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Heads up – Embassy 28– September 2010

In the swing of things

“I’m still getting used to this big office,” smiles Datuk Zakaria bin Sulong, Malaysia’s new High Commissioner to London, who was a counsellor at the Belgravia mission 14 years ago.

In the interim, he has served as Malaysia’s commissioner and then consul general in Hong Kong, where he kept a watchful eye on his country’s substantial interests in the former British colony during its handover to China in 1997.

After a brief stint at Wisma Putra as undersecretary for regional economic cooperation, social and cultural development, he was appointed to Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was a posting he found particularly rewarding: he was able to share with the Bosnian authorities Malaysia’s successful approach to the management of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society and the Malaysian government even provided funds to help with reconstruction and with training.

Prior to his return to London, Sulong had a productive posting as Ambassador to Berlin, capital of Europe’s largest economy – where the sports-mad High Commissioner also enjoyed the cycling infrastructure and found time to add to his impressive tally of golfing trophies.

Now back in the UK, Sulong is wasting no time getting into the swing of things. He comes to London with three main objectives, the first of which is to “bring Malaysia closer to the UK,” he says.

On the political front he will be working hard to arrange a visit of Prime Minister Najib Razak to the UK. He also wants to boost Malaysia’s cultural profile in the UK – their recent participation at Taste London, with guest chef Rick Stein, was a great start and the High Commissioner is also planning an exotic Malaysian ‘night market’ on Trafalgar Square in October.

With some 12,000 Malaysian students in the UK and British students starting to see Malaysia as an education destination over and above the large number of British tourists that visit the country, people-to-people contacts are very important.

For that reason, a second priority is to monitor the government’s immigration policy to ensure that Malaysians do not face undue difficulty coming to study or visit the UK. He has pledged to keep Malaysia’s side of the bargain and encourage any Malaysian overstayers to return home voluntarily.

The third goal is to encourage more British investment in Malaysia as part of the country’s ambition to graduate to a developed country by 2020. For that the economy will need to grow by an average of 6 per cent annually – which is no mean feat.

But the High Commissioner is quietly confident, listing a string of opportunities for investors from traditional commodities, such as oil and gas and the wonder fruit palm oil, to the service industries.

“Because our labour costs can no longer compete with India and China, we are moving up the value chain, from manufacturing and into the services sector,” says Sulong. In addition to tourism and education, Malaysia is ideally poised to become a ‘Halal hub’ offering a range of Sharia-compliant products, from financial services to foods, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to huge and growing market.

Malaysia is a great destination for investors too, he says. Despite being very dependent on exports, the economy is remarkably resilient – it’s bounced back from two severe crises – in 1998 and in 2008 – in its typically ‘homegrown’ way.

Not only does the country have top-notch physical infrastructure, but it is a stable, multi-ethnic democracy. “Without good management of the society and the communal differences we wouldn’t be enjoying our current success,” stresses the High Commissioner.

The Prime Minister’s new One Malaysia policy aims consolidate that success by pledging to improve service delivery to all Malaysians, irrespective of ethnicity. The former affirmative action policy that favoured the historically poorer Malay community is gradually being dismantled, adds the High Commissioner.

“Having an economy based on merit is part of the path to developed country status,” says Sulong. “But we are liberalising in other ways. We are removing red tape and we now feel ready to look beyond our borders for global opportunities.”

So the High Commissioner will be keeping his eyes peeled for investment opportunities for Malaysian businesses in this country – whether it is in infrastructure development, utilities, tourism or finance.

Despite his packed agenda, the High Commissioner still intends to make time for a few rounds of golf – and to have a spin on one of Mayor Boris Johnson’s new bikes. Clearly the High Commissioner is back in the saddle and he’s enjoying the ride.

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HE Mr Datuk Zakaria bin Sulong

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