Refreshing relations

Following the first meeting of the Malaysia-UK Strategic Dialogue, the High Commissioner for Malaysia Zakri Jaafar outlined how relations are moving to the next level

The launch of a Strategic Dialogue is an important milestone in UK-Malaysian relations, High Commissioner Zakri told Embassy magazine shortly after the visit of Tan Sri Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob, the Secretary General of Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who attended the first session of the Strategic Dialogue.

“Malaysia and the UK enjoy a long and wide-ranging relationship but we felt there was a need to elevate it, to make it more relevant and engaging,” said Zakri.

Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and the subsequent re-alignment of British foreign policy towards Asia were key factors in the mutual decision to reinvigorate relations. “Following Brexit and with the publication of the UK’s Integrated Review and the Indo-Pacific tilt, it is highly timely that this is brought to reality. There is an appetite on both sides,” said Zakri. With Britain’s de-coupling from the EU foreign policy framework, “the path is open wider for engagement,” he continued.

Broad cooperation
The two countries have signed up to a Strategic Dialogue for an initial period of five years. It will provide a framework for in-depth discussion and collaboration across several government departments and agencies, coordinated by the foreign ministry, with annual sessions alternating in London and Kuala Lumpur.

The inaugural meeting in London set out 10 areas of cooperation. These include: political-diplomatic cooperation, across government and parliament; foreign policy coordination, particularly at multilateral fora; collaboration to combat climate change and promote global health; digital and technology cooperation; culture and people-to-people links; enhanced education cooperation; regional cooperation, notably the strengthening of the UK’s relationship with ASEAN; human rights and the rule of law; expansion of trade and economic ties; and enhanced dialogue on matters of defence, security and organised crime.

In addition to building on well-established trade, security and educational ties, eye-catching initiatives are planned for healthcare cooperation, where Malaysia will work with the UK on a range of cutting-edge programmes for global health, notably vaccine development and medical supply chain sustainability. “This is a new reality around the globe and we want to be better prepared should we be faced with another pandemic,” said Zakri.

The exchange of healthcare workers is another area of enhanced cooperation. “A lot of Malaysian doctors and medical practitioners are coming to the UK to fill the vacuum that exists in the NHS and likewise we are looking to get more of our people trained in accordance with the education system here, whether the training takes place here or in Malaysia,” explained the High Commissioner.

People-to-people links
The two-way flow of students, researchers and healthcare workers ties in with the overall ambition to lower barriers to encourage more people-to-people contacts, for the purposes of education, business, tourism or culture. Exchanges are also planned between media organisations and the two countries will share skills and experience in the latest technology, such as quantum computing, 6G, artificial intelligence and biotech.

“When you have these robust exchanges then you create understanding among the people. Not many British nationals are aware of what Malaysia is and likewise not many Malaysians are fully aware of what the UK presently is,” remarked the High Commissioner, who derives much enjoyment from Britain’s multiculturalism. “The UK has changed – it is so diverse. I have noticed this myself. Nowadays it is so easy to get halal food in the UK and I am delighted to see so many more Malaysian eateries.”

Mutual understanding
The two countries will aim to compare notes before meetings at international fora, such as the UN or the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. “The Dialogue offers us opportunities to exchange views on each other’s positions in global institutions to see where the common ground is. And for those areas where we do not see eye to eye, this is known in advance,” explained Zakri.

Diplomatic tool
Opening a Strategic Dialogue with the UK is clearly an important diplomatic tool for Malaysia. On a practical level, the Malaysian High Commission in London has seen a marked uptick in diplomatic activity. “The moment the Dialogue kicked off the floodgates opened. We have already had high-level visits to the UK and we are also expecting visits from the UK to Malaysia on some of these areas of cooperation.”

Digital diplomacy is also playing its part. “We are deploying all the digital tools that we have adopted during the pandemic and they are proving useful for preparatory meetings, allowing for a much quicker turn-around,” said Zakri.

“We have a lot of homework,” Zakri concluded with a smile. “But we are delighted that we have got the ball rolling.”

PHOTO: British High Commissioner to Malaysia Charles Hay, Jenny Bates (Director General Indo-Pacific, FCDO), Tan Sri Muhammad Shahrul Ikram Yaakob (Secretary General, Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and Malaysian High Commissioner to the UK Zakri Jaafari at the recent launch of the Malaysia-UK Strategic Dialogue