With Malaysia-US relations at a cruising altitude, US Ambassador Paul W. Jones will certainly be kept busy during his term here.
THERE are great expectations on United States Ambassador to Malaysia Paul W. Jones, and the recently-posted envoy looks groomed for the task.
The urgency of action on his part is apparent. Last week, Jones was at the Semengoh Nature Reserve and Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Sarawak and on Wednesday he was checking on a US-funded English Language assistance programme in Terengganu. Under this project, students are taught English by young American university graduates.
Next week, he’ll be making his third trip to Penang - this time for a “pow wow” with American Chamber of Commerce companies gathering there. The father of two has begun to take a liking for local food (he gives the thumbs up to the curry mee in Penang), the choices “vetted” by wife Catherine, who is an author of food and health books.
“We did this wonderful event at my home where we said goodbye to 50 Malaysian exchange students who were going to spend six months with American families and high schools there.
“And we were welcoming 20 Americans who arrived to teach in rural schools in Terengganu. The two (groups) met for the first time and within half-an-hour, they were dancing and singing together and having a wonderful time,’’ he says in an interview with Sunday Star on Thursday.
Jones, a career member of the State Department’s Senior Foreign Service, is also fast catching up with the Twitter and Facebook social networking frenzy here. “In Kuala Terengganu, I mentioned to students at a girls’ school that I was on Facebook. Within an hour, I had several of the students commenting on my page and I have been commenting back.
“It’s a great way to stay in touch with people,’’ adds the envoy, who says that he hadn’t been that active on both US-based sites prior to his posting. Among others, Jones spoke about his passion for education, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) negotiations with Malaysia, visa applications to the US, the resilience of the US economy and the WikiLeaks saga.
Q: Last week, you were in Sarawak visiting a wildlife rehabilitation centre and yesterday (Wednesday) you were visiting schools in Terengganu, and you’ve been up to Batu Caves. You’re having a great time?
A: We’re having a wonderful time. There’s a lot to see in this country. There are a lot of partnerships that we have got going in a number of different areas. Education in Terengganu, particularly. In Sarawak, we work on cultural preservation, conservation and a number of different issues. And I’ll be up in Penang next week.
A: (Laughs) This will be my third trip to Penang, both for work and pleasure. Next week, there is going to be the annual summit for American Chamber of Commerce companies with the Chief Minister and we will talk through the business environment and see if there are any issues we need to address.
Q: I’ve interviewed several of your predecessors. The job of diplomacy is never completed but what do you hope to try and accomplish in the near term here?
A: Here are my priorities as instructed by President Obama and Secretary Clinton. One is in the area of education. I think we have got a lot of good foundation and we can do a lot more together that also builds mutual understanding and people-to-people ties. President Obama is also very focused on entrepreneurialism. We have a number of programmes to support entrepreneurialism and outreach to youth. So we’ve got English Language, educational ties, entrepreneurialism, trade and investment. I think we can make progress on negotiations going on this year on the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP). There’s a lot we can do in the area of cultural interaction which we’ve started on. I am excited and optimistic about the years ahead.
Q: US-based social networking sites Twitter and Facebook are immensely popular here. Have you been fully exploiting the open Internet in Malaysia to connect with Malaysians?
A: I have done some of this in the past but I came here and saw how connected Malaysians are and how particularly focused on Facebook a lot of people were. In Kuala Terengganu, I mentioned to students at a girls’ school that I was in Facebook. I just told them that Ambassador Jones is MyHandle and within one hour, I had several of the students commenting on my page and I have been commenting back. So it’s a great way to stay in touch with people.
Q: US-Malaysia relations are at a cruising altitude. Do you foresee changes in the relationship, say in the next decade or so, which will take us higher?
A: Well, a decade is a long way to look ahead. I think 2010 will be seen, as we look back, as sort of a turning point. A lot happened. We had some very important senior visits with Prime Minister Najib travelling to Washington, Secretary Clinton coming which was the first bilateral visit for a Secretary of State in 15 years, and (Defence) Secretary Gates coming too. Neither of them had ever set foot in Malaysia and so that’s a real breakthrough. We have a president who was born in Hawaii and spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, has real experience and family members from around the world and family members who are Muslim. He has a tremendous interest and connection with this part of the world. I think we have opportunities to take the relationship even further.
When I was back in Washington just under three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet President Obama and I can say Malaysia is on his mind, as is Asia generally. It’s a very important year this year for the US’ relations with Asia. It’s a very important year for engagement in Southeast Asia and I think Malaysia is a real focus of that.
Q: You spoke about your passion for education. You have this English Teaching Assistant (ETA) programme in Terengganu, Field Trip USA and the English Access microscholarship programme in Malaysia, among several others. What are your thoughts on Malaysians and Americans getting together more at the younger generation level?
