The business of good bilateral ties

Malaysia’s relationship at the highest political levels with the United States is excellent. But despite this good health, there is agreement that relationship at other levels ought to be strengthened.

LAST week, I returned to Washington DC for the first time since my stint at the World Bank five years ago to accompany a delegation from the Kuala Lumpur Business Club.

The invitation from the club’s president Datuk Seri Johan Raslan some weeks before came as a surprise, for the list of participants read like a register of some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs and business leaders: Chief executive officers or managing directors of Malaysia’s most recognisable companies.

“President, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs” was an aberration.

Thankfully, my trepidation was quickly defused by the friendly, easy-going warmth of the club’s members during the introductory dinner, prior to the beginning of a two-day programme of meetings with think tanks, US government departments, White House officials and a former presidential candidate.

The KLBC’s Royal Patron, the Raja Muda of Perak, joined the delegation the next day.

As many Malaysians know, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah is a distinguished alumnus of both Oxford and Harvard universities, and along with other novices on the trip, I sat amazed as he combined his academic and ambassadorial roles to set the tone of our meetings, unearthing frank confessions and first-hand insights from our interlocutors.

Although there was clearly a business angle to the meetings, the broader thrust of the whole programme was the strengthening of bilateral US-Malaysia relationship.

In all of our encounters — whether at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the Centre of a New American Security, the Treasury and State Departments, the White House executive building or the Senate — there was a keen acknowledgement that the relationship at the highest political levels (i.e. between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak) was excellent.

This is a trend we are also seeing with Britain, with Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to KL last month having been just reciprocated by Najib’s visit to London (from which he went straight to New York), although our people-to-people relationship with Britain has historically been, and remains, stronger than that of the US.

In our country, these foreign policy travails cause party political colours to be hoisted, but our US hosts were very keen to stress that their attitude towards Asia is essentially bipartisan, and the “pivot towards Asia” was actually in the pipeline before Obama became President.

As such, we were assured, it should not matter much to us if a Republican or Democrat occupied the White House.

Although the Chatham House Rule was invoked, I can say that all our hosts agreed that the key issues are trade (of which the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the main vehicle), China (imbued with security concerns and heavy use of words such as “balance” and “stability”), the liberalisation of Myan-mar and democratisation in the region more generally – our views of the impact of the Arab Spring in our region were often sought.

We also had enthusiastic proponents of a visa waiver programme, with one member of the delegation being held at Immigration for four hours for a four-second interrogation.

Because the US-Malaysia relationship is certainly not something that US voters get particularly fired up about, there is little likelihood of interference resulting from domestic political posturing.

But despite the recognition of the good health of the “high politics” relationship, everyone was in agreement that the relationship at other levels ought to be strengthened.

While the entrepreneurs banged the drum for the private sector, I wore my civil society hat, arguing that multi-track diplomacy must be developed alongside but independently of the political relationship. (The military relationship, while also excellent, operates out of sight to most.)

Indeed, amid concern in one meeting that US noises about human rights and democracy might annoy the Malaysian leadership, I protested “stick to your guns!”

Senator John McCain, on the other hand, was in no doubt of his country’s role in speaking up for the oppressed.

At the end of the two-day event, I had an excellent discussion with our own diplomats in Washington DC who were watching these developments, and reassuringly it seems Wisma Putra understands that the relationship needs to outlast any individual leader or political party.

My congratulations and thanks go to KLBC president emeritus Datuk Rohana Mahmood, president designate Tengku Zafrul Tengku Aziz and the board for organising such an intellectually stimulating and important trip.

> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.

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