Seeking harmonies between Malaysia and Brazil

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Abidin Ideas

MY earliest knowledge of anything Brazilian was the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, because he is my father’s favourite composer and thus I grew up listening to classics like Girl from Ipanema and One Note Samba on the guitar, and I have come to enjoy playing these pieces on piano (as I did during the most recent Brazilian National Day reception in KL).

Before departing for a three week trip to the country, I asked friends what they knew about Brazil. Some mentioned bossanova and samba, more mentioned football prowess, though Ayrton Senna featured too.

The hardworking Brazilian Ambassador to Malaysia Ary Quintella educated me, through a wonderful book, about the landscape artist Robert Brule Marx who had designed many famous parks around Brazil, but whose final work was KLCC Park.

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro at the tail-end of Carnival. Although it has its origins as a Roman Catholic event marking the beginning of Lent where one traditionally abstains from meat (‘carnelevare’ is Latin for ‘remove meat’), an outsider would be hard-pressed to detect the religious significance today. The energy of samba, and all of its Afro-Brazilian influences, was palpable everywhere.

The most famous part of the celebration is when the various samba schools parade at the purpose-built Sambadrome throughout the night. Each school tells a one-hour story through dance, featuring immense floats, always accompanied by the pulsating beat of the samba.

But for days, there are more informal celebrations by communities along the beaches and through the streets, with musicians and revellers spreading their infectious energy.

There was seriousness in Rio as well, though. Petronas, by far the biggest Malaysian investor in Brazil, has a beautiful office with views of the Sugar Loaf, and both the outgoing and incoming country managers educated me on their operations, including their huge contributions to research in sustainability and clean energy.

I was delighted to speak at CEBRI, Brazil’s prestigious foreign policy think tank, where I learnt far more from the experiences of former ambassadors and highly engaged policy experts than they did from my introduction to Malaysia!

There – and also in several universities across four cities I visited – I had conversations about the huge potential in the bilateral relationship. Our shared colonial experience of the Portuguese enabled me to share my love of cheese – Portuguese ‘queijo’ which became ‘keju’ in Malay – segueing into another dozen words of similar etymology.

The other significant colonial interference was that of the British, who brought rubber seeds from the Amazon into the Malay Peninsula, where it became the backbone of the colonial economy.

Indeed, rubber products (especially gloves and tyres) are among Malaysia’s biggest exports to Brazil, which totalled USD1.5 billion in 2022, with integrated circuits being key as well – and many Malaysians have likely eaten beef and chicken from Brazil, which is the world’s largest producer of halal meat. Our imports of USD4 billion that year led with iron ore, crude petroleum and raw sugar.

Last month in a phone call, President Lula invited Prime Minister Anwar to Brazil ahead of the G20 summit in Rio de Janeiro, and the leaders agreed to expand trade relations (with a particular focus on semiconductors), cooperate in the fight against inequality and hunger, reform the global governance system, and advocate for a ceasefire for the conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, while Brazilian support for the Palestinian cause was visible – from flags on Copacabana beach to slogans in university campuses – I was surprised by the interest in Malaysia shown by students at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (in Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais state whose mining wealth produced gorgeous buildings in the old capital Ouro Preto) as well as the University of São Paulo and FAAP, also in São Paulo.

There was great curiosity in the role of Asean (and interest in Malaysia’s chairmanship next year) in relation to rivalry between the USA and China, and I was more than happy to share our experience of constitutionalism and institutional development, which elicited much sympathy from Brazilians.

In the planned federal capital of Brasilia, adorned with iconic buildings of Oscar Niemeyer, I found similar sentiments expressed by diplomats and politicians, alongside a keen awareness of opportunities afforded by their chairmanship of the G20 this year, and BRICS and COP30 next year.

These interactions – in addition to meetings with other universities – demonstrated to me huge potential in the growth of the bilateral relationship at the institutional and people-to-people level.

If the Portuguese could traverse half the world regularly 500 years ago, so can we today as we strive to be, unlike Desafinado, more in tune with one another.

* Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin thanks the Brazilian Embassy in Malaysia and Wisma Putra for their assistance