A: When you see the younger generation getting together, it just clicks right away. I think people sometimes undervalued the relations between our two countries’ and peoples’. But when you get the young people together, it clicks. We did this wonderful event at my home where we said goodbye to 50 “YES” exchange students, Malaysians who were going to spend six months with an American family and in a high school anywhere in the US. And then we were welcoming the 20 English Teaching Assistants who arrived to teach in rural schools in Terengganu. The two (groups) met for the first time and within half-an-hour, they were dancing and singing together and having a wonderful time. Now they’re in touch via Facebook, sharing experiences together. First-time experiences both in Malaysia and the United States. That is to me what President Obama was speaking about in Cairo, about mutual understanding and respect. That’s how you build it. Because it is not just (about) one student or one teacher. All of them havefamily members and friends and they are projecting this relationship and understanding. It reaches across thousands. So I am passionate and excited about it.
Q: On the US Peace Corps programme, is there any headway?
A: You have a terrific and very well-known ambassador in Washington in Datuk Seri Jamaluddin Jarjis. He’s known affectionately in Washington as Ambassador “JJ”. And I can tell you anywhere you go in Washington, people know him whether it’s Congress or the executive branch or elsewhere. The two of us took a trip to Terengganu in order to see on the ground if the proposal that we are developing really matches the experience. We have a proposal that is quite ready for our governments to look at and see how far we can go, how quickly we want to go, to scale up some of the programmes we have and one of it is in Terengganu. Our conclusion coming away was – this really works! It takes a lot of human personal connection and we are going to scale it up in a way that ensures that we do right by the people in the communities and the teachers coming. It’s a model that works and I am optimistic.
Q: On the tertiary front, John Hopkins University is to set up its first offshore medical school in Malaysia. How do you see this, and what’s next on the horizon?
A: We are very excited about that. I met the entire leadership team at my home when they came and signed the agreement during Secretary Clinton’s visit. They are so interested in the medical experience that exists already in Malaysia and the collaboration that doctors from the US and Malaysia can work on treatments, and on different ways that diseases can manifest in different countries. President Obama has appointed science envoys to countries and regions in the world. The one he recently appointed for Malaysia is a woman named Dr Rita Colwell, she is going to come out during the course of this year. She is the former director of the National Science Foundation and we are starting to speak with her and are going to link her up with the Science Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office and other people here to explore areas we can move ahead on. Particularly in areas to implement the science and technology agreement that Secretary Clinton signed when she was here. So I think we have got a lot of promising areas to explore. When I was in Sarawak, I visited this biodiversity centre and there is very exciting work going on there. We have an American, a Yale University graduate in biochemistry, working with them. There’s an awful lot out there. What we need to do is to pull it together and come out with an agenda and see how we (can) move forward.
Q: There is very little focus in the area of Southeast Asian studies in US universities, and yet historically the US has had a lot to do in the region. There is hardly any scholarship offered by US universities on Islam studies, despite the great interest in the religion. How do you respond?
A: I don’t know … I’m skeptical that there are hardly any scholarships offered on the study of Islam or Southeast Asia in the US. It’s an area, as you indicated, of growing interest in the US and actually of very high interest among think-tanks in Washington. In the Asia Society, for example, there is great expertise and a lot of back and forth between scholars and students on studies in Southeast Asia, and Islam in particular. So I don’t see any impediments to that. I think we are going to grow in our relationship. 2011 is going to be a very consequential year for the US’ relations with Asia. We are speaking very intensively with particularly the countries of Southeast Asia about how to develop our relationship. We started the year with President Hu (Jintao of China) visiting Washington. A very important and win-win visit from our point of view. We will end the year with the East Asia Summit where President Obama will be the very first US President to participate in it in Indonesia, and then the Apec Summit hosted by President Obama in Honululu. There’s a lot that we’ll be working on together.
Q: We hear that visa applications by Malaysians are increasing. How many US visas were issued to Malaysians last year?
A: We issued about 30,000 visas last year (22% increase compared to 2009). The good news is that Malaysians generally do not have a hard time getting visas. About 95% of those who apply receive their visas, most in a couple of days. Student visa applications are also up. We have a little over 6,000 Malaysian students in the US now. We would welcome more and are actually expanding our educational advisory centres. There is one in Kuala Lumpur that has just gone digital and another in Penang. When I was in Sarawak, we were talking about expanding one to the library there. We want to reach out much more to see if we can expand the number of students travelling to the US.
Q: Any good news to share about the resilience of the American economy? What is the latest you’re hearing from the Chairman of the Fed?
A: When I was in Washington, you could really sense the growing confidence and relief that the economic hard times were getting behind us. Unemployment remains high but companies are posting profits particularly in the high-tech sector which is a great benefit to Malaysia. The US-Malaysia trading relationship is very much up, we’re at almost US$40bil (RM136bil) in two-way trade in 2010. (There is) a large increase in US and Malaysian exports. So I’m very optimistic. As we work on this TPP trade negotiation, I think investors and traders will have added confidence to become active.
Q: The House Republicans recently approved spending cuts and there are fears that this will further slow down the US economy. Should the US cut its budget in these uncertain times?
A: There is this great debate going on in the US right now about government spending. You’re going to see this being played up. The House of Representatives is the originator of spending bills but it’s not the final decider. The US economy is overwhelmingly in the hands of the private sector. Government spending is important but it is not the determinative factor. So if you see the US getting control of the deficits, that’s not necessarily going to have a very negative impact on the economy. In some ways it will have a positive impact as people will have growing confidence in the bond market.
