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Welcome to "Ask the Ambassador" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to U.S. Ambassadors around the world.

U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia James Keith, discussed U.S.-Malaysia bilateral relations.

James Keith, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia
James Keith
U.S. Ambassador to

Event Date: 2/25/2008

Khin in Indiana writes:

Hello, I am a current student at College of Notre Dame. I am doing a report analysis on Malaysia's status of women, religion, education and how they all relate to each other. Could you tell me there is a division in society due to religion and race? And how that affects women in their daily lives; education, family, etc.

I hope that was clear for you.


Ambassador Keith:

Khin, an interesting fact about Malaysia is that about 70% of university students here are women. You will also find Malaysian women serving their government in important Cabinet-level positions and in prominent business and trade roles. Women administer some of the country’s best universities, including the oldest - Universiti Malaya - where Rafiah Salim has been at the helm since 2006. One difficult issue affecting mainly non-Malaysian women who come here from surrounding countries is trafficking in persons, which can affect women who are brought here through force or deception for forced labor or sexual servitude. The good news is that last year, Malaysia passed a comprehensive law to help crack down on traffickers and to protect victims. We hope to see one of the law’s provisions – the opening of shelters for victims of trafficking – become a reality soon.

Andrin in U.K. writes:

What do you think is the reason that Malaysia has expressed concerns about recognizing Kosovo as the independent state? Thank you.

Ambassador Keith:

On February 20, Malaysia issued a statement welcoming Kosovo's declaration of independence, and noted that it hopes this declaration will fulfill the Kosovo people's aspirations to live in security, freedom and stability. Malaysia also urged all parties to cooperate to guarantee peace and stability in the Balkans. The statement included mention that Malaysia's liaison office in Kosovo would change its diplomatic status at some point. We haven't seen an official expression of concern from Malaysia.

John in Washington, DC writes:

Do you find the work of non-profits like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House to be influential in helping develop a democracy in Malaysia?

Ambassador Keith:

International civil society organizations can and have played an important role in Malaysia by sharing democratic experiences, even while recognizing that no two countries will follow the same model of democracy. Groups like the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), Freedom House, the Asia Foundation and others bring to the table a wealth of comparative experience, not only from the United States. They also can serve a very positive role in building bridges and helping to educate U.S. citizens and policy-makers regarding Malaysia. I’d like to see an expansion of civil society ties between organizations in Malaysia and those in the United States, and I intend to encourage such ties during my tenure as Ambassador. All of that said, nation-building, in the end, is an endeavor that requires the host nation to set its own parameters. An interesting exposition of what is at stake for Malaysia can be found in a recent interview with the former chief justice and crown prince of Perak Dr. Nazrin Shah, in which he addresses key democratic challenges, including fighting corruption, freedom of public discourse, freedom of assembly, and the government's responsibility for public order.

Martin in Washington, DC writes:

How do judge Malaysia with regard to the rule of law? What do you think Malaysia still has to do to improve its open civil society? Where do you see any threats to the civil society which has so far been established?

Ambassador Keith:

Your questions, Martin, are extremely important, and I realize I will not be able to do them justice in a short response. Malaysia possesses a proud legal tradition and a wealth of highly qualified lawyers and jurists, but the local press and opinion leaders have raised serious questions about the current degree of independence of the Malaysian judiciary. Malaysia is paying increasing attention to the critical importance of rule of law. This is appropriate and necessary for a country rapidly approaching fully developed country status seeking to attract high-end investment and intending to compete in many economic fields in the international arena. Countries and multi-national businesses will look to the integrity of Malaysia’s legal system to judge the viability of sizeable investments in Malaysia’s economy. Since my arrival in Malaysia, I’ve noticed prominent Malaysians and civil society groups highlight the importance of an independent judiciary. The current Royal Commission investigating the so-called Lingam tape is one example. At the same time, Malaysia as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country faces the question of the balance between civil and Shari’a courts. More broadly, checks and balances in any governmental system are important to maintain transparency and accountability. Active and responsible civil society groups and an unfettered media are vital components, too, for successful governance of any developed society in this century.

Matt in New York writes:

What are some of the main sources of trade between the U.S. and Malaysia and what can we do to better our relationship to ensure this mutual trade continues, and to benefit both parties.

