact of being downgraded.
Last year, Malaysia was downgraded to Tier 3 after several years in Tier 2. That gets a lot of attention from your government and honestly I don’t think we are surprised but that being said, we are impressed with the Malaysian government’s decision to address and improve the standard.
The best way for the Malaysian government to address the trafficking of persons is to improve the efforts to combat the trafficking of persons through better treatment of victims, through prosecution of persons who organised the trafficking of persons and to improve the legal status of victims while their cases are being heard.
By improving the legal framework in recognising the issues so that these things are quite positive as the government has agreed that these issues need to be addressed, they have taken steps to address them and we are working very closely together. And if there are significant steps to be taken and put these plans into reality, the best thing to do is to reduce the case of trafficking of persons, protection of victims, take actions against those involved in it.
We certainly believe that the Malaysian government takes the steps that have been identified and to fight against it together and we think we have seen progress in the Malaysian government in terms of its treatment of its ranking.
The biggest question is when and how long it will take before this will get off, that we are confident that this is something that Malaysia can address. We know the capacity is here and now we see the will and in our view it’s a question of following through what has been initiated and if that happens, personally speaking, yes, we believe that if Malaysia takes the appropriate steps, I don’t think that would be a major problem.
We have seen that the government has created a ministerial committee. That reflects a strong desire to address the problem, it involves ministers and directs the public service to take the appropriate steps. We believe the right framework has been created and now is the question of implementing it. To any government that’s always a challenge. There’s always pressure that makes it difficult to move forward. But we believe that there is a real desire to make progress on the part of the Malaysian government.
Q: What’s the US’ perception of Malaysia?
We definitely value Malaysia’s international role and we appreciate what Malaysia in particular is supporting moderation and tolerance, this is not really something for us necessarily to judge.
Ultimately this is something for Malaysians to give their view on what kind of government they vote for. In our view, the key thing is we see Malaysia as a country that has potential internationally because it is a responsible and moderate country that seeks to play a positive role, that doesn’t seek to promote conflict but rather try to promote dialogue and understanding.
The challenge, very candidly is, there is a big debate in Malaysia and there is a lot of different views about what kind of policy Malaysia should have in this area.
As Americans, we are very familiar with that. I think that’s where the US and Malaysia are very similar: for being multi-ethnic, multiracial, multi-religious countries. And so we have greater understanding as one with a wide range of views in our societies.
That being said, for me personally, to be here for only eight months, the vast majority of Malaysians have great appreciation for tolerance, the willingness to live together, support for not just coexistence but genuine mutual understanding and I think this is visible particularly here in Sarawak.
That’s certainly something that stands out. And I am impressed by it. I think it reflects something by the vast majority of Malaysians. And so we appreciate that. And like many others we are concerned when there are events that suggest more extreme views, especially extreme views that are getting traction.
There’s positive response from all sides. We stand with the Malaysians in the view for as much tolerance and as much moderation in approach as possible. What everyone tells me is that Sarawak is different from what I see and the little that I know, you definitely have a different mix of people, different debates and dialogues compared to different parts of Malaysia.
Q: What’s your view on Malaysia’s efforts on environmental protection?
We have long supported programmes in Malaysia to protect the environment, particularly wildlife.
We are looking forward to the Asean meeting on wildlife sometime in March in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. We welcome any steps to preserve the environment. We think that’s a huge asset for Malaysia both as a country and for the people. And we think that also reflects the wishes of the vast majority of Malaysians.
How this is done is obviously up to the people and the government of Malaysia. Meaning, we encourage and support it as much as we can. But ultimately we are aware of the fact that it incorporates the wishes of the people’s ideas. The key is the outcome. Our view is that anything that can be done to protect the environment and wildlife is a positive step but it has to be done in a sustainable way and it has to be done with the local inhabitants.
Q: Is the US willing to help finance Malaysia’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions?
I think that’s a tough question because the whole mechanism for dealing with carbon emissions is very complicated. But as a general statement, the Obama administration and the US government strongly support efforts to try to reduce carbon emissions and we are very actively engaged and in negotiation.
You may have seen our agreement with China as announced in November last year that we think is very significant. The US and China are obviously the world’s largest carbon emitters.
