US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made Malaysia one of his first destinations in the region when he visited Kuala Lumpur last month. Pic by AIZUDDIN SAAD
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak (second from right) and US President Donald Trump (centre) and other leaders react to a wall of computer screens coming online as they tour the Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21. REUTERS

PRIME Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s upcoming visit to Washington will certainly stand out as a landmark event to commemorate Malaysia’s 60 years of diplomatic relations with the United States.

Our close and excellent ties, based on mutual trust and respect, are expected to continue to flourish under President Donald Trump as it did with his predecessors.

Malaysia-US bilateral relations are currently at their best level, having been accorded the status of a Comprehensive Partnership in April 2014 during former president Barack Obama’s state visit.

This elevation of our relations signifies the commitment of both sides to intensify collaboration in key pillars of cooperation, namely political engagement, economy and trade, education, people-to-people contacts, defence and security, environment, energy, and science and technology.

As deputy foreign minister, I am personally quite excited at the prospects of this important visit and believe that there is more that the public should know to fully appreciate its significance beyond the headlines.

Malaysia’s relations with the US began before our independence.

Formal consular relations with the US began in 1918 when the US appointed a consul to Penang. This move was intended to assist American merchants trading in Malaya, then a part of the British Empire.

In fact, the British Governor of Penang, in 1883, had agreed to the establishment of a US Consular Agency in Penang.

The US even maintained a consular presence in Sandakan at the turn of the century before eventually opening up a consular post in Kuala Lumpur in 1948.

It was this post in Kuala Lumpur that was upgraded to a full-fledged embassy in 1957, thus marking the establishment of official diplomatic relations.

The emphasis on trading between our two nations has and will continue to influence our relations and shape our destinies.

The demand for Malayan rubber by the US automobile industry in the 1920s had led to the rapid development of our agricultural sector and transportation infrastructure.

Our push to a manufacturing-based economy in the 1980s was fuelled by foreign direct investment from US multinational companies keen to expand beyond American shores.

Last year, the US was Malaysia’s third largest trading partner while we were their 18th largest trading partner.

Malaysia’s total trade with the US grew by 5.3 per cent to US$32.8 billion (RM138 billion) last year, and we can potentially increase that with a 20.4 per cent increase of US$18.4 billion achieved in the first half of this year.

The US is also the second largest foreign investor in Malaysia.

American manufacturing companies contribute more than US$15 billion of investment and provide well-paying jobs for more than 200,000 Malaysians.

These companies and many others in the financial services, information and communications technology, and oil and gas sectors continue to make Malaysia their base.

However, the Malaysia-US success story is not all about trade and investment.

To be sure, the Prime Minister and other officials have conducted numerous high-level visits to many other important countries.

While Malaysia may share certain economic and security interests with other countries in the region, it is with the US that the people-to-people contact has, and will continue to have, the most profound impact.

The Malaysia-US success story is, therefore, also about the people-to-people relations, an important pillar of our Comprehensive Partnership.

In 1962, 36 young Americans reported for duty in KL as the first batch of Peace Corp Volunteers, and were welcomed by then deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.

More than 4,000 volunteers would change the lives of thousands of Malaysians for the better until the programme was discontinued in 1983.

At Najib’s request, the US agreed to revitalise the spirit of the Peace Corps in Malaysia while supporting English-language education in Malaysia.

In 2012, 50 years after the first batch of Peace Corps arrived in KL, another group of 50 young Americans arrived in KL as part of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) programme.

Now in its fifth year, the Fulbright ETA in Malaysia is among the largest in the world, with the second highest number of awards behind Germany.

On his part, Trump has outlined his theme of America First. The two leaders will thus look to seek out new opportunities to reach points of convergence in strengthening people-to-people relations.

Another significant element of the Malaysia-US Comprehensive Partnership is the elevation of cooperation in advancing both countries’ interests at the regional and international levels.

Najib’s upcoming White House visit, seen in the context of his trips to Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo and other major capitals in the last 12 months alone, shows his pragmatic and sustained leadership abroad.

Our high-level visits are no longer focused only in seeking foreign investment, as now we search for new and untapped markets for Malaysian companies.

Our voice is now respected as one of moderation and reason, as recently proven during our successful term as a member of the United Nations Security Council.

As such, it is expected that Najib and Trump will broadly deliberate other issues affecting the international community.

These include daunting global challenges that no one country can face alone such as regional maritime security, terrorism and violent extremism, and nuclear non-proliferation.

In fact, during the Senate Confirmation Hearing of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he had acknowledged Malaysia as one of the important countries in Southeast Asia which had serious issues of common interest with the US.

Malaysia continued to be a high priority for Tillerson, as less than two months after he was sworn in, he hosted Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman for a bilateral meeting in Washington.

Tillerson made Malaysia one of his first destinations in the region when he visited KL last month.

He reportedly told US embassy staff here that, “I do know Malaysia quite well and I have a great affection for the Malay people”.

Given this warm personal dimension to his assessment of the country, coupled with his productive working relationship with Anifah, the stage is now set for their two leaders to elevate the 60th anniversary of our bilateral relations.

The upcoming meeting between Najib and Trump will, therefore, be an excellent opportunity to take stock of what has been achieved, and to set new goals to reach.

I am confident that both leaders will find more commonalities as they meet in the White House on Tuesday.

Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican is Deputy Foreign Minister.

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