“I have Always Imagined Germany as an Open and Advanced, Modern Country”

An interview with Amb. Sarah Nava Rani Al Bakri Devadason on diplomatic relations between Malaysia and Germany

September 26th, 2019
Christina Vassell, News from Berlin
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German-Malaysian relations began in 1957, following the independence of Malaysia. Said relations further blossomed in the 2000s that saw the first-ever visit of a German chancellor to Malaysia in 2002 and bilateral talks at the ASEM Summit held in Vietnam in 2004. Today, Malaysia continues to be an important partner of Germany in cultural, political and economic projects, including measures to build efficient institutions within ASEAN. From your viewpoint, in what ways does your role as well as the Embassy of Malaysia help to facilitate developments pertaining German-Malaysian relations in recent years?

Malaysia and Germany share a special bond in the sense that Germany was one of the first countries that established diplomatic relations with Malaysia after we gained our Independence. Since then, the excellent bilateral relations is reflected in various areas such as political, social and cultural fields. The most significant progress would be seen in the field of bilateral trade and investment where Germany is the biggest investor from the European Union in Malaysia while Malaysia is the principal trading partner for Germany in Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s foreign policy is founded on the strong and friendly relations with other countries and its commitment to the multilateral system. While the foreign policy approaches may have differed over the years due to changing domestic and external factors, the basic principles of the policy have continued since independence. Policy-making has been guided by the criteria of credibility together with consistency and coherency, which have served the country’s best interests.

Under the present leadership of Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia continues to promote a forward-looking and pragmatic foreign policy that facilitates trade, attracts foreign investment as well as projects Malaysia as a stable and peaceful country.

Malaysia also advocates the “Prosper thy neighbour” policy to enhance economic relations and cooperation with its neighbouring countries and other parts of the world. In terms of technical cooperation with other developing countries, Malaysia has worked with other countries by sharing its experience and knowledge through various foreign policy mechanisms. These include the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme (MTCP) and through linkages such as the Langkawi International Dialogue, bilateral assistance as well as through its public diplomacy programmes.

As a member of the UN, Malaysia is fully committed to multilateralism in advancing global peace, security and prosperity. Malaysia’s record in peacekeeping operations under the UN, four tenures as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (with the most recent being in 2015-2016) and memberships in other UN bodies, demonstrate its dedication to contribute to the efforts of the international community towards global peace and security.

Malaysia will continue to actively participate in the deliberations and efforts toward finding solutions to various global issues. Malaysia is steadfast on advancing engagement and cooperation rather than isolationism and unilateral action. Among the priority actions to be undertaken include ratification and accession to remaining UN human rights instruments, supporting international efforts on strengthening international humanitarian law, active participation in UN efforts on disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering terrorism and violent extremism and the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In responding to the complexity of global affairs, Malaysia’s conduct will continue to be guided by the principles of respect for independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, peaceful settlement of disputes, peaceful co-existence and mutual benefit in relations.

In your many years in service, how have you observed culture—including the media and arts— to shape society and politics?

Malaysian diplomats have always been consistently steadfast in promotiong the country's diverse culture and arts as portrayed in the "Malaysia Truly Asia" concept during their postings abroad. This encompasses food, music, arts, songs, dances, fashion, and more importantly the uniqueness of Malaysia as a colourful country which has numerous cultures and traditions. In Malaysia, we consider our religious and cultural diversity as a source of unity.

The cultural cooperation between Malaysia and Germany predominantly focuses on education, particularly in higher education and institutions offering German language courses and student exchange. Has there been any developments to these initatives both in Malaysia and in Germany?

Cultural cooperation between the two countries has been focused on education, including language. The German language is taught in 50 secondary schools in Malaysia as well as two state universities. In higher education, Malaysian and German universities have entered into more than 90 cooperation agreements primarily in the field of technical and engineering. Malaysia is also keen to emulate the German Dual Vocational Training to further elevate the quality of our workforce.

Perhaps, an area with considerable potential is tourism. What does Malaysia offer to tourists and how can tourism improve both bilateral and multilateral relations between Malaysia, Germany and other nations.

Despite the vast distance between Malaysia and Germany, tourist arrivals have been encouraging with 128,000 German tourist visiting Malaysia in 2018. This is part of 26 million total tourists arrivals in the same year. Tourism has become an important sector for Malaysia’s national growth and economic development. In 2018, tourism revenue contributed approximately 15 percent to Malaysia’s economy. The direct contribution of the tourism industry to the nation’s GDP recorded 6.1 percent with a value of €18.3 billion.

Visitors would find Malaysia as a multicultural melting pot of Asia, with strong influences from the Malay Archipelago, China, India and the rest of Southeast Asia; hence the tagline Malaysia, Truly Asia. Malaysia hosts five UNESCO World Heritage sites; Lenggong Valley, Mulu National Park, Kinabalu Park, Georgetown and Melaka. These sites are known for their biodiversity, archaeological, historic and cultural value.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital city, hosts the Petronas Twin Towers. Hailed as the one of the tallest towers in the world, it offers a wonderful view of the vibrant city. Food lovers would also enjoy many delicious dishes at affordable prices. Kuala Lumpur is also a great starting point for day trips to other interesting destinations such as the ancient Batu Caves, historical state of Melaka, nearby themes parks, beaches and nature getaways.

