Exposing the best of humanity

Dubai’s Expo 2020, and other similar events, offer a glimpse of what the future of international cooperation may look like.

IN 2019, I was invited by the Malaysian Green Technology Corporation (MGTC) to be involved in our efforts for Expo 2020 in Dubai, specifically for the #MyButterflyEffect campaign.

In my launch speech, I highlighted societal achievements that come from people creating change collectively, and mentioned the specific power of social media. After two years, with Covid-19 delaying Expo 2020, and Malaysia’s own government reconfigurations, I finally arrived in Dubai last month.

World expos trace their history to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, and Malaysia has a good record of involvement: in 1964, our new nation featured a pavilion with a Negri Sembilan roof showcasing rubber, timber and tin and offering satay to visitors, and a more Minangkabau-looking structure represented Malaysia in Shanghai in 2010.

Expo 2020 Dubai is the first I have attended, and it is immense.

Centred around the massive domed Al Wasl Plaza, the purpose-built site occupies 438ha arranged into districts housing 219 pavilions (mostly those of countries, sponsored by their governments) and exhibitions, with auditoriums, stages, parks, restaurants and other points of interests dotted all round.

My first destination was, of course, the Malaysia Pavilion, where the team from MGTC had been working hard over the past year to oversee the construction of the pavilion before a busy calendar of hosting events.

The building is designed by architect Serina Hijjas, embracing a rainforest canopy concept, and is aptly net zero carbon by offsetting carbon emitted in construction, operations, materials and recovery.

Inside, there is an impressive rainforest-themed video narrating our story of development while highlighting environmental commitments.

Displays by some of our biggest companies lead guests out to handicraft demonstrations and sales, and two food offerings which, despite some initial concern, have proved immensely popular with expo-goers.

So far, our pavilion has recorded 300,000 visits (compared with four million visits at expo overall, despite strict Covid-19 measures).

Throughout my week there, I was happy to support our pavilion’s trade and investment efforts: for example, Halal Development Corporation was there to exhibit halal services and support their partners, while Johor-based sanitary and tableware company Claytan celebrated its 100th anniversary with regional stakeholders.

With the UAE being a busy place for other events (such as the Dubai Airshow) and a connection hub for many other destinations, many Malaysians took the chance to network and find business synergies.

As much as some people may be cynical, these are actually important activities that will help rebuild our post-Covid-19 economy.

Of course, there’s more than just economic initiatives. I spoke in a World Majlis discussing the business of compassion, while Alena Murang joined a panel to discuss issues of concern to indigenous communities around the world before presenting a performance with her sape, of course. Renowned composer AR Rahman introduced a concert by his all-women multinational Firdaus Orchestra, while Poland showcased Chopin and Ireland offered Riverdance.

I quickly discovered that the pavilions can be of very different sizes – from standard-issue cuboid halls to huge structures like Morocco’s seven storeys resembling its towns’ medinas or the host country’s edifice shielded by massive panels inspired by falcon wings.

They are also of several types, beyond just introducing the visitor to the main features of the country concerned. There are those that are mostly conceptual, focusing on beautiful architecture and leaving the visitor to ponder something profound. Then there are those that focus on tourism, where that is the mainstay of the country’s economy.

Some highlight their technological contributions, whether in space travel, robots or futuristic cars. And others, like Malaysia, excel at using the pavilion as a base for agencies and companies to attract trade and investment.

One should visit these country pavilions with a critical mind, of course. There is naturally much selection and omission: governments won’t feature their human rights abuses, dictatorship, violent conflicts and corruption.

Is this a reason to condemn the entire exercise? I think not.

For in the history of World Fairs and Expos, it is typically the most optimistic, innovative and forward-looking people from participating countries whose contributions shine through.

In assembling together in one place to showcase the best, rather than the worst, of what humanity has on offer, visitors get a glimpse of what a future of international cooperation might look like.

More than we realise it, that has changed the world for the better before, even if not all expos produce a lasting symbol of love like the Eiffel Tower (built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle). I am confident Malaysia’s participation at Expo 2020 Dubai – like a butterfly beating its wings – will do so again.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is ambassador for the #MyButterflyEffect campaign in conjunction with Malaysia’s participation at Expo 2020 Dubai. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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