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On Common Ground: The U.S. and Malaysia in 2006

On Common Ground: The U.S. and Malaysia in 2006

Christopher J. LaFleur, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia
Remarks at Universiti Malaysia Sabah
Sabah, Malaysia
February 16, 2006


Thank you, Datuk, for that very kind introduction. And I want to thank you and the University for inviting me to be here today. Good afternoon to all the students and faculty here -- I know you've taken time out of your busy day to come and listen to my remarks and I greatly appreciate that.

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here on the University Malaysia Sabah campus. Since I arrived in Malaysia, I've been traveling the country and getting to know many of your fellow citizens. I'm so happy to be here on my first visit to Sabah. It's truly a lovely place! I arrived yesterday and look forward to exploring all that this beautiful region has to offer over the next several days. For a while now, I've wanted to come here and talk with you about some of the issues that are so important in the Malaysian-American relationship. I'll be talking about trade, and foreign policy, and education. The details of each are different, of course, but a single truth underpins these issues and many more: Malaysia and the United States have a great deal in common, and these mutual goals and interests will be the foundation for a productive partnership between our two countries as we look ahead.

In the past year, our countries have proved that we stand by each other and stand ready to give aid where it is desperately needed. Last fall, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the government of Malaysia generously sent 4 million ringgit to the American Red Cross to help the thousands of people left homeless by the storm, and we received countless requests from Malaysian citizens asking how they could help. This same spirit of goodwill guided America's work to help victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Our goodwill toward one another is part of the fabric of the relationship between our nations. We help one another in times of need. We plan together for a safe and secure future. We look for ways to help both our nations prosper and our citizens succeed. You may not realize it, because it's not in the news every day, but today I want to tell you about some of the many ways the U.S. is working with Malaysia.

I'll start with trade and economics, where there have been some great successes in recent years. We see vast potential for the future. Those of you who are studying business already know the importance of trade between our countries. America has been Malaysia's top trade partner since 1999, and Malaysia is the 10th largest trade partner for the United States. And Malaysia is actually the leader in our back-and-forth trade.

In 2004, the U.S. exported $11 billion worth of goods to Malaysia, while Malaysia sent more than twice that amount, $28 billion worth of goods, to the U.S. That's a significant surplus in Malaysia's favor, and clear evidence of how open the United States is to Malaysian exports. And, as our trade increases, so does Malaysia's importance to U.S. companies and to U.S. government agencies responsible for our economic relationship.

Here in Sabah, U.S. firms are involved in developing Sabah's petroleum industry, which is the state's second largest export category behind palm oil. Murphy Oil, a US firm, was responsible for the first deepwater oil discovery made in Malaysia -- the Kikeh prospect, located off Sabah. The first production from the Kikeh development is expected in 2007.

In May 2004, Malaysia and the U.S. signed a document known as a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. This agreement created an official forum where both our governments can discuss trade issues in a structured way and work toward improving trade and investment for both countries. In addition, in the past few months, the Malaysian government has welcomed a number of senior U.S. government and business officials, who visited Malaysia in person to look at ways to expand our trade partnership. I expect that trend to continue in the coming year. You can be sure that both our countries want to see the trade relationship grow, since U.S. companies play a critical role in the success of Malaysia's economy.

Let me give you an example of the impact that U.S. firms have on Malaysia's economy. A snapshot of 18 U.S. firms involved in Malaysia's semiconductor and electronics industry reveals they were responsible for nearly a fifth of Malaysia's total export earnings recently. These firms, many of which have been operating here for decades, employ over 54,000 people in Malaysia and use 13 billion ringgit worth of Malaysian raw materials.

All this from just eighteen firms, in just one industry. Now consider that I'm talking about just a small portion of the 110 billion ringgit in U.S. investment in Malaysia; just a fraction of the more than 150 U.S. firms doing business here. So, U.S. companies have a big role in Malaysia as producers and employers. Perhaps some of them may even be looking to recruit you when you graduate.

The bottom line on trade and investment is this: Malaysia has been a development success by anyone's standards - the best demonstration that globalization works. America and American firms have been perhaps the most important foreign partners in Malaysia's development. I'd like to see that partnership become even larger and more diverse through new trade, investment and cooperation.

However, to keep this trade relationship healthy, there are key areas in which we'd like to see the Malaysian government make some progress in the near future. One of those key areas is stronger enforcement of laws protecting Intellectual Property Rights, which we often call IPR.

