US-Malaysia relations going forward

03 May, 2014
As appeared in
THE most significant achievement of US President Barack Obama’s successful visit to Malaysia a week ago is the elevation of bilateral relations to a Comprehensive Partnership.

To give substance to this strategic commitment however there has to be strong follow up at the official, private sector and people-to-people level.

And, to achieve continuing interest in the relationship, there has to be constant report on progress in the process of deepening and broadening it. Such transparency – including problems encountered – would give real life to this new historic phase of US-Malaysia relations. The media platforms to engender such interest and transparency have to be used with intelligence for maximum impact.

Without doubt one such deepening with the greatest popular appeal is the placing of Malaysia on the US visa waiver programme. As Obama said, this will take some time and would need the fulfillment of a number of requirements. It would be useful to indicate, how long and what requirements.

I do know, as I argued with a number of colleagues from the Malaysia-America Foundation (MAF) for Malaysians to be allowed to travel visa-free to the US if relations are to be truly deepened, that the process can take up to two years. At the time, Malaysia had not even applied to be put on the waiver programme. We spoke to the authorities to get this done and then to the Americans about what happens next.

One problem Malaysia faces to achieve visa-free status is the present level of rejection in the application for visas, 5% against the required 3% or less. Thinking this had to do with terrorist suspects and the like, we discovered it was not at all the case. It has primarily to do with the strong corroborative evidence that there are many people applying to go to America not to return.

So there is this one hurdle. And then there are indeed a number of procedures to fulfill US security concerns that have to be addressed at the governmental level. Given the commitment of both governments, as stated by the president and the Malaysian prime minister in their joint statement after official talks during the visit, to achieve this visa-free environment, this is something that can be surmounted.

Nevertheless, the 5% against 3% rejection rate problem remains. Ironically, that rate would theoretically come down if Malaysians wanting to go to the US for legitimate reasons are not put off from doing so because of the visa requirement and occasional thuggish behaviour by immigration officials in New York or Los Angeles.

Thus there will be a wait. It would however be good confidence-building tactics to keep Malaysians posted on progress towards visa-free travel to the United States. In this instance, no news is not good news. This is a matter that has the greatest Malaysian popular interest.

It will be no deal-breaker if progress is slow. But imagine the boost to bilateral relations, real and psychological, if there was a breakthrough on the visa front.

There are, of course, other areas of deepening and broadening relations which are also important. Indeed progress in those areas would improve the top line numbers of Malaysians going to the US which would be of help in reducing the rejection rate, although there is need also of increasing the number of Americans coming to Malaysia so that they will know Kuala Lumpur is not in Indonesia or that Malaysia is just somewhere near Singapore and see for themselves that Malaysian Muslims are not ogres.

Without this week getting into high politics and regional security matters, and macro trade and investment issues such as the TPPA, the exchange of knowledge and experience at the people-to-people level will fill the Comprehensive Partnership with meaningful benefit even as the high political and economic ring is secured.

The Malaysian Prime Minister and US President underlined the role of the young people in both countries in determining the future not only of bilateral relations but also of each nation’s progress. They emphasised the importance of education in science and technology and in knowledge industries in securing that future. In this context, exposure to cutting-edge American innovative skills will provide young Malaysians with the opportunity of pushing their frontier in what is now sometimes called Stem education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

More than that, they will learn how to successfully apply research and knowledge to enterprises and industries, something Malaysia is not particularly strong at. The young leadership and entrepreneurship programmes both leaders are especially encouraging should cause a hundred flowers to blossom, but they will not bloom of their own accord.

The MAF (Malaysia-America Foundation) which I co-chair with my American counterpart (James Keith in Washington) has as a main purpose the objective to augment these efforts for the young people of both countries.

On the one hand, of Malaysians particularly being exposed to technology and entrepreneurial skills in America. And, on the other, of young Americans learning in situ about Malaysia, including those who might be bringing skills as well in fields such as the English language. In this regard, the extension of the Fulbright scheme for three more years is most welcome, but it could perhaps be expanded to include a heavier science and technology component.

If all this looks like one-way traffic, the MAF also hopes to introduce culture and tourism programmes which bring Malaysia to America. All too often such efforts, if any, tend to be concentrated in New York and Washington, or Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, they are necessary target areas but certainly not sufficient. There is more to America than those great cities. Malaysia must be brought to, must reach, Middle America.

These initiatives and efforts, such as those proposed by MAF, need support from both the public and private sectors as the two countries work towards achieving the underlining benefits of a Comprehensive Partnership. Without them, that partnership would remain a distant objective for too long and might even become just a chimera.

Thus, while the enthusiasm generated by the visit to Malaysia of America’s first Pacific President (who still has 2½ years to serve, however Congress behaves) is still burning, all efforts to give content to the US-Malaysia Comprehensive Partnership should be initiated NOW.

The trade and investment dimension as well as the regional security and civil society concerns must also be addressed, but their positive progress depends on a foundation of strong people-to-people relationships and benefits which must therefore be a priority as well.