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Malaysian envoy talks trade, LNG and free speech

By Kristen Shane      

She’s back for her second Canadian posting.

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The last time Aminahtun Karim Shaharudin was posted to Canada, it was her first overseas diplomatic assignment.

It was a memorable few years from 1988 to 1991. She gave birth to her oldest son while posted to Ottawa as a second and then first secretary. Her husband, A.G. Shaharudin, took the opportunity to study at Algonquin College, where he graduated with a diploma in public relations in 1990. He was also the first non-Canadian to be elected president of the Ottawa college’s students’ association, according to the Malaysian High Commission.

Now, after more than 32 years in the foreign service, Ms. Shaharudin returned for Round 2 of Canada on Jan. 19, this time as Malaysia’s high commissioner.

She’s here with her husband and son again, but now it’s her youngest son, Reza Azman, who is working toward his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Carleton University. Two of her other children are in Malaysia and one is studying in the United States.

When she was here last, Ms. Shaharudin recalled some Somalis and Ethiopians immigrating to Ottawa. But she estimated she likely could have counted on one hand the number of places to go to buy halal meat, prepared using Islamic-law standards.

Now, she said, all the big grocery stores carry halal food.

“That is one, I think, very significant change I see. And this is a reflection of how you have opened up your country, how your multicultural policies have really, really opened up your country. For you to be recognized as a very tolerant and open society, that’s a mark of it, that's how I see it,” said the high commissioner, seated this week in her office near the corner of Sussex Drive and Boteler Street. A stone’s throw from Canada’s foreign ministry headquarters, the area also houses the diplomatic missions of Kuwait, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Korea.

In between her two Canadian postings, Ms. Shaharudin worked in Indonesia, and as ambassador in both Ukraine and Croatia. Most recently, she worked as the deputy head of her foreign ministry’s main diplomatic training institute. She’s also worked at the ministry in everything from protocol and consular affairs to African, East Asian and Western European desks.

Canada-Malaysia ties are strong. The southeast Asian nation’s economy has seen more diversification and solid growth in recent decades, according to the World Bank, and a big drop in poverty rates. The government’s plan is to reach “developed-economy” status by 2020, though the decline in oil prices presents a tax-revenue risk.

The former Conservative government under Stephen Harper was keen to boost ties with Malaysia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations intergovernmental group, given their strong economic prospects and burgeoning middle classes. Canada in January appointed its first dedicated ambassador to ASEAN, Marie-Louise Hannan, who is based in Indonesia.

Malaysian investors have been keen to do business in Canada, and vice versa. When Canada’s prime minister visited Malaysia in 2013, his counterpart announced the country’s state-owned energy firm, Petronas, was expecting to spend $36 billion over about 30 years to build a liquefied natural gas export-terminal and pipeline in British Columbia. The project is under federal environmental review, and also faces uncertainty given low energy prices.

While the Malaysian government is not directly involved in the BC LNG project, the high commissioner said it’s watching developments.

“We are hopeful actually that this deal will go through eventually,” she said.

Boosting trade and economic ties is a top priority for her.

The two countries are already involved in the Commonwealth and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, as well as being signatories to the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

The deal still needs to be ratified, and Ms. Shaharudin said that means consultation in both countries. Some people in Malaysia and Canada are unhappy with the deal, she acknowledged.

“But for the moment, our government has stated that we feel that the benefits of being part of the TPP outweigh those questions,” she said.

She’d like to see Malaysia and Canada work on areas like information and communications technology as well as green technology, she said, noting Cyberjaya, a Malaysian ICT-themed city that aspires to attract foreign investors and be the country’s Silicon Valley.

She said she’d also like to see Canadian universities follow their counterparts in the United States, Britain and Australia and set up campuses in Malaysia. She’s hoping Canada can help build the Malaysian community-college sector as well. The country has solid universities, but is looking to grow its colleges focused on getting students ready for the job market, said the diplomat.

For its part, Canada is home to more than 1,000 Malaysian students.

Free speech under scrutiny

Besides the economic ties, Malaysia holds strategic importance to Canada and other Western countries because it’s seen to be a moderate Muslim ally in Asia. Canada and Malaysia signed a security co-operation agreement in 2013, and the two sides have participated in personnel exchanges. Canadian security agencies have been