And for the US, carbon emissions have gone down in the past few years but the Chinese continues to go up. And we think that the commitment by China is very important. We see countries like Malaysia playing a role in three different ways, namely: any country that has rainforests plays a very important role in terms of dealing with global carbon emissions that the rainforest is central and also every land clearing is contributing to carbon emissions.
Secondly, Malaysia is a growing economy and it’s worth noting Malaysia’s per capita carbon emissions in its GDP and that’s something that can change the trajectory that can have significant impact unless, let’s be honest, Malaysia is a relatively small country on its own but the symbolism of a country like Malaysia taking a positive step is very significant.
Thirdly, Malaysia is very active in negotiations and we think Malaysia’s influence is great and link that to the first two things, we think the symbolism of those things is very significant. So we want to work more with Malaysia and we have been able to see eye to eye on some aspects of it. But we definitely recognise the fact that the current Malaysian government is finding ways to lessen carbon emissions and trying to address global warming.
Q: And how do you view Sarawak’s efforts to fight illegal logging and create more national parks?
In the context of Sarawak, your Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem’s proactive steps to protect its environment is very good for the country and the world. This is good to address carbon emissions and preserve diversity as well as its wildlife. And also protecting the way of life and culture of the traditional people. And I am very impressed with the efforts by the Sarawak Museum in its efforts to preserve the traditional languages. And that’s something I personally am interested in.
It’s significant because it’s a reminder that there is an incredible biodiversity here in Sarawak. And I think there is a close linkage between preserving the forest and helping to preserve some of the traditional cultures and people.
That’s necessary in order to preserve the languages. And I think Sarawak is a very lucky place in many ways. It has incredible history, great mix of people and cultures, natural beauty and wildlife. It really is a special place which I think I am very lucky to come to view it first-hand.
Q: What’s the current trade relations between Malaysia and the US?
This is something that I am not involved with and I follow it in the papers like most people. But we welcome people to invest in the US. Investments from countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia. We are pretty optimistic about the Malaysian economy, that it continues to have a lot of strength and we are very aware of the Malaysian government’s efforts to transform itself into a high income country.
Q: What’s the US’ stance on Malaysia’s palm oil industry?
The US attitude towards palm oil is a little bit different from the attitude of that in Europe. Palm oil is complicated because it has tremendous benefits particularly in creating wealth for smallholders and small farmers. At the same time there is a cost.
The clearing of land to plant oil palm has tremendous amount of environmental costs. How you balance that is something every country has to do on its own. Our view is that the clearing of the rainforest will start carbon emissions. At the same time, we recognise the importance of palm oil to Malaysia.
Palm oil has helped Malaysia to develop and now it’s something really good for the people of Malaysia and for partners and friends of Malaysia that’s something we will support. The key is finding ways to document the sustainability of the palm oil production and to ensure that both labour and agricultural practices are positive for the environment as well as for the people of Malaysia. And we think that there is always room for improvements.
Our embassies in the region are working with key palm oil producers. We have talked with the main Malaysian producers about the issue of sustainability and documentation. We think there is tremendous potential to do that. It’s very clear that the next question is how you minimise new clearance of rainforests and at the same time how you ensure that current production is as sustainable as possible.
And that’s something we hope to work with the companies and government of Malaysia because we think that there is a way forward. So overall palm oil is a Malaysian issue. It’s one issue we recognise that is good for Malaysia and one which we are not the major and significant consumers.
We also want to help to come up with a solution that allows for people to profit from palm oil in a way that is economically sustainable. Our view is the clearing of rainforest for palm oil has some real costs and it’s important that the costs be properly assessed.
So much has been done for palm oil so the critical thing is to ensure a good mechanism to assess the balance. Our stand is that in general the cost of clearing new rainforest to plant oil palm is generally high but certainly there are areas which have been logged where the primary forest has been cut down, I think the key thing is getting the mechanism to assess the cost and benefits in a way that’s transparent, fair and weigh the cost fairly evenly.
Q: Why is there a double standard in the views of Western countries, including the US, on Eastern countries including Malaysia, especially in terms of environmental matters?
Obviously there are different views. We believe that it’s possible to have development and protect the environment at the same time. It is a little bit hard. Obviously you follow different models and we feel that our model is better in the long run because we do think that it will help for a more sustainable policy that would be better for us in the long run.
