BRITISH High Commissioner Charles Hay (pic) had his work cut out for him when he began his posting to Malaysia on a high note in March 2019.
He made elaborate preparations, even taking up Bahasa Malaysia lessons to better interact with Malaysians.
His promising start was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic last year, but the father of two daughters who was a Captain in the British Army before joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1993 used his vast experience to make his presence count.
He focused his efforts on helping British businesses navigate the movement control order (MCO) restrictions imposed by the Malaysian government.
“During the first part of the MCO, we had to make a lot of representations on behalf of British businesses who were caught in an inability to manufacture. I met the International Trade & Industry Minister Datuk Seri Azmin Ali and we were able to quite quickly resolve most of the problems, ” he said.
He cited the example of Synthomer, a British manufacturer of nitrile latex which is used in the production of rubber gloves in Malaysia.
“There were some technical issues over whether they were able to continue with their production. Initially, the ministry didn't realise that what they were producing was essential for the rubber glove industry.
"That's an example of where we were able to help. It was quite a lot of what we did during the first half of the pandemic with British businesses, ” he added in a wide-ranging interview with Starbiz at his residence recently.
Prior to Malaysia, Hay was Ambassador to South Korea from 2015 to 2018.
Q: It must have been a difficult past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. How have you been managing?
A: I’d say my experience here falls into two halves. First half, a year of good normality and then a year of Covid-19. It's been difficult for all of us. We haven't been out of Malaysia for a year. But if there is any one country you have to be stuck in, Malaysia is pretty much on top of the list! So I think I’ve been quite lucky.
I'm happy with regular meetings. Apart from Covid-19 related work, we carried on with our engagement with the Malaysian government, civil societies and other stakeholders. I was pleased to have a socially-distanced meeting in person with Prime Minister (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin (Yassin) and a few ministers. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein met online on April 20,2020 and Feb 26,2021.
We co-organised the Blu Hope campaign to raise awareness on marine pollution. On the business side, I have participated in ongoing dialogues and webinars by the British Malaysia Chamber of Commerce. Recently, I met the Housing and Local Government Minister (Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin) to talk about smart cities, we got some interesting projects running with Malaysia.
In November 2020, Miti and the High Commission held the inaugural meeting of the UK-Malaysia Joint Committee on Bilateral Trade and Investment Cooperation, which is the first of its kind between our countries. The Joint Committee has commissioned six working groups to strengthen bilateral cooperation and improve market access in areas such as education and legal services.
Q: Can you tell us about the UK’s recently unveiled foreign policy, and its impact on relations with Malaysia?
A: It's called the Integrated Review, a really groundbreaking piece of work. For the first time, in a very long time, certainly since the Cold War, we have taken a holistic look at all of our overseas activities of foreign policy, defence policy, national crime policy, cyber policy. It's all in the mix. It’s very interesting how it has come out, it's very good for this part of the world. There are strong references to the so-called tilt to the Indo Pacific and references on how this part of the world is extremely important for the UK because of the fast growing economy and opportunities. The UK having left the European Union wants to be much more active in other parts of the world. And we saw this a year ago, when Secretary Raab came here. He's very keen to come back. He has forged a good relationship with Minister Hishammuddin, they've been speaking to each other. I very much hope that we will see some ministerial visits once things start to ease up with the vaccine.
Apart from that, the UK has also applied to become a dialogue partner of Asean which is being considered. I hope very much hope that we will be able to bring it to a conclusion and join. We have also applied to become a member of the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an FTA between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam signed by the 11 countries on March 8,2018). One of the strong messages in the Integrated Review is about the continued importance of free and open trade, we are strong advocates for that.
Q: How is our Covid-19 related partnership and vaccine diplomacy coming along?
A: In September last year, the UK provided vital support to vulnerable global communities impacted by Covid-19, investing £7.2mill in 20 new research projects around the world. Three projects were awarded under this programme in Malaysia. The first, under the UK Global Challenges Research Fund/Newton Fund Agile Response Call. This is part of a regional study on Covid-19 enterprise resilience.
The Malaysian government’s priorities lie in easing cashflow, catalysing people-centric economic growth and promoting quality investment in its bid to regenerate the economy post-Covid. We funded a study to ascertain how local businesses mitigate their risks will help policy-makers make better informed decisions on where to focus their economic stimulus planning strategy.
