A message from the departing US Ambassador

By Kamala Shirin Lakhdhiram

A fond farewell, and heartfelt thanks.

As I prepare to depart for a new position and reflect upon my four years in Malaysia, what I will hold dearest are the wonderful Malaysians who so graciously welcomed me and taught me so much. As the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia, my job has been to promote and strengthen the relationship between the United States and Malaysia. However, my job was much more than meetings with ministers to advocate for actions and policies in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives (though I did do that too). The best part of my job has always been getting to know Malaysians and Malaysia.  

I successfully accomplished my goal to visit every state in Malaysia, and in some cases visited many times. I was privileged to be generously hosted by so many Malaysians, from every walk of life. I value every kindness and every discussion. I had the opportunity to visit schools and universities in almost every state, from Sarawak to Kelantan. In Kedah, I learned so much from Puan Zur'aiza, who was then the Principal to SMK Bongor Kedah during my visit to the school in 2018. An inspiring educator and empathetic leader of her fellow teachers, she is dedicated to giving her students a better future. I am also proud that she is one of our Study of the United States Institutes (SUSI) exchange program alumna.  

As a former teacher myself, supporting opportunities for young Malaysians has been a priority for me. Malaysia is a vibrant country, with the opportunity to take advantage of the energy, creativity, and talent of its youth. Our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) is a perfect example. I met with 100 teachers from Malaysia and across ASEAN at a 2019 YSEALI Regional Workshop on Empowering Southeast Asian Educators. The teachers I met were focused on developing the next generation of regional leaders. In another example of the transformative change that young people can bring, the UNDI 18 movement showed how a grassroots youth-led coalition can motivate constitutional reform. The right to vote and democratic participation of millions of young Malaysians is an achievement that both Americans and Malaysians value. 

Promoting women's empowerment in Malaysia has been another of my priorities. Last year, the Embassy launched its #WanitaEmpowered campaign, providing business mentorship opportunities to female entrepreneurs in Malaysia. I was honored to meet several Malaysian women paving the way for others in their fields, like Tun Tengku Maimun, the first female Chief Justice. I also had the privilege of working with leaders, such as Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, who answered the call to aid her country by bringing her formidable health expertise to Malaysia's fight against COVID-19. I am deeply impressed by the efforts Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan, All Women's Action Society, the Women's Aid Organization, Sisters in Islam, Good Shepherds, Tenaganita, Lawyers for Liberty, Suaram, and so many other women and men who are trying to bring equity and justice for women and their children. I am very proud to have celebrated Janushaa Bala Krishnan Muthiah and Grace Sian Ern Hui, the first female Malaysian cadets to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy, two young women whose dedication to their country represents the very best of Malaysia. 

The success of numerous Malaysian cadets at the U.S. military academies over the years illustrates the strength of both our people-to-people ties and our security cooperation. The Royal Malaysian Navy sent a ship to participate in RIMPAC for the first time in 2018, a joint military exercise with 25 other countries that takes place in Hawaii. I will never forget traveling to Lumut to send off the KD Lekiu. The Embassy team had to keep me from jumping on for a ride. I so proudly followed their sail to Honolulu and home to Lumut. 

In law enforcement, strengthening international cooperation and inter-governmental coordination in the fight against wildlife trafficking was a high priority. At the U.S. government funded “Multilateral Workshop to Combat Wildlife Trafficking” in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, I met with investigators and prosecutors who have experience in handling wildlife trafficking and related environmental cases from Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. I heard from the participants how they are working to strengthen enforcement against global wildlife trafficking, reduce demand for illegally traded wildlife, and build international cooperation. U.S. government grants are also supporting the creation of canine wildlife detection units at airports and the development of a dedicated wildlife crimes investigative unit in Sabah. 

Our public health partnership has been a long been a priority for the U.S. and Malaysia, even before we faced the challenges of COVID-19 together. University of Malaysia Datuk Professor Dr. Adeeba Kamarulzaman has been working with researchers at Yale University in my home state of Connecticut on infectious disease research for nearly 15 years. From Malaysia, she is working closely with her colleagues in the U.S., showcasing the “semangat inovasi” that is essential to defeating this shared challenge. I have seen how scientists at the Sabah Wildlife Department, as part of the USAID-funded PREDICT program, are researching emerging diseases and contributing to international knowledge about zoonotic diseases. 