Now you might say, "Why is IPR important? Why should I pay higher prices for my music and movies, when I can get pirated copies cheaper?" But I hope you will stop to think about the fact that your time here at the university is all about developing your own personal store of intellectual property. You are accumulating knowledge, your personal IPR, which will become the basis for your future livelihood. Are you planning to give the world the benefit of your time and effort for free? Probably not. You will need to support yourselves and maybe someday, your families. You anticipate a fair reward for your work and so do the people - and you may soon be among them - who are involved in producing those music, video and game CD's, computer software, and textbooks. And if you do not get a fair return, then you and others may have to give up doing such work. That would be tragic for you, and also for the future of your country. And it's already happening. Here in Malaysia, I'm told, you're only making half the music CDs you used to produce. Local artists and producers have dropped out of the business because of pirates. So, we need to work together to protect all of our futures.

The importance of IPR extends well beyond the arts. Malaysia is seeking to become a "knowledge-based" economy, so that living standards will increase and the country can stay ahead of the global competition. As we have seen, much of that knowledge is going to need to come from abroad, in the form of foreign investment. But foreign investors - your potential future employers -- are not going to bring their valuable knowledge here if it cannot be protected.

I do think that we are seeing a new determination on the part of the Malaysian government to protect intellectual property. We've been encouraged by statements that the government may establish a special IPR court this year. Your leaders are now speaking up about how it is in Malaysia's own national interest to strengthen IPR enforcement. They know it's only a small step from pirating movies and software to counterfeiting electronics designs and biotechnology innovations. I think this is part of the reason that just this week, the Ministry of Domestic Trade announced its plans to amend Malaysian law. The change will allow the courts here to more effectively prosecute vendors of pirated CDs, VCDs, and DVDs. If Malaysia wants to convince potential foreign partners that it is safe to bring their valuable "know how" here, it has to take more steps like these put a stop to the very visible problem of IPR piracy.

Success in IPR enforcement will help bring new American investment to Malaysia, and in particular the type of high tech, knowledge-based investment that this country has been targeting.

With freer trade, faster travel, and more advanced technology, the world is shrinking. When it comes to political and security issues, this is especially true. People travel more, they have friends and family all over the world, they watch world news, they are well-informed on issues far from home and their jobs are often dependent on an open, global economy. The days are gone when a country can exist in a vacuum. And with difficult issues facing us -- such as the rise in terrorism -- it is essential that we look to our shared goals so we can make the right foreign policy choices.

It has been more than four years since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. These and attacks elsewhere, including here, close to home, in Southeast Asia, have changed not only the U.S., but the world. Each of us has a stake in stopping terrorists, whether they strike innocent victims in New York, or London, or Jakarta. We believe strongly that one of the best ways to prevent trans-national terrorism over the long term is to empower the people of the world through democracy.

The Malaysian leadership is also a vocal supporter of promoting democracy as a way to stop terrorism. Last year, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi addressed the OIC and discussed terrorism. He said: "The tide of radicalism and extremism can be checked and reversed with good governance, healthy democratic practices, and empowerment of the citizenry through education and equitable economic growth." In fact, these are key principles that the U.S. government, too, is working toward around the globe.

Right now, Iraq and Afghanistan are the most well-known places in which the U.S. is trying to foster democracy. We know that it is not and will not be an easy transition. There are those, particularly within Iraq, who are trying to stop the spread of freedom through violence against their fellow countrymen. But they are going to fail, because the Iraqi people know that freedom and the rights that come with it are worth defending.

No one is making the mistake of thinking that Iraq can change overnight. But look at how far this country has come. Three years ago, Iraq was in the grip of a brutal dictator. Since then, Iraqis have assumed sovereignty of their country, drafted a democratic constitution that takes into consideration the needs of Iraq's women and various ethnic groups, and approved that constitution in a nationwide referendum. The level of participation among voters during landmark elections on December 15 was striking, particularly among Sunni Iraqis, who turned out to the polls in greater numbers than ever. In fact, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry says that nearly 70% of eligible voters cast their ballots. Now, Iraqi parties are creating a government based on national unity, formed without regard to sectarianism and committed to peace. We hope this new beginning will be followed by many more examples of democracy in action.

In neighboring Afghanistan, elections have demonstrated the people's commitment to build a free country with national democratic institutions and an improving quality of life. I also think it's worth noting that in a country with a recent history of severe restrictions on personal freedoms, especially for women, last fall there were more than 580 women candidates running for office across Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has the potential for a bright future. President Hamid Karzai recently described his homeland. He said that he was proud to boast that it now has, and I quote, "a constitution, a president, a Parliament and a nation fully participating in its destiny." His remark does indeed describe the feelings of his fellow citizens. A recent poll conducted by World Public Opinion showed that 83 percent of Afghan citizens believe their country is headed in the right direction. Eighty-three percent. That's a remarkable majority.