Q: Oil prices are skyrocketing again, further fuelled by unrest in the Middle East. US crude has hit US$100 a barrel. Are you worried about the impact of rising oil prices on the global economy, specifically the US economy?
A: It impacts the whole world when oil prices go up. I think we have a recovery that is resilient. The pace may be impacted by the price of oil. I tend to hope that if the political change that’s going on in the Middle East right now, if governments can get ahead of the reform agenda that people are demanding in several countries, that will add confidence to the market and maybe the price will come down again.
Q: On a brighter note, the US jobless rate has dropped to 9% which is the lowest in 21 months.
A: That is still sort of unsustainably high. I think you’re still going to see great efforts to bring it down. For us, that’s a very high figure.
Q: The Najib administration has launched the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) and New Economic Model (NEM) to make the economy more competitive. From the American perspective, how does it really change how you view Malaysia as a potential investment spot?
A: I think American companies are watching this very closely. People are impressed with the plans. The NEM and ETP, there’s going to be great interest on how it is implemented. Everyone that I have spoken to in American business believes that these are very good moves in the right direction. Again, it is the speed and how far the reforms will go in implementation that traders and investors around the world will watch.
Q: The bulk of US-Malaysia trade involves the electrical and electronic sector but we are moving towards a higher income economy with focus on a knowledge or service-based economy. What role can the US play, as Malaysia’s largest trading partner, to help with this agenda?
A: (The bulk of our trade is in) oil and gas, too. The US was the largest foreign investor in Malaysia both in terms of total stock and investments in 2010. The US is the largest and most competitive market in the world and also the most innovative, creative and high-tech market. Investments by US firms in Malaysia not only create tens of thousands of jobs, it also holds the prospect for higher level knowledge-based jobs here. You’re seeing this in some of the work that is going on in Penang, for example. Also in solar panel production, SunPower is in Malacca now. I’m also going to visit the First Solar (plant) in Kulim. That sort of technology transfer and investments such as that by John Hopkins University is for the good of the growing knowledge-based economy in Malaysia. The trading relationship is also very important. Even though the US is not Malaysia’s No 1 export market, when you see the trade patterns, whether exports are going to Singapore or to China, the ultimate destination of the product tends to be the US market. So the US market still drives what Malaysia produces.
Q: We will not have an FTA but a TPP agreement which has been touted as an excellent platform to realise the creation of a huge market. How is this process coming along?
A: We are in the early stages of a very aggressive negotiating timetable with the goal of agreeing to a framework agreement at the Apec Summit in November. This is an interesting, different sort of negotiation because it is multilateral, (involving) nine countries and important economies, Malaysia being the most significant economy in Southeast Asia. But it’s self-selecting. As we go through the process, if some country says “I’m not really there for Round 1”, it’s okay, the other countries can move ahead. It’s too early to tell what will come after but there are other countries that are not involved in this nine-country negotiation which are very interested in how this turns out. I think what it will do for Malaysia and the US is a great complementarity between our markets. It will develop and grow the sense that Malaysia is open for business and will attract further foreign investments here.
Q: You don’t generally get into discussions about this issue – WikiLeaks. There are said to be about 1,000 secret diplomatic cables related to Malaysia, some of which have already been published. Can you explain the difference between these cables and official US policy?
A: First of all, let me say that WikiLeaks is not about freedom of media or government transparency. It’s about stolen property. Just like a business, a law firm or your own doctor who has confidential information that you don’t necessarily want shared with everyone. This is the kind of information that we believe should be protected. The interesting story about the whole WikiLeaks saga is that it hasn’t exposed that there is any difference between what the US stands for publicly and what we are talking about privately. What it does, when you release cables like that, is that it gets into very detailed conversations that can be awkward because something’s you’ll say in a private conversation that you don’t really put that way in a public conversation because other people may not understand it properly. But I don’t think you’re going to see anything, even if additional cables come out from anywhere in the world. I don’t think you’re going to see any great conspiracy story. We have confidential channels of conversation so that we can be very frank and honest with each other.
Q: As the chief US diplomat here, how do you respond to former ambassador John Malott’s scathing criticisms of Malaysia in his recent commentary?
A: John Malott is a private citizen and is welcomed to his views just like any private citizen is. I don’t think it’s really my role here to comment on his views just as I don’t comment on every private citizen’s views on the internal politics of Malaysia. What I’m here to do is to build the relationship between our countries’ and peoples’ and that’s what I am focused on.
Q: Finally, the billion dollar question - will President Obama step off the plane here?
A: (Smiles) I would love it. I can tell you that when I met President Obama (in Washington), he was very much aware and interested about Malaysia. The schedules of our leaders are always difficult to know, it’s challenging, so I’m not going to make any predictions. But I will say that clearly there is a great interest in Washington from President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Secretary Clinton and other members of the Cabinet in South East Asia and in the progress that the relationship with Malaysia is making.
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