Next level relations

From a young age Zakri Jaafar, Malaysia’s High Commissioner to London, was curious about the world beyond Malaysia. Although he was born into a military family in an army camp in Kuala Lumpur, he was drawn to the Wisma Putra, Malaysia’s foreign ministry.

“I chose the other side of international affairs. When diplomacy fails, the military comes in. And when we succeed then the military stays in their barracks,” smiles High Commissioner Zakri. “I entered the foreign service about 30 years ago and never looked back.”

His career assuaged his thirst for adventure and encountering new cultures, serving in Chile and Japan, with ambassadorial postings in Amman, where he hiked the rugged cliffs and ancient sites of the Jordan trail, and Sarajevo – a city that still holds a special place in his heart. “Malaysia has a very special bond with Bosnia Herzegovina, we understand how important it is to find ways for three different cultures and faiths to co-exist.”

Strategic Dialogue
Zakri arrives in London at a time when Britain and Malaysia are seeking to reinvigorate a long and historic relationship, following recent high-level visits by Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss to Malaysia and Tan Sri Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob, the Secretary General of Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to sign a landmark Strategic Dialogue. “This is a platform where we can discover new areas of potential cooperation,” explains Zakri.

Following Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and its stated desire to enhance its engagement with the Indo-Pacific , the timing is ripe for such an initiative, he adds. “Now that the UK is no longer part of the EU, it’s an important partner on its own, so we can look more closely at areas that were previously the remit of Brussels.”

Institutional mirroring
“Institutional mirroring” between the two countries, thanks to years of shared history, will facilitate the execution of an ambitious cross-government collaboration. This is especially true in defence – the High Commissioner’s father served in the British army prior to independence, and both Britain and Malaysia are signatories to the Five Powers Defence Arrangements which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary.

“I grew up at the height of the Vietnam War. As a kid we all knew that we had this agreement that security would be provided and we would be safe from the threat of expanding communist ideology. We, ourselves, fought a communist insurgency in 1948-1960, with the involvement of forces from New Zealand, Australia and the UK. That is the testament of the close and strong relationship in the defence area.”

People-to-people ties
An important element of the Strategic Dialogue focuses on people-to-people ties, an area the High Commissioner is especially eager to build on in the post-covid era.

The UK is the destination of choice for 13,500 Malaysian students, a statistic that was – remarkably – unaffected by the pandemic. The Strategic Dialogue aims to boost two-way flows of health professionals as well as cooperation in research, notably on vaccine development.

But when it comes to leisure and business tourism, there is work to do. “Covid has had an impact on the active people-to-people links for tourism and business – before Covid we had 400,000 Britons visiting Malaysia annually – and we want them back!” says the High Commissioner, who hopes that the lifting of Covid restrictions and Malaysia reopening its borders to travellers since 1 April will see British tourists flocking back to Malaysia again.

Tourism is not only a valuable service sector in both economies, but it’s a great way to build an appreciation of each other’s culture, adds Zakri, who is delighted that there is a growing appetite in the UK for Malaysian food.

“Of course I am biased – but you need to experience our food. This fusion of the cultures in Malaysia – Malay, Chinese, Indian and the various ethnic groups in the country – has enabled Malaysia to come up with its own flavourings that you can’t find elsewhere.”

Transformational investors
Zakri also wants to build on the strong bilateral economic ties. When it comes to investment, Malaysian property developers have an eye for eye-catching projects in the UK, notably the acclaimed redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, once a derelict site that is now an iconic waterside retail hub mixed with luxury accommodation.

“We brought the power back to Battersea! We are very proud of this achievement,” smiles Zakri, who adds that Malaysian investors YTL Developments are redeveloping the redundant 350-acre Filton Airfield outside Bristol, once home to the Concord.

Britain and Malaysia both committed to net zero targets at COP26 and this is starting to be reflected in their investment portfolios. For instance, Malaysia’s Tenaga Nasional has a stake in the Blyth offshore demonstrator wind farm, while British chargepoint manufacturer EZ-Charge will build and install electric vehicle charging units in Malaysia to expand its EV charging infrastructure as the phasing out of internal combustion engines gathers pace. It’s a win-win, says Zakri, because Mobility Werk Group, the Malaysian subsidiary of the global corporation MW Group, will manufacture and export this technology back to Britain.

Digital nation
Malaysia is also planning a major transformation to become an advanced digital nation. The ‘Digital First Programme’ announced in the 2022 budget will increase the use of cloud computing in the public sector. Furthermore, plans are in place to expand Malaysia’s data centre capacity at Malaysia’s high-tech hub, the Sedenak Tech Park, through a deal signed at the UK offices of the Yondr Group, a global leader in data centres. The aim is to transform Malaysia into a world-class data hub for the region.

In addition to the bilateral programme, the High Commissioner will also be overseeing Malaysia’s activities in various international organisations headquartered in the UK, notably the Commonwealth, the International Mobile Satellite Organization and the International Maritime Organization.

Malaysia was elected to the IMO Council at the 2021 Assembly and it was déjà vu for Zakri who was part of the delegation when Malaysia was elected to the council in 2005. “Shipping is part of Malaysian DNA because we are an archipelago,” he says. “The straits of Malacca are the busiest sea routes and we would like to play our role and continue to contribute to the safety of navigation in our part of the world.”

 All this makes for a very full diplomatic agenda for High Commissioner Zakri, but that hasn’t dulled his sense of adventure. He and his wife Nor Aini have invested in Brompton Bikes to explore London’s diverse cultures. He’s also signed up to English Heritage and plans to travel the length and breadth of Britain: “I love history and I can’t wait to embark on the journey to learn more about this country.”

The editor interviewed the High Commissioner for Malaysia on 13 January 2022. Content was updated on 13 April 2022