The project will run till April 2022. And two projects under the UK’s International Programme Fund - with Ideas to promote SMEs economic resilience in Malaysia’s Covid-19 Recovery Strategy. We funded a study and provided policy recommendations to Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit to reduce Covid-19 induced unemployment beyond the current income and job protection measures and address the underlying economic vulnerabilities among the many SMEs in Malaysia.
The other was with Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) to promote a more gender-sensitive policy and legislative responses in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The project helped enhance the ability of the government, parliamentarians and civil society stakeholders, especially women’s rights groups, to scrutinise Covid-19 recovery policies and spending in terms of their effectiveness and impact on gender equality and inclusion and contribute to the ability of women to provide political leadership.
On vaccines, Malaysia is part of the purchases of AstraZeneca, which is a private company based in the UK with strong technical and innovative links with the UK government. And the majority of the vaccines provided in the UK up to now has been made by AstraZeneca. Malaysia has also signed up to be a member of the Covax facility, the global mechanism to help developing countries access a coronavirus vaccine. The UK is one of the largest donors to Covax. Malaysia is going to get about 1.6 million doses which I think is the AstraZeneca type.
Q: What if Malaysia is interested to work with the UK to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine here?
A: That would be a commercial decision by AstraZeneca, if they wanted to do that. I think personally it's a very good idea. We are all thinking much more now about how we can manage things. One of the things that we've discovered is that in the UK we don't have the manufacturing capacity for a lot of PPE now.
Does that mean we are going to have to start building factories to make rubber gloves? I don't think so, but will certainly be looking harder at our supply chains to make sure that we can get what we need at this time.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined in his Five-Point Pandemic Response Plan in Sept 2020 how we can ensure the supply chains for every country. He pledged to use the UK’s G7 presidency in 2021 to create a new global approach to protect humanity against another pandemic.
Malaysia will need to be looking at what happens if there's another pandemic and indeed, how can you improve your resilience? And having your own vaccine manufacturing capability might well be an important part of that.
Q: There are a large number of Malaysians studying and working in the UK. How many of them have been vaccinated so far?
A: I don't think we have any figures, because all the vaccinations are being done by GPs so I'm not even sure they collect data by nationality of people vaccinated. It is difficult to check by nationality. That's just not how the vaccine plan is. But all Malaysians in the UK who fall into this category are entitled to the vaccine. About 32 million people including Malaysians living in the UK have been vaccinated so far based on their age group. But students are unlikely to have had any vaccine yet because they tend to be younger, unless they have got underlying health conditions which will push them up the vaccine chart.
I strongly welcome the Malaysian government’s announcement that they are going to pursue the same policy as the UK, in that the vaccination will be provided regardless of nationality. That's the right thing to do, not least because if you want to get immunity of the population, then you can't, shouldn't distinguish between different nationalities because anybody can spread Covid-19 regardless of nationality.
Q: Education remains a key pillar in our ties. How are Malaysian students doing in the UK? We used to have at least 20,000 there.
A: It's down a bit. The latest figure is about 14,000. I guess that's what you'd expect given the Covid-19 pandemic. And given the fact that almost all universities at the moment are operating offline, virtually, to a greater or lesser extent. And the universities have been doing their best trying to make life as good as it can be for the students.
From organising some physical events where possible to finding innovative ways of working online and using tech, they have done what they can to mitigate it. There are some innovative examples of high-quality online learning being delivered by institutions across the UK.
Some universities have created virtual ward rounds with virtual patients to mimic clinical decision making for their medical students, while others have developed new ways for students to conduct fieldwork, using hi-res photos, Google Earth and drone-scans.
There are also medical students at the Newcastle University campus here. I know that they have been working hard to make it possible for the students in Malaysia to get as good a medical experience that's possible.
But I feel for the students who have been studying during the time of the pandemic, because one of the fantastic things about going to university is the interaction and that just hasn't been possible.
Q: Given the problems caused by the pandemic, how have British universities here been coping?
A: We are in regular touch with them. They are having the same issues as everybody else, but demand is holding up. They are all very committed to Malaysia.
