Malaysia’s Ambassador to Cambodia is proud of his country’s respect and tolerance for others from unique and diverse ethnic backgrounds. A country of 27.5 million people according to a 2010 census, Malaysia has a constitution that guarantees religious freedom – and at the same time with Islam as the state religion.
As trade and travel between Cambodia and Malaysia continues to sharply increase, Malaysia’s Ambassador to Cambodia took time for an interview on the occasion of Malaysia’s National Day, commemorated each August 31 to mark independence from Britain 54 years ago, and not to be confused with the equally-important Malaysia Day, which celebrates the day of federation of all the Malaysian territories including the East Malaysian territories of Sarawak and Sabah every September 16.
At his office inside Phnom Penh’s newest embassy compound, located along the southern part of Norodom Boulevard in buildings designed especially for Cambodia to have a warm, home-like atmosphere, Ambassador Hussein took time to identify what’s unique about the character of Malaysian people and how natural it is for Malaysians to lend themselves to the development of Cambodia. He also provided facts and figures about trade between the two countries.
“We are multi racial, multi religious, multi lingual and friendly,” Hussein smiles.
The ethnic mix of the Malaysian population includes a 50.4% majority of Malays, followed by Chinese at 27%, many kinds of indigenous people from a variety of ethnic groups at 11%, 7.1% Indian and 7.8% of the population from various other ethnic backgrounds.
The soft-spoken, easy-going Ambassador Hussein described the Malaysian nation as having “unity in diversity” with more than 60 different ethnic groups besides Malays, Chinese and Indians, which he says translates into tolerant behaviour.
“What is important is in all the years we have managed to coexist, with tolerance and understanding between the various races and the various communities. This is the root of what you see in Malaysia today: unity in diversity. Overall we are tolerant and able to exist together. When you go to Malaysia, in addition to the mosques, you see all kinds of churches and temples,” he said.
Ambassador Hussein added that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib, who took office in 2009, introduced the “One Malaysia” concept that embodies the aspiration of Malaysia’s founding fathers who wished to establish a united and stable, multi-racial nation of diverse languages and various religions.
“The whole fabric of Malaysia’s future depends on how we tolerate and respect each other. That is the uniqueness of Malaysians.”
Hussein says those qualities, forged in the multi-ethnic environment of Malaysia, create behavioral trends that enable Malaysians to work well with Cambodians.
“Those friendly qualities allow us to mix with others, in Cambodia as well. I think Malaysians have mixed well with the Cambodians,” he said.
Ambassador Hussein said that at religious festivals in Malaysia, there’s a built-in welcoming of all, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
“You will see at our open houses, when you observe religious festivals, Eid ul-Fitri, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas, they will be inviting other people to their houses, regardless of ethnic background.”
Hussein made a point about the success of Malaysia’s moderate approach of Islam.
“Moderation is always the key to this success. Without it, we would be facing serious problems which are caused by religious extremism and overzealous believers. Malaysia has become a model of a country with the official religion as Islam. We are moderates, not extremists. Our Prime Minister has emphasised the movement of moderates. He is driving these moderates to show that Islam is peaceful. A lot of Middle Eastern tourists go to Malaysia, and they feel comfortable there. I think that helps us in establishing friendly relationships with other countries.”
Another reason for tolerance and respect Malaysians show to others is because of intermarriages, according to Hussein.
“A lot of Malaysians are of mixed parentages, even our leaders starting with the first Prime Minister who was mixed Malay and Thai.”
About 2,000 Malaysians live in Cambodia, according to Ambassador Hussein, and there are about 120 Malaysian-owned businesses operating here.
Some of the sectors of the economy where Malaysians are active include banking, with companies like Campu Bank, Maybank, HwangDBS, CIMB and OSK Indochina Bank; hotels including Nagaworld, Sunway and Holiday Villa; telecommunications company Hello and electric power company Cambodia Public Utilities Ltd.
“Malaysians are also involved in manufacturing, particularly in garments, with companies like PCCS which manufactures and exports sportswear around the world,” Hussein said.
Other Malaysian-owned businesses in Cambodia include restaurants, food suppliers, business services, logistics, auditors and security.
“The Malaysian-owned MPA security company is probably the biggest in Cambodia,” Hussein said.
In education, Lim Kok Wing University is a Malaysian institution in Cambodia.
Because of Malaysia’s early diplomatic recognition of Cambodia and early investment in Cambodia, the two countries enjoy warm relationships.
“It is not just a business relationship, it is a partnership. It is important to do business on the basis of mutual respect and understanding – a win-win situation. We will stay here long-term and help Cambodia in terms of its development efforts – for the benefit of the country and the people of Cambodia – and not purely commercial. So far I think the government recognises that and they welcome more investment from Malaysia,” Hussein said.