We have preserved some forests. But obviously we have not preserved so much as we should have and certainly we know that we should be and certainly if we knew then what we know now, then we will have different policies. And that answers the heart of the question. Look, the key thing is we are not in the position to tell other countries: “Look this is what you have to do.”
But we do believe that there is a shared scientific base on understanding of ways in which to manage our resources as effectively as possible.
The idea of double standards obviously has traction but at the same time it is very critical to recognise that the goal here isn’t in the lecturing. It is to try to work together to come up with a solution that is good for the people of Malaysia, good for the people of other countries, that are wrestling with the same issues and at the same time to promote development and protect the environment and we are confident that it exists because there is a growing number of people in Malaysia who believe that it is possible to do both.
The key thing is to come up with a practical solution that is based on facts and that addresses real concerns.
Q: Can you share with us the current education scenario between the two countries, especially on the ETA (English teaching assistants) programme?
The history of the ETA programme is something that we are proud of. Obviously this is a very new programme and it comes up due to the shared commitment of both countries.
The Malaysian government has done an extremely good job in making this programme work. The Ministry of Education and in particular state education departments have shown a tremendous amount of commitment.
When we started the programme a few years ago, we had only 10 to 15 participants. And now we have 100. They have been welcomed to a degree that I am most optimistic that they have been welcomed in as much as they have throughout Malaysia.
Every place they are now, they want more. We also see the benefits as compared to the first year. So we are incredibly impressed. And yesterday, we went to SMK Semerah Padi where we have an ETA, who is the second one being posted there. And we see how incredibly they have welcomed her and how much they are using her and how much she has been integrated into what the school is doing. And that’s what we want to see.
And so the programme has grown a lot and grown so fast and we want to see it to continue growing until it’s sustainable. We are going through the challenges of maintaining it and require a tremendous input of resources from the MOE as well as from the state Department of Education, for the placement and the follow up.
That being said, we would like it to keep growing, we are thrilled with these 100 ETAs, where 15 of them are in Sarawak. We are thrilled because they have been useful in the schools and we think that’s great and I personally think about how it could be expanded. And if we can, we’d love to. Sarawak has done all the right things that make this programme a success.
So if we have a choice we want to go where we can be successful. Hopefully this programme will expand. But we are very happy how Sarawak schools have benefited from them. And if we are not sure where to go, this is one place that we can think of. The problem is in every state they are in, they want more, like in Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Pahang. They all want more.
So it’s very hard for me to say there will be definitely more for Sarawak. And it’s also very hard because some states who don’t have them, also want them to come. So we have to figure that out.
The one thing is we have seen the Malaysian government at both the state and federal levels are partners with us on this programme and we are committed to doing it and we believe we can help with that. And that’s good for us on two levels; one, we want to help the Malaysian government.
But in the long run, the real benefit is all the Malaysians who become exposed to the Americans and we are convinced that in the next 10 to 20 years, there is going to be a powerful force for the US-Malaysian relationship.
The short-term benefit is here already but in the long-term it also benefits us and most of these ETAs when they go home, they will play a much bigger role in the US-Malaysia relationship. US campus. It’s a relatively new thing for the American education system. They are starting to do it now in some places and there is a strong intention to partner in the area. But simply because candidly there are many institutions that have been set up here.
Q: What’s your comment on the Lincoln Corner in our State Library?
We love it. I was incredibly impressed with the set up in the state library. We are extremely lucky to have a capable partner here. It reflects that the library is extremely committed to this and sees it as a priority. From our point of view. Lincoln Corner is a resource we want to use more and that’s the thing that we are working on with the ETAs right now.
Q: What’s the latest on the Peace Corps?
It was closed down some 20 years ago. Our present ETA programme is designed a little bit to replicate what the Peace Corps did. But I am amazed of its impact and somehow we want the ETA programme to have that kind of impact but ETA is very focused on the teaching of English.
Q: What’s the number of Malaysian students pursuing their studies in the US and what are some of the salient points of your education system?
Currently some 7,000 Malaysians study in the US and we think that the number is lower than it should be. But one thing that struck me in my short time here in Malaysia is how many people I have met whether in business, academia or government, who studied in the US in the 70s and 80s have a very strong network among themselves and I am incredibly happy about that.