Malaysia is also the home of exotic wildlife such as the proboscis monkey and orang-utans. One can head over to Borneo to see the charismatic orang utan in the jungles of Sepilok, Sabah and the Semenggoh Nature Reserve in Sarawak; trek up Mount Kinabalu for an amazing jungle experience and visit remote villages; view vast green paddy fields of Kedah; and enjoy the unique flora and fauna found in the Belum Forest Reserve, Taman Negara National Park and Kilim Geoforest Park.

Adventure seekers can explore the caves at the Mulu National Park, trek through the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, bungee jump at Sunway Extreme Park, white water rafting at Kuala Kubu Bharu and snorkelling or scuba diving at the many spots off the Peninsula or the coast of Sabah.

Malaysia is also committed to sustainable tourism. Sea turtle lovers can visit the Ma'Daerah Turtle Sanctuary in Terengganu or Melaka's Padang Kemunting Turtle Hatchery. In addition, one could also visit endangered elephants at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary or endangered wild cattle at the Seladang-Gaur Wildlife Conservation Center.

Visitors who are interested in agriculture may also enjoy our agricultural tourism. There are farms that share their farming practices and feature tours, activities and accommodations within its compound. For example, Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm which produces rice, vegetables, fruits, herbs and seafood, offers tours of its rice fields, prawn breeding facility and wild duck sanctuary. It also offers other activities such as mountain climbing, bamboo rafting and boat riding. Visitors can immerse themselves in nature by glamping or staying in floating chalets amid rice fields.

Germany was also Malaysia’s largest European trading partner in 2018 and Malaysia is Germany’s second largest export destination (after Singapore) and the second largest source of imports (after Vietnam). However some critics observe Germany as nearing into an economic recession. In a recent interview, you said, “cooperation between our two countries could be further strengthened through closer cooperation in many sectors of mutual interest,” Can you expand on this remark?

The economic relations between Malaysia and Germany have always been strong. Germany is our largest investor from the European Union. Between 1980 to 2018, there have been 589 manufacturing projects with a total investment worth €9.1 billion. These projects had and continue to generate thousands of jobs.

I believe that the main facet which stimulates investors’ confidence in Malaysia is its dexterity in addressing challenges to its economy and its ability to adapt to the evolving global economic complexities which is centered on its business friendly policies and infrastructure. From a country dependent on agriculture and primary commodities, Malaysia has transformed itself to become an export-driven economy spurred on by high technology, knowledge-based and capital-intensive industries. Currently, we are working towards Industry 4.0 as the next phase of evolution in the manufacturing sector. Our efforts are also focused on building human capital to enhance Malaysia’s position as a hub for high value services in the Asia Pacific region.

Malaysia launched the National Policy on Industry 4.0 (Industry4WRD) in October 2018, which was based on the outcome of studies on best practices by countries including Germany. Industry4WRD aims to strengthen Malaysia’s capabilities as a destination for high-tech investments. The policy envisions Malaysia as a strategic partner for smart manufacturing, a primary destination for high-technology industries and a total solutions provider for the manufacturing sector in the region.

The Government is committed to ensure that the Malaysian economy remains on a sustainable growth trajectory by providing a conducive and favourable environment to attract investors and businesses investing and trading in the country. Quality foreign direct investment continues to assume an important role in the development of Malaysia due to its multiplier impact on the economy.

In addition, Malaysia has adopted a more focused and targeted approach in attracting quality investments in high technology, capital intensive and knowledge intensive industries; high value-added industries; R&D activities as well as in new growth areas, which is line with the strategies and capabilities of German companies.

Therefore, the opportunities of partnerships between German and Malaysian companies are tremendous especially in taking advantage of Germany underlying expertise in R&D and knowledge technology driven industries. Such partnerships offer collaboration opportunities through technology transfers and joint ventures including in the technology drivers of Industry 4.0. We welcome more German investors to leverage on our country’s competitive and comparative advantages.

It is also pertinent to add that the longstanding business to business network between German companies and their Malaysian partners as well as people to people contacts over the years relations of trust based on respect and understanding. This is an important element in any mutually beneficial relationship.

With Malaysia’s well-developed infrastructure and connectivity, foreign companies have much to gain in terms of capturing growth opportunities and immediate market access. Even though Malaysia is only a population of 32 million it offers access to a wider regional market. We encourage investors to leverage on Malaysia as a gateway to the wider ASEAN region. ASEAN provides an effective platform for investors to utilise and maximise its value chain.

Your Excellency, do you have any final comments on what you anticipate the future of German-Malaysian relations to be in the coming years?

I have always imagined Germany as an open and advanced, modern country that is also open and receptive towards other cultures of the world. I have also admired the rich historical background of Germany that reflects the strength and resilience of its people.

Through my interaction with many, be it with the political, business or academic circle as well with government officials, I find that Malaysia and Germany share the same perspective of constructive cooperation and collaboration in achieving mutually beneficial outcomes. They are cordial and forthcoming in accommodating requests for meetings, discourse, exchange of information and sharing of best practices. I am also very fortunate to have an excellent team of colleagues at the Embassy here in Berlin and our Consulate in Frankfurt as well as two very dedicated honorary consuls, Datuk Edgar E. Nordmann in Hamburg and Senator E.h. Datuk Dr. Helmut Baur in Stuttgart. They are of tremendous help in ensuring the smooth discharge of my responsibilities as ambassador towards promoting Malaysia and enhancing Malaysia-Germany bilateral relations and cooperation.

As a diplomat in Berlin, I find that my work here in Germany is also made easy by the positive and welcoming attitude of the people that I have been fortunate to interact with, including from among the diplomatic corps. I look forward to building more meaningful relationships with many others throughout my tenure here.

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