BUSINESS and politics don’t mix, they say, and this seems to be the case as far as Australia and Malaysia are concerned.
Both countries have had their share of disputes on the international stage – with Australia’s firm support for, and Malaysia’s stiff opposition to, the United States-led military strike on Iraq counting as just one of the many episodes.
Political ties have been shaky between Canberra and Kuala Lumpur on many other occasions.
But Australia's High Commissioner here, James Wise, sees no reason to wipe off the big smile that he has been wearing since being posted to KL in January.
“The bedrock of the bilateral relations remains solid,” he vouches, adding that good business is continuing to provide a firm foundation.
There’s a long list of “pros” that Wise says inspires him, and he has the figures to back it up.
The Australian education industry continues to benefit greatly with more Malaysians opting to study Down Under.
The envoy says that over the past years, there has been a 10% to 15% increase in the number of Malaysian students enrolling at Australian educational institutions.
At the same time, three Australian universities have set up branch campuses in Malaysia.
People-to-people ties, too, have been thriving despite the political hiccups.
According to Wise, a record 159,000 Malaysians visited his country last year, with roughly the same number of Aussies setting foot here.
“The business community, no matter what else is happening in the (bilateral) relationship, seems to continue to find plenty of good opportunities (in both countries).
“I know that Australian companies in Malaysia find it, on the whole, a very conducive environment to do business.
“Malaysia welcomes foreign investments and as one of the world’s leading trading nations is very much open to foreign trade.
“We are very keen to see the Malaysian economy grow, because a strong Malaysian economy is also good news to Australians. It would naturally mean the demand for Australian goods and services would increase here.’’
Malaysia is Australia’s 11th largest trading partner, with two-way trade in goods and services valued at about A$8bil (RM17.2bil). Bilateral trade grew by 200% over the past decade.
While exports of Australian goods here fell by about 10% to A$2.3bil (RM4.9bil) last year, Australian imports from Malaysia have remained stable at A$3.9bil (RM8.4bil).
Export of Australian services to Malaysia in 2000-01 was A$850mil (RM1.83bil), with Malaysian imports totalling A$930mil (RM2bil).
Wise says the shortfall in trade volume last year is no major cause for concern, and explains why:
“There were two main reasons. One is that we had a severe drought in Australia, and we just haven’t had the same quantities of commodities that we may have produced.
“The second is the weaker global economy, which resulted in a lower demand for Malaysian electrical and electronic products.
“This led to reduced Australian imports into your manufacturing sector, with reduced demand for Australian aluminium and copper.
“For those reasons, I think prices will perhaps reduce a bit but that’s just natural in the cycle of the international economy.
“The picture (of Australia-Malaysia trade) on the whole remains a very positive one. Ours is a substantial bilateral trading relationship that is broad-based. So there is plenty of scope for recovery, and much room for future growth.”
The high commissioner cites biotechnology as one area of huge potential for increased trade and investment between Australia and Malaysia.
The agriculture and food production sectors also offer much scope for trade growth, he points out.
“The other sector which I think is underdeveloped is services, such as cooperation in financial services and the legal arena.’’
On Australia’s response to the economic stimulus package unveiled by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Wednesday, the Tasmanian says without the hesitation: “Anything in the package that makes it easier for Australian companies to do business here, we welcome greatly. We want more of our companies to expand here.”
Wise will get a helping hand next week from a fellow Aussie.
Western Australian Premier Geoff Gallop arrives on Tuesday in his maiden official visit to Malaysia.
He is scheduled to meet Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Amar Patinggi Taib Mahmud in Kuching and visit Australia’s Curtin University branch campus in Miri.
In Kuala Lumpur, Gallop has planned discussions with International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz and Works Minister Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu, and will also meet the Malaysia-Australia Business Council, Malaysia Airlines officials and the Alumni of Western Australia.
Wise says the slice of Western Australia’s business with Malaysia was significant. The region’s exports here last year totalled RM770mil, with Malaysian imports amounting to RM710mil.
Educational and tourism links with Western Australia are bustling, he adds.
“There are more than 2,000 Malaysian students there. Last year, we had 43,800 Malaysian tourists in Western Australia.”
And the good news for Aussies is that many Malaysians are travelling beyond Perth to “rediscover” more of Western Australia.
As for the 49-year-old envoy, who joined the Foreign Service in 1982, there is much to look forward to in what is his first ambassadorial posting.
Everything points to it being a “Wise act”!