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The guy at the nexus of Canada-Malaysia trade

By Sneh Duggal      

Trade commissioner tasked with ensuring Malaysian exporters give Canadians what they want.

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Ahmad Shanizam Abdul Ghani arrived in Canada with a clear goal: boost Canada-Malaysia trade.

Sitting in his downtown Toronto office on Nov. 26, the consul and trade commissioner for Malaysia is not shy of getting into the nitty-gritty of trade statistics and terminology. After all, he is responsible solely for trade. Malaysia does not have a consul general in Toronto and his office does not deal with consular matters; though the Southeast Asian country does have an honorary consul in the city.

The trade commissioner’s office is one of more than 40 that the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation has around the world. Known as MATRADE, the agency is part of Malaysia's trade and industry ministry.

Though Canadian numbers differ, Mr. Abdul Ghani points to figures from Malaysia’s statistics department showing total two-way trade at around US$1.7 billion in 2014.

The two countries exchange electrical machinery, while Canadian exports also include fertilizers, soybeans and canola, and Malaysia tends to send to Canada things like technical instruments and rubber, according to Canada’s foreign affairs department.

Mr. Abdul Ghani expects the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if and when the pact is implemented, to boost trade figures between the two countries, which are both members of the 12-country trading bloc. Officials announced in early October that they had concluded negotiations on the deal, but it must still be ratified.

“For me…I am always positive to have this TPP,” said the diplomat. The deal will help to lessen the cost of goods manufactured in Asia and boost access to markets in Canada and the United States, he suggested.

Malaysia’s population sits at more than 30 million, according to its statistics department, and the country cannot consume all that it manufactures, he said, meaning exports are necessary.

With lower or reduced tariffs, companies will be able to compete in terms of quality, he said. “Once the field is fair, people will go more on quality…it will be the benefit of the buyer."

Once in trade, always in trade

Mr. Abdul Ghani had planned a business career after completing a degree in business administration when a relative suggested he join MATRADE, which he did when he was 27.

He worked to help educate Malaysian exporters on how to tackle markets abroad by sharing information on foreign regulations, packaging requirements, other companies that were supplying the same markets and demand trends.

He served in Vietnam from 2010 to 2014 as a consul and trade commissioner. He has also worked in Malaysia’s Sarawak state and in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

His work over the years has also involved analyzing market trends. For example, in 2012, the demand for dairy products rose in Vietnam. It turns out that it was the year of the dragon, which is considered to be a lucky year to have children, so many were born that year, boosting dairy demand, said Mr. Abdul Ghani. It fell to him to tell this to Malaysian producers and manufacturers, and give them a list of importers in Vietnam.

His work to understand trends applies in Canada too. For example, processed foods from Malaysia to Canada reached US$47.6 million by September this year, up from US$36.9 million last year, according to Malaysian government statistics.

“We have to give meaning into this…what makes the number suddenly increase into this figure?” He said it’s important to study these trends so that Malaysia can deliver what Canadians demand.

While he has only been at his Toronto post since August, “Information is readily available and people are nice,” he said he's noticed. “Everything is transparent, it’s easy for me to undertake my job here.”

He is in Toronto with his wife, Adlin Ismail, and three children—Ahmad Harith, 8, Ahmad Zuhayr, 6, and Nur Ain Madiha, 2.

He is joined at the consulate by three locally engaged staff: a trade executive, marketing officer and driver. Even so, the Malaysian diplomat said he prefers to take the bus and subway from his North York home each morning.

It helps to have diplomatic status though, he said. It means he’s often invited to diplomatic events where he can network and meet businesspeople.

His day-to-day work involves meeting importers, those from business associations or chambers of commerce, and investment and trade agencies. When meeting importers, it’s not just those bringing in products from Malaysia, but also from other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“I might offer them: 'Why you are not importing from Malaysia?' Maybe they do not know about Malaysia,” he said. “Our role is to approach, engage with as much as possible.”

He’d like to see more Malaysian involvement in Canada’s aerospace industry. Companies could look at manufacturing some products or parts in Malaysia.

“If you can manufacture the same components in another place that’s cheaper but not compromising the quality, then…over the long run, it will save you a lot,” he said.

His team organized a marketing mission last month to Montreal, a Canadian aerospace hub, where the delegation, which included officials and businesspeople from Malaysia, met with those from Export Quebec, Pratt & Whitney, CAE and Bell Helicopter. He said they offered the latter to set up a training centre in Malaysia or appoint an agent to conduct training on their behalf.

When working with Malaysian exporters, he ensures that the message is clear: “If you want to deal with overseas buyers, please number one, take care of our good name; do not tarnish it.”

Toronto-based journalist and former Embassy staff writer Sneh Duggal writes on foreign consulates in Canada.



Rapid fire with the Malaysian trade commissioner

Favourite restaurant: Xin Jiang, a Chinese restaurant in Markham that serves halal food and delicious lamb, according to the Malaysian envoy.

Birthplace: Malaysia’s Kelantan state, close to Thailand’s border.

Age: 39. He turns 40 on New Year’s Day.

Music: All types, but especially The Beatles.

Book: He’s reading Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland’s 2012 book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. He said he wanted to get a sense of her views before she became trade minister.

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