THE underlying message from Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s recent trip to Britain was loud and clear: Do not take the two countries’ historical ties for granted.
In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister took pains to drive home the point during his meetings with Malaysian businessmen, professionals and students in London and Manchester during his week-long visit.
The wake-up call is timely as the traditional links between Malaysia and Britain cannot flourish based on past records alone.
Such a long-standing relationship must be nurtured – just like a good marriage of many years – to avoid taking each other for granted and evade a mid-life crisis.
Having said that, there must be sincere and meaningful efforts by both sides to renew, revitalise and give the special friendship fresh impetus to make things work.
“Our relationship today suffers not from any major discord but appears to be a matter of seemingly benign neglect. We have become two ships passing silently in the still of the night,” Najib aptly told the Malaysian-British business community in London.
Najib’s candid assessment stirred his audience, many of whom were top businessmen and captains of industry.
Although some might have felt uncomfortable with his down-to-earth views, preferring the usual diplomatic niceties, many of them privately agreed with the stark reality of the situation.
Indeed, copies of Najib’s 16-page keynote address were snapped up by the delegates.
Sharing Najib’s views – perhaps in a more subtle manner – was Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, when he commented recently that “sometimes, familiarity with the UK can lead to warmth and fuzziness”.
At the recent Malaysian-British Business Council meeting in Kuala Lumpur, he had stressed that there were things the UK needed to put in focus in that part of the world.
Both Najib and the prince see the danger of complacency in an otherwise cosy relationship that, if not addressed properly, can lead to stagnation.
There’s no denying the current relationship is still strong and anchored in the long history of both countries – with all its shared traditions and values.
But the calm waters on the surface may be concealing undercurrents.
The fact that the number of Malaysian students in Britain had plunged from 30,000 a few years back to 10,000 doesn’t augur well for Malaysia and worse for Britain.
This is because Britain would have lost out on these so-called “lifelong” ambassadors, who would have helped to promote the country on returning to Malaysia.
Another concern is that bilateral trade and investments had not been rising as fast as they should, having been overtaken by other countries.
It’s a shame that while new players and business partners are capturing emerging opportunities, Malaysia-Britain economic ties still lack punch and aggressiveness in the competitive world.
For instance, Germany – without anywhere near the same political or social links with Malaysia – has emerged as the biggest investor from Europe in the last five years.
Malaysian High Commissioner to Britain Datuk Abdul Aziz Mohamed is rightly concerned when he called on everyone, including students and businessmen, to play their part in raising Malaysia’s profile in the UK.
Without doubt, Malaysia’s melting pot of cultures and exotic cuisines can be promoted more aggressively to attract Britons.
With British families increasingly turning to Asian fare – it’s now curry on Sunday, not the traditional roast lamb or beef – perhaps more Malaysian restaurants can be set up to cater to the changing lifestyle.
Malaysian celebrity chef Zam shared similar concerns when he remarked that Malaysian restaurants were dwarfed by “Thai, Indian and even Vietnamese eateries” in the UK.
Currently holding cookery classes in London, Zam called for more road-shows to promote Malaysian food among the “Mat Salleh” in big supermarket chains.
Focusing on the untapped market through cookery demonstrations may be the right step, instead of targeting Asians who would probably know about Malaysia already.
Admittedly, the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Matrade) and other agencies are doing their part to promote Malaysia.
At the just-concluded UK premier food show, IFE 2005, thousands of visitors had the chance to sample a piece of Malaysia.
The event also featured a Dine@Malaysia traditional Malaysian restaurant and 14 Malaysian companies.
The coming Siti Nurhaliza In Concert in London is another great effort to showcase Malaysia’s talent to Britons.
However, more needs to be done to promote Malaysia’s unique fusion of cultures because the present generation of British leaders and people may not be aware of what the country has to offer.
o Choi Tuck Wo is Editor, European Union Bureau, based in London (e-mail: email@example.com)
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