Nottingam University is celebrating 21 years in Malaysia. So, it's not easy (during the pandemic) but they manage it.
Even American and Australian universities are affected. According to a study, UK education's market share is 42.1%, so that's still bigger than Australia and the US. The numbers have dropped, but the bottom line is out of all the three countries, 42.1% have gone to the UK.
Q: Many Malaysian students will be graduating in July. Should their families expect to go over to share the joy?
A: I think that all graduations, or most this year, will be virtual in one way or the other. I was speaking at a Chevening (scholarship) webinar event here recently, and a doctor in the UK dialed in and told us that she just recovered from Covid-19. So I'm sure that there are people who are recovering from it. The numbers have been quite high in the UK, but it is falling down because of the vaccination programme.
Q: On travel restrictions to the UK, when do you think normality will return?
A: PM Johnson has set out an outline plan for opening up the UK and he has given some indicative dates, and I think the indicative date he gave for the possibility of overseas travel was the middle of May, 17th of May. It's not confirmed yet, but I'm hoping that if all goes to plan, then come May the possibilities of travel in and out of the UK will open up again.
Q: What will the criteria be, in terms of the approved country list?
A: That will depend on an assessment done by health experts in the UK government, they’re constantly crunching the data that they are getting from different countries. And depending on the situation and on the appearance of new variants. Of course, we've had the South African variant, which was particularly worrisome.
Countries will go on and come off the so-called red list. For example recently, there were some new countries put on the red list, including Qatar. That means that some people travelling from Malaysia to UK, if they’ve gone by Qatar, they will have to go into enforced quarantine.
We are still in a situation where people traveling from Malaysia to the UK have to quarantine, but they can do it in a hotel or in their own home. Or if you're renting a house or if staying with friends, you can do it there. But only if you are not coming from one of the red countries. Malaysia is classified as green, so standard precautions are planned.
Q: Talking about travel, what is the number of weekly flights to London from Kuala Lumpur now?
A: Three times a month at the moment. It's a reduced service but still operating. We are very fortunate to have that lifeline in Malaysia Airlines. We spent a lot of time working with British nationals who needed to leave Malaysia.
If you remember right back at the beginning, the British government basically advised everybody to return to the UK. We were really lucky because Malaysia Airlines kept flying throughout the pandemic and is still flying now. So British nationals who needed to leave had a way of getting out.
That was not the case in all of our neighbouring countries. There were quite a lot of Brits in Bali and for them, it became really problematic to get out because there were no flights out. The same is true of Brits in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and elsewhere.
At the moment, British nationals are not allowed to leave the UK unless they have essential business. Of course, for a long time, non-Malaysians were not allowed into Malaysia.
We had Malaysia My Second Home (holders) and others who were caught outside the country. They couldn't get back in. But there has been a flow of people again. For example, all the students going back to the UK to start their courses. I know that some parents managed to find ways to accompany their kids. Essential business travel is still going on. And people with strong family reasons to travel have been able to get permission.
Q: On to the impact on bilateral trade. How are our businesses coping with the pandemic?
A: All things considered, bilateral trade was affected but the numbers are not too bad. Total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and Malaysia was £4.7bil in the four quarters to the end of Q3 2020, a decrease of 5.2% or £253mil from the four quarters to the end of Q3 2019.
Q: What does the future hold for trade and foreign investment between the UK and Malaysia?
A: It will focus largely on keeping supply chains open and removing barriers to trade and investment. The Joint Committee will provide a framework for the UK and Malaysia to work together at the government level to create the right conditions for our companies to trade with each other.
From my own engagement with business, I understand that despite the unprecedented challenges they have faced during the pandemic, they are taking a long-term view and pressing ahead with their plans.
As British companies act on lessons learned from Covid-19 and diversify their supply chains, I expect to see more of them considering Malaysia as a destination for manufacturing or regional hub operations, particularly those that support digitisation of the country’s economy.
In the reverse direction, I know that the Malaysia External Trade Development Corp (Matrade) is working hard to help Malaysian exporters access new opportunities post-Covid. And in the same way that British companies operating in Malaysia take the long term view, Malaysian companies continue to seek new investment opportunities in the UK, citing the underlying strength of our economy and a favourable business environment as the reasons behind their decision.