I cannot talk about our public health partnership without addressing COVID-19. The pandemic made clear that U.S. companies and their Malaysian SME suppliers are part of the global supply chain for critical industries, including test kits, ventilators, and other medical devices. The Embassy and the American Chamber in Malaysia work closely with MITI and the Ministry of Transport, to ensure that industries involved in the global health supply chain continued to operate. Through Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government has invested $14 billion to expedite the development, clinical trials, and manufacturing processes of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines. What seemed unimaginable only a few months ago is now a reality: multiple safe vaccines are ready for use and we are expecting more soon. Malaysia is working with U.S. companies to purchase these vaccines, and I am glad that Malaysians will benefit from this U.S. effort. 

Bilateral trade between the U.S. and Malaysia reached nearly $60 billion in 2019, but that doesn't tell the whole story of our economic relationship. U.S. companies have been investing in Malaysia for nearly 100 years, bringing jobs, training, and leadership opportunities to Malaysians. These U.S. companies take very seriously their commitment to the Malaysian communities in which they operate and which they serve. Members of My AMCHAM Cares donated over seven million ringgit in 2020 to support Malaysia's COVID-19 response, including PPE for frontline workers, humanitarian assistance to those who have lost livelihoods, and much more. 

U.S. companies have been contributing to communities in Malaysia for decades, even before the challenges of COVID-19. The Penang Science Cluster is an industry-led initiative launched in collaboration with the Penang state government. U.S. companies including Keysight Technologies, Intel, Motorola, Agilent Technologies, Hewlett-Packard, National Instruments Penang, Jabil, and many others proudly make up the bulk of PSC's industry partners. The Center promotes science and technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in our next generation, and the young innovators I met through the center give me so much hope for Malaysia's future. U.S. companies have always served as the global standard for corporate social responsibility initiatives, and the Malaysian leaders and employees who represent these companies embody the best of American and Malaysian values.  

Many of these same companies support training programs for Malaysians, like the Embassy's Fulbright English Teaching Assistants Program, which provided English education for students across Malaysia who would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn from a native English speaker. As I traveled in Malaysia over the last four years, I spoke with hundreds of students like Erniza Evieyannie Sudiman from SMK Pengiran Omar in Sipitang, Sabah, who told me about how their English ability will help them with their future studies and career. The students also shared Malaysian culture and language with their American teachers, who take their experiences home and become advocates for Malaysia. 

The ties between the U.S. and Malaysia are based on our shared values of democracy, diversity, and caring for our communities. So many of the Malaysians I have had the privilege to meet have embodied these ideas, especially our nominees for the International Women of Courage Award. Nisha Ayub and her organization SEED Foundation continue to provide support to diverse communities across Kuala Lumpur even in the face of COVID-19. Sharifah Shakira works tirelessly to promote the rights and welfare of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. Indira Gandhi and Susanna Liew strongly advocate for justice on behalf of religious minorities. 

As America inaugurates a new president and I pass the baton to Amb.-designate Brian McFeeters who is well-versed in Malaysia having served at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur before, I take Malaysia in my heart back to the United States. From flying wau bulan with students in Terengganu, to meeting elephant caretakers in Sabah, to visiting with religious leaders at beautiful temples and mosques in Sarawak, Penang, and Kuala Lumpur, I have had the opportunity to visit so many beautiful places and to meet so many inspiring Malaysians. We work together on so many important issues, from economic investment to security cooperation, anti-corruption, and rule of law to press freedom, education to religious freedom. I know that our partnership on these and other shared issues will continue long after I depart. 

Let me end where I began. To the many Malaysians who welcomed me, guided me, worked with me, inspired me, and made my four years in Malaysia profoundly unforgettable, thank you. You will always remain in my heart.

(Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir is the United States Ambassador to Malaysia.)




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