Malaysia, a nation of 25 million in Southeast Asia, has boasted rapid economic growth and diversification over the past several decades. Not a paragon of human rights, the country holds free elections, yet freedom of speech, press and religion are strictly curbed. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, and tensions among ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians, which also sound religious overtones, are a key challenge to maintaining unity and order.
Lay of the Land: Malaysia is a federation in Southeast Asia with a total landmass of 127,355 square miles, slightly larger than the state of New Mexico. Malaysia borders Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines. Comprised of two regions, Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, which are 400 miles distant from another across the South China Sea, Malaysia is comprised of eleven states in Peninsular Malaysia and two in Malaysian Borneo. The largest city and capital is Kuala Lumpur (city limits pop.: 1.6 million; urban area: 7.2 million) while Putrajaya is the seat of the federal government. Located near the equator, Malaysia experiences a tropical climate, with nearly 80% of the land covered by tropical rain forests, swamps or mountains. In both regions, plains hug the coastline while mountains rise in the interior. Monsoon rainfall averages about 100 inches a year, and most areas are warm and sunny. Malaysia shares control, with Indonesia, of the Strait of Malacca, a 500 mile long sea corridor between Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra, which is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and through which more than 50,000 vessels pass each year, carrying about 25% of the world’s traded goods, including oil, Chinese manufactures, and Indonesian coffee.
Prehistoric Malaysia may be traced back as far as 200,000 years ago from archaeological remains found at Bukit Jawa, an archaeological site in Lenggong Perak. Many millennia later, the early Buddhist Malay kingdom of Srivijaya dominated much of the Malay peninsula from the 9th to the 13th centuries CE. It was followed by the Hindu kingdom of Majapahit, which gained control of the Malay peninsula in the 14th century. In the early-15th century, Sultan Iskandar Shah, a Hindu prince who converted to Islam, established a kingdom in Malacca that controlled peninsular Malaysia, southern Thailand, and the eastern coast of Sumatra. Viable for more than a century, the sultanate spread Islam to most of the Malay Archipelago. Malacca was the foremost trading port at the time in Southeast Asia, where Chinese, Arab, Malay, and Indian merchants traded precious goods.
Although Malaysia initially pursued a pro-Western foreign policy, the government began to shift away from this in the mid 1970s. This policy shift was continued and strengthened by Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who was in power from 1981 to 2003 and pursued a regionalist and pro-South policy with frequently strident anti-Western rhetoric. Under Mahathir, Malaysia frequently championed what he called “Asian values” and criticized “Western values,” using this line of argument to justify one-party rule, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and gender, and the suppression of individual and civil liberties.
Malaysia views regional cooperation as the cornerstone of its foreign policy. Despite Malaysia’s anti-Western rhetoric, the country in fact has recently worked closely with Western countries including the US, and led a crackdown against Islamic fundamentalists after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Under Prime Minister Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Badawi, relations with Western countries have improved, though tensions over human rights and trafficking remain. Indeed, Malaysia’s spotty record on human rights has provided the basis for some tension in US-Malaysian relations, including the September 2008 summoning of the Malaysian ambassador to the State department to explain legal charges brought against prominent opposition leaders.
In 2007, industry and services dominated the GDP at 45.3% and 44.8% respectively, while agriculture accounted for only 9.9%. In the present century, the government has tried to move the economy farther up the value-added production chain by attracting investments in high tech industries, medical technology and pharmaceuticals. The government is continuing efforts to boost domestic demand to reduce the economy’s dependence on exports. Nevertheless, exports - especially of electronics - remain a significant driver of the economy. As an oil and gas exporter, Malaysia has profited from higher world energy prices, although the rising cost of domestic gasoline and diesel fuel has forced Kuala Lumpur to reduce government subsidies.
In April 2009, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the prime minister of Malaysia urging him to ratify core international human rights treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The letter continues that Human Rights Watch would like the government to “give priority to the issues of arbitrary and preventive detention, freedom of expression, protection of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and ending impunity for security forces.” There has been censoring of national newspapers and reporters for these publications have been denied access to press conferences regarding government activity. In addition to this, there is much impunity that pervades law enforcement and immigration officials. Between 2003 and 2007 there were 85 deaths in police custody–many of these cases have gone unresolved.
Thomas K. Wright
The Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia has sent a career diplomat to serve as its next ambassador to the United States, replacing a political appointee, Datuk Seri Dr. Jamaluddin Jarjis, who served in Washington for two-and-a-half years. (“Datuk” and “Datuk Seri” are honorific titles bestowed by the Malaysian government.) Datuk Othman Hashim, who presented his credentials to President Obama on May 2, 2012, has made attracting more American investment in Malaysia one of his main goals. In 2011, U.S. imports from Malaysia came to $25.7 billion, with semiconductors, computer parts and telecommunications equipment accounting for half the total. U.S. exports to Malaysia totaled $14.2 billion, yielding a trade deficit of $11.5 billion.
Born circa 1934, Othman is a career member of Malaysia’s Foreign Service. In 1994 he was U.N. resident coordinator and representative of the United Nations Development Program in Palestine. He then served as counselor and deputy head of mission at the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, China. He was ambassador to the Czech Republic circa 2003; deputy secretary-general at the Malaysian Foreign Ministry; and Malaysia’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, from January 2009 until March 2012. Othman was said to be the only diplomat considered to replace Dr. Jamaluddin, who will serve as special envoy to the U.S. while retaining his ministerial rank.
Othman is married to Datin Rohayazam Kamaruzaman. They had three children, one of whom, Firdhaus, died in a car accident in Kuala Lampur in 2008.
Othman Picked as Envoy to US (by Paul Gabriel, The Star-Malaysia)
Paul W. Jones, a career member of the State Department’s Senior Foreign Service, was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia on September 8, 2010.
James R. Keith was born in Virginia and earned a B.A. degree in English from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. While growing up, he lived in Tokyo, Jakarta, Hong Kong, and Taipei. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1980. Keith served numerous tours of duty in Washington, DC, working on Asian Affairs, and has also served as U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong and at U.S. Embassies in Beijing, Jakarta and Seoul. In addition to his Foreign Service postings, Ambassador Keith was a member of the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s and President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. Immediately prior to becoming ambassador to Malaysia, Keith held several positions including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for China, Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau at the State Department. Keith has studied Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Malaysian and Indonesian.