As for movement of people between Cambodia and Malaysia, 2010 saw 48,618 Cambodians visiting Malaysia. Between January and June this year, 23,845 Cambodians visited Malaysia, an increase of 6.3% over last year.
“Cambodians go to Malaysia for employment and education. Last year we had almost 26,000 maids employed in Malaysia,” Ambassador Hussein said.
Two Malaysian-owned airlines operate in Cambodia. Air Asia provides service twice a day, every day out of Phnom Penh and Malaysian airlines provides daily service, with twice a day service Saturdays and Mondays.
“Cambodians are going more and more to Malaysia for education and health. Malaysia offers world class health facilities and is cheaper than other countries in this region,” Hussein said, adding that Malaysia is a shopping paradise and has world-class ecotourism sites in Sarawak and Sabah, “where you can see Orangutans – and Sabah has one of the best diving spots in the world.” Hussein himself is from Sabah in East Malaysia.
As for total trade between Cambodia and Malaysia, the 2010 figure was $229.7 million, including both exports and imports, up 36.5% from 2009.
“We are actually exporting more to Cambodia than we import,” Nasruddin said.
Exports from Malaysia to Cambodia totaled $197.3 million in 2010, up from $153 million in 2009. Malaysian imports coming from Cambodia increased from $15 million worth in 2009 to $32.8 million 2010.
During the first six months of 2011, there was $150 million in trade between the two countries.
“Trade between Cambodia and Malaysia may total more than $300 million by the end of the year,” Hussein said.
Exports from Malaysia to Cambodia during the first six months of 2011 increased 81% to $127 million when compared with the same period last year.
Cambodia exported to Malaysia $23.7 million worth of goods during the first six months this year, a 163% increase during the same period last year.
“The trade is increasing. We export to Cambodia machinery, chemicals, raw materials and electrical goods. We import rubber, garments, wood products and frozen seafood from Cambodia.”
Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir had a policy called “Prosper They Neighbour”, Hussein said.
“You try to help the other neighbouring countries to prosper and bring stability and peace. Other regions will be impacted by this. This is the policy that underlies Mahathir’s approach, not just Cambodia, but also with the other neighbouring countries that are still developing,” he said.
“Both of us are members of ASEAN – and of course we have a big target coming in 2015 with the creation of the ASEAN community. In line with this Malaysia plays a very significant role in the development of Cambodia’s private sector,” he said.
One example is the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Program (MTCP) which provides short term training for Cambodian government officials in various subjects. Cambodian government officials are flown to Malaysia, at Malaysia’s expense, where they attend training at institutes and participate in programmes in Malaysia’s relevant ministries. Since the programme was initiated in 1991, 1,143 Cambodian government officials complete courses in Malaysia.
“We want to help them improve their capabilities in terms of knowledge. We are not teaching them, we are sharing our experiences,” he said.
Malaysian companies also provide scholarships to deserving Cambodians. The Malaysian national oil company Petronas has given 20 scholarships to Cambodians for study in Malaysia. Lim Kok Wing University has awarded 30 scholarships as well.
In the private sector, Malaysian-owned companies continue to train Cambodians, including Campu Bank and Nagaworld, both of which place Cambodians in key positions of responsibility. “In training, providing employment and building capacity, I think Malaysians are bringing something significant to Cambodia,” Ambassador Hussein said.
Malaysian NGOs active in Cambodia include Mercy Malaysia, the Restu Foundation and Good Shepherd.
The associations build schools, repair mosques, give aid – and not just to Cham Muslims, but also to other Khmers as well, according to Hussein.
“They are helping to instill a culture of cleanliness, improving toilet facilities and sanitation.
“We think Malaysians bring something worthwhile to Cambodia.”
Ambassador Hussein says Malaysia and Cambodia have been friends for a long time.
“Upon gaining independence, in 1957, Malaysia established diplomatic relations with Cambodia – and Malaysia strongly supported Cambodia’s membership in ASEAN. That is significant,” he said.
“Malaysia also supported Cambodia’s application of entry into other international organisations. Malaysia was part of UNTAC after the Paris Peace Accords of 1992. Malaysia sent a battalion-strength army personnel as part of the international peacekeepers here,” he said.
“Next year Cambodia will chair ASEAN. Two summits will be held here in Cambodia.”
Ambassador Hussein is proud that Malaysia provided some of the earliest investment in Cambodia during the late 1980s and early 1990s when there was still a lot of uncertainty in Cambodia, and shootings.
“I think the early Malaysian investors have been rewarded because investment pays off,” he said.
Malaysian Airlines was the first foreign airline to fly into Cambodia, Leader Cable was the first IPP (power station) to operate in Cambodia and the first brewery was the Malaysian-owned Cambrew.
“These Malaysian companies came in during a difficult period and this was acknowledged by Prime Minister Hun Sen. They helped the economy. Even though it was a difficult atmosphere, they still continued. We are proud of what Malaysians have done and are doing in the private sector,” he said.