Why Should the Obama Presidency Matter to Malaysia?


In late April the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama marked its “100th day.” On that occasion, the media and pundits had their say, as pollsters measured our new president’s popularity and the impact of his administration. Most polls showed that a majority of Americans believe the United States is headed in the right direction under President Obama. Many believe Obama has improved the United States’ image abroad, and its relations with other countries. Some have cited in particular the President’s efforts to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, his decisiveness in dealing with Somali pirates, his decision to close Guantanamo Bay prison, and improved relations with Cuba.

President Obama has undertaken a foreign policy agenda that seeks to create a new era of international cooperation. At the recent G-20 meeting in London, as well as at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago, President Obama set a new tone for dialogue and diplomacy. He listened, engaged in constructive dialogue, demonstrated an appreciation for and understanding of cultural difference and nuance, and apologized for American arrogance, thereby laying the groundwork for a new diplomatic approach and renewed American engagement.

How much does the Obama presidency matter to Malaysia? The U.S. is Malaysia’s number one trading partner, and Malaysia is the United States’ 16th largest trading partner. Hundreds of U.S. companies are present in Malaysia, employing tens of thousands of people. The person-to-person connections between our two countries are substantial: nearly 40,000 Malaysians applied for visas to visit us last year. Over 7,000 Malaysian students are now in the United States, and we expect even more this year.

Hillary Clinton made it clear during her first foreign trip as Secretary of State that Asia will be a priority for the Obama Administration, and an indispensable partner in years to come. That commitment was reflected in her visit to the ASEAN Secretariat and her announcement that the United States would launch a formal process to pursue accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-east Asia – a reflection of the new administration’s desire for broader and deeper relations with Asia on regional and global issues.

Malaysia boasts one of South-East Asia’s most vibrant economies, the fruit of decades of industrial growth and political stability. It has built a solid foundation for future development in terms of its infrastructure and educated workforce. Situated along one of the world’s most critically important shipping lanes between the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, Malaysia is also a key tourist destination in the region, offering the colorful traditions of its people, its scenery, and the stunning diversity of its flora and fauna. Malaysia counts itself among the membership of many regional and international institutions, and is known for its contribution to international peacekeeping operations around the world.

We are at an opportune moment for U.S.-Malaysia relations. With new administrations in both nations, we can build on the momentum of our respective political transitions to improve our ties across a broad range of critical issues. By pursuing increased senior-level exchanges and visits, we can explore ways to advance our relationship based on shared national interests. We can look for increased bilateral opportunities and enhance our cooperation in public health, energy and the environment. The United States seeks a more open global trading system, and our FTA talks with Malaysia have been an expression of this, but we can do more.

Looking more broadly, Malaysia’s active, committed support is essential for addressing a number of international issues of mutual concern, ranging from nuclear nonproliferation, to export controls, to refugees, migration and labor, to the protection of fundamental human rights. As an economically successful, majority-Muslim country, Malaysia can have a significant impact — and play a unique role — in advancing the resolution of the difficult issues of our day. We share the benefits of the international system, and we must also share the burdens of sustaining it.

For years, the United States and Malaysia have not realized the full potential of their relationship. Our policy in the Middle East looms large here, along with concerns on how the U.S. will help resolve a host of issues including hot spots in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the global economic crisis. President Obama and his team, most notably our Secretaries of Treasury and State, have been vocal in support of international solutions. We are listening actively to our friends and partners to find productive means of managing the problems that we face and investing in our shared future. We must choose the future over the past, because we know that the future holds enormous opportunities if we work together.


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