As these nations settle into new democratic traditions, they need support from the U.S. and from the international community of democracies as a whole. Afghanistan, for one, knows it needs help to get back on its feet -- opinion polling shows a majority have a favorable view of the US military presence to help maintain the peace in their country. And the U.S. stands by Afghanistan. We proved that again during the donor conference two weeks ago, when Secretary of State Rice announced President Bush's new 1.1 billion dollar initiative to support the Afghan people in the coming year.

But, as I said, there is a vital role for other countries to play in ensuring the success of new democracies like Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe Malaysia, in particular, has an important role to play. It is clearly a success story in Southeast Asia, and a success story in the Muslim world. I believe that the Malaysian example proves wrong those naysayers who would argue that Islam and democratic traditions and institutions can't co-exist successfully. I am delighted that Malaysia is looking at providing technical and training assistance to these fledgling Muslim democracies.

The U.S. and Malaysia also both agree that foreign policy is often best handled in the context of international organizations. We both work actively to achieve our goals in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and the United Nations.

When it comes to such vital matters as the Six-Party Talks with North Korea and nuclear nonproliferation concerns in Iran, the U.S. is working closely with its international partners to achieve diplomatic resolutions. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, decided to refer Iran to the UN Security Council in March if it does not change its course on its suspect nuclear program. The resolution makes very clear the steps Iran's regime must take. It must suspend enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, cooperate fully with the IAEA, and return to the negotiating process based on the previously agreed terms. The strong IAEA majority in favor of reporting Iran to the United Nations Security Council underscores the concern -- not just of the United States, but of the entire international community - about Iran's program. We will consult closely with other concerned parties as we enter this new diplomatic phase on Iran.

The Iran issue highlights the fact that now, more than ever, the UN member states must work on making the United Nations the strongest, most efficient and productive body possible, so that real, meaningful decisions can be made. The U.S. is one of many nations actively working on improving the UN's effectiveness.

We also are active in supporting goals we share with Malaysia in the areas of economic development, democracy and education. The United States fully supports the development goals of the Millennium Declaration, which was agreed to by world leaders at the United Nations. We've shown our commitment to development with major aid around the world. In fact, America has long been the world's top donor for development, and since 2000, the U.S. has nearly doubled its development aid, from $10 billion per year to $19 billion dollars last year alone.

Let me share the example of the Middle East Partnership Initiative. This $293 million program is designed to create new opportunities for business and education in the Middle East. So far, the initiative's education arm has invested well over $30 million dollars for programs like improving literacy for women and children and enhancing international university linkages. These are just a few of America's investments in the next generation of Middle Eastern political and economic leaders.

And, in fact, the U.S. is committed to helping the future leaders of every generation, of every nation. As I look around the room today, I'm looking at the faces of Malaysia's next leaders. I know that you all will go far in helping guide the future of your country. You have taken the initiative to come to this university, studying hard and preparing yourself with the most powerful tool in the world: Knowledge. So, let's talk for a moment about your university experience and what it will mean to you, and why support for education worldwide is so important to the United States.

People are right when they say that knowledge is power, and that it is the key to success; but it's also the key to understanding. That's why the U.S. is working so hard to ensure greater numbers of people around the world have access to an education. Think about it: It is certainly true that students learn much more while they're at a University than simply what they're told in their lecture halls. On this campus, each of you has a great opportunity to discover something new, be it a sport, a language, or just the chance to learn more about the student next to you. You have a great advantage because Malaysia, and your University, are diverse places -- and there is so much to learn from the different backgrounds of the people around us. Sometimes we take these everyday lessons for granted, because we are lucky enough to experience them every single day.

There are many children and young adults who aren't so fortunate. The U.S. is committed to trying to help them. Sometimes it is government that blocks people's access to knowledge. As I've mentioned, the U.S. has worked in recent years alongside other nations to help bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Re-opening schools in these countries, and expanding access to education for bright Iraqi and Afghan children, has always been a priority for the U.S. Government. Less than 6 months after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, the U.S. worked to help open enough schools to send 3 million children back to class. Included among them were hundreds of thousands of girls, whose attendance at school had been forbidden under the Taliban. In Malaysia, where a majority of university students are women, such a thing is unthinkable. Thankfully, it's now becoming just a memory in places like Kabul, now, too.