I think the number has gone down and we want to see that the number grows. Obviously Malaysia has a lot of choices in education and we recognise that people make decisions for a lot of reasons having to do with the systems, cost, distance, etc. We recognise that there are many Malaysians who want to study here in Malaysia and some of the others want to study overseas such as in the UK and Australia. But we really want to think that both countries will benefit if more Malaysians study in the US.
We have a wide range of choices that make the US different from most other countries. There is a wide range of institutions of higher learning ranging from specialisation in all sorts of subjects, some are big and some are small, in big cities and small towns.
I mean there is an incredible range of schools in the US. What I told Malaysians is that you will definitely find that you could fit into a wide range of choices and also the US culture is very different but at the same time, I think a lot of Malaysians find how comfortable they feel to study in the US.
I think they find it very different from what they expect but Malaysians have a great reputation as students and when people go to US, they are by and large very good students and they are doing very well when they are there.
I think they are very comfortable when they are there because the US is a lot like Malaysia because it’s multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious where there is a wide range of schools and you can find people believing in anything and the country is pretty religious.
So whatever your religion is, you can find places where you can go to such as mosques, churches or temples. I think also that when people go to the US, they will do well when they come back to Malaysia. Well, people studying in other places will also do well but what I am saying is that our education system prepares people well in complex groups and challenges such as in academics, professional and social.
I think these people will do very well. The truth is I don’t study in Australia and I don’t live in the UK and I am not going to compare that but I can tell you that people who went to the US do pretty well when they come back because they are very well prepared.
Q: Is the US still the leading country in terms of ICT?
I think it’s very important to compare the software and the hardware. I think it’s very clear that the cutting edge, the use of technology is still in the US. I mean the good example is iPhones.
Even though iPhones may be produced in China but the reality is that all the designs as well as the marketing; the software comes from the US. And it’s done by people from all over the world. And one thing that we are very lucky in the US is the fact that we attract the best students and professionals from around the world to work in our companies.
Q: How about the current cooperation between Malaysia and the US in terms of defence?
We have some joint projects together. These have been in weapons procurement in the past but also the Malaysian government has bought technology that allows for the local production for example in the case of riffles for the Malaysian army.
We see the potential of growth. Malaysia faces a lot of challenges especially its defence budget and obviously one challenge in the defence technology is the significance in the upfront commitment of resources and that also puts constraint on Malaysia.
But I think there are areas of potential for cooperation where we’d like to do more. More broadly we want to see a security relationship on areas of tremendous stride and there has been always strong and close relations since the time Malaysia was formed.
But we see a significant change in the last few tears and we are very grateful to the Malaysian government in our military training with our Malaysian counterparts and we believe that the Malaysian counterparts also learn through us.
And it’s expanding because both countries benefit by doing more together. And both countries recognise that a strong defence relationship helps to pressure peace and stability in the region and that’s very important to the Asean region as a whole.
Q: And how about the procurement of defence assets such as submarines, fighter planes and weapons from the US?
Well if you buy them from us it’s a practical matter depending on what kind of submarines you want to buy. But I mean in purchasing of weapons in the coming decades such as multi-role combat aircraft that have been in the horizon for a very long time and we believe that we are a strong candidate for that.
And what we learn together is the value of capacity and the value of our understanding of the American defence system. And one thing that’s worth noting is when there is a real challenge, which country can they rely on and when you look at our relations, we have been a reliable partner to Malaysia over the years in a lot of different areas including security and defence.
Q: Is Malaysia a strong and strategic partner of the US to curb the threat of IS?
Yes, absolutely. Look we have an absolutely good relationship with the Malaysian government on a lot of issues. But I can’t think of any issue which emerges more than anything else than the threat of IS.
And the Malaysian government has made a very strong public commitment and we have our excellent cooperation on a lot of different issues, ranging from law enforcement, to defence and to security.
All these areas, we are working very closely together and we see the Malaysian government as a strong partner, which is very committed to finding ways to respond to the threat of IS.
And as a chair of Asean, Malaysia is playing a unique role in the Security Council. And that’s why we are very grateful to the Malaysian government and its leaders for the steps that they have taken.
Q: Will Malaysians be considered in US space missions in future?
I saw that question and honestly, I have no idea on how the stuff is done and how they are selecting the crews. But what I can say is that we are very eager to cooperate with Malaysia in whatever we can.