Ambassador Keith:

Malaysia’s key exports to the U.S. include electronic products such as computers, computer parts and semiconductor devices, and optical and scientific equipment. Malaysia also exports textiles, palm oil and wood products to the U.S. The flow of these goods has made the U.S. Malaysia’s largest trading partner for 10 straight years. Meanwhile, Malaysia is our 16th largest trading partner. Our key exports include electrical products, machinery, chemicals, as well as iron and steel products. We are negotiating a Free Trade Agreement, or FTA, with Malaysia in the near future which would stimulate mutually beneficial growth in our two-way trade in the future. We hope to conclude the FTA this calendar year, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.

John in Virginia writes:

Does Malaysia have a large problem with terrorism? How is the U.S. working with Malaysia to handle any such problem?

Ambassador Keith:

The Malaysian government has shown a strong commitment to global cooperation to contain and eventually eliminate the threat of terrorism. Our law enforcement agencies and militaries cooperate, share information and train together. Malaysia has supported various UN resolutions and conventions on fighting terrorism; most recently, in June 2007 Malaysia's accession to the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism came into force. Malaysia faces a unique challenge in its maritime border area with the Philippines and Indonesia, where members of the terrorist groups Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the Abu Sayaaf Group (ASG) are known to transit, and maritime and border security represents another subject of potential cooperation.

Peter in Virginia writes:

Mr. Ambassador, after the terrible events of 9/11/01, nearly all Americans agreed they needed to learn more about other nations and cultures. Can you please tell us what you have done to help build bridges of understanding between Malaysia and the U.S.?

Ambassador Keith:

People working together across continents and cultures – that’s a foundation of our relationship with Malaysia and the key to building more of the bridges you mentioned, Peter. We reach out to ordinary Malaysians and help them find common ground with Americans. We host camps on common values for teens, we sponsor high-school exchange programs, and we facilitate a program which brings American college graduates to rural Malaysia to teach English. Members of Malaysia’s indigenous groups meet via videoconference with Native Americans. We’ve learned that music and sports can bring diverse groups together. Malaysians are very interested in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, so we’re sending journalists to cover the primaries and help explain the process to Malaysians. We invite politicians, academics, and NGO leaders to America every year to discover for themselves what makes America great. Ultimately, it all comes down to people learning to know and respect one another. Remember, every time you travel overseas or meet a visitor in America, you have a chance to be part of the process and to build a bridge of your own.

Matthew in Texas writes:

As an ambassador to an ASEAN member, how do you think ASEAN will develop in the coming years and do you expect Timor-Leste to be a member by 2012?

Ambassador Keith:

Malaysia ratified the new ASEAN Charter earlier this month, and we are hopeful that the Charter will ultimately serve as a framework for ASEAN and its members to become more active in promoting democracy, good governance, and economic cooperation within Southeast Asia. Many ASEAN nations have expressed hope that ASEAN someday can become a Southeast Asian version of the European Union. That is an ambitious goal considering the diversity of cultures, varying economic and political conditions, and historical differences in the region. We believe it is important for ASEAN to work effectively to address regional issues. For example, ASEAN member Burma forces international censure for its poor record of protecting its citizens’ human rights. To step-up our own engagement with this important regional body, the U.S. established an Enhanced Partnership to carry out more concrete activities in support of ASEAN’s goals, we signed a Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA) with ASEAN, and President Bush has nominated a senior diplomat to become U.S. Ambassador to ASEAN. ASEAN has of late been reluctant to add members; I would have to guess that it will take more time before any new member is named by ASEAN, but of course only ASEAN can speak with authority on that subject.

Christopher in Washington, DC writes:

Why is the Malaysian flag a bit similar to the American flag?

Ambassador Keith:

You’re right, Christopher – the Malaysian flag looks remarkably like the Stars and Stripes; Liberia’s is the only other flag in the world that looks so similar. The stripes represent Malaysia’s 13 states and the federal government; the yellow crescent represents Islam, the religion of most Malaysians; the use of the color yellow is a tribute to Malaysia’s royal sultans. There are no historical or symbolic ties between the two flags.

Kay in Kansas writes:

What qualities and experience do you feel best enabled you to be become an ambassador?

Ambassador Keith:

I grew up in Embassy communities, so I guess you might say I had a foretaste of life in this particular kind of public service. I was fascinated by foreign policy, felt it was important enough to the American people to deserve a life-long professional commitment, and I am here to tell you that I have not been disappointed. I have been part of history in the making during my career, which has given me great job satisfaction.

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