Sometimes there are socio-economic reasons that children can't learn effectively. The U.S. Government also works to help people overcome these. The U.S. National Guard has built many school facilities overseas free of charge, giving students in poor areas a place to learn. Peace Corps volunteers are spread across the globe, teaching students of all ages the skills they need to survive. They address the needs in each community, and teach subjects ranging from English language skills, to computer skills, to agricultural skills. Here in Malaysia, the U.S. is now sponsoring English Language Teaching Fellows, who are supported by Malaysia's Ministry of Education. When the state of Terengganu asked for assistance in finding qualified native English speakers to help teach its children to speak fluently, the Embassy worked with the Fulbright program and we responded, launching a new program and sending 10 Americans to teach English throughout Terengganu. We hope this will become a model on which to base a nationwide program.

I'd like to tell you about another new program we're very proud of at the Embassy, in which Malaysian students in the U.S. have broken down misperceptions about America and opened the door for wonderful experiences and lifelong friendships. This program, called "Youth Exchange for Study", or YES, sends Malaysian teenagers to the U.S. for six months, all free of charge for the students. These young Malaysians live with American families and attend American schools. In just about every case, these students had ideas and perceptions about the country and the culture that turned out to be false. But just a few months into their American experience, these students reported that they had a greater understanding of American values, individual rights and freedoms, and more. No doubt they taught a lot about Malaysia to their new American friends, too. Quite a few of these students are already back in Malaysia, and others recently headed to the U.S. to start a new school year. They are proof positive that studying abroad can deepen knowledge and understanding in many ways.

And at the university level, the United States is always looking to encourage more qualified students to go to the U.S. to learn. There are millions of dollars in scholarships, both public and private, available to foreign students -- including Malaysians -- who want to study in America. Students can also compete for prestigious government-funded scholarships, such as the Fulbright program. This year, there are more than 30 Fulbright scholars from Malaysia who are continuing their studies in the U.S., all of whom will return to Malaysia when their studies are through to apply their knowledge here, at home.

So I encourage you to go out and take advantage of the chance to study abroad, and of course I encourage you, in particular, to consider the United States. Some twenty years ago, Malaysians represented the largest group of international students at many American universities. In fact, I was delighted to learn that your Governor and one of your own vice chancellors earned their Ph.D.s in the United States. But since 1998, the numbers of Malaysian students in America has dropped by half -- and that's a trend we want to reverse. There are a number of theories on what's caused the decline. I hear that some people believe it's very difficult to obtain a visa to go to the U.S., but that's simply not true. The vast majority of our visa applicants get their visas. Also, the delays that some applicants experienced in the months after September 11 have been all but eliminated. Today, the average visa applicant only has to come to the embassy ONE time. You usually have to wait for your appointment for just ONE day. In other words, most days you can get your visa appointment tomorrow. On top of all that, the vast majority of our approved visa applicants get their passports back very soon after their interviews, and our consular section has special procedures in place to assist student visa applicants. You can even send someone else to pick up your passport for you.

The United States remains an open and inviting place to study, and if you go there, I'm confident you will see for yourselves how much Malaysians and Americans truly do have in common.

And the fact remains that the very best universities in the world are still in America. A British magazine, the Economist, reported last year that 17 of the top 20 universities in the world are in the United States. What's more, American universities currently employ 70% of the world's Nobel prize-winners, and account for 30% of the world's output of articles on science and engineering and 44% of the most frequently cited articles. These are but a few statistics that prove my point: If you spend time at an American university, you'll become a part of the best system of higher education anywhere. I hope you'll consider a year abroad, or perhaps graduate study, in the United States. If you have younger brothers and sisters, encourage them to apply for the YES program I mentioned earlier. Educational advisers at MACEE, the Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchanges, are trained and ready to give you information on the many universities and scholarship opportunities that are available to you.

You are all already on the right track. You came to hear me speak today because you have an interest in America's relationship with Malaysia, and I thank you for listening. I urge you to keep looking for the whole story on policies that are important to both our countries. It doesn't take long to find plenty of cases where our goals and interests intersect. Of course, Americans and Malaysians might not agree on everything. That's true of all countries. But don't let this obscure our wide range of common interests. Study the issues carefully, because often you'll find that the whole story isn't available from a single source. Indeed, you are lucky here in Malaysia that one democratic principle you observe is free access to the Internet. That's not true of many countries in Asia. I encourage you to exercise that privilege wisely and ensure you benefit from listening to all sides of the story. As you do, I think you will recognize that our bilateral relationship can and should be a win-win situation for both Malaysia and the U.S. The topics I've discussed today, including trade, foreign policy, and education, are excellent examples of this potential. A successful Malaysia is good for America, and vice versa.

Thank you, again, for the invitation to spend this time with you. And thank you so much for your attention. And with that, I'd be happy to hear any questions you may have.

Released on February 16, 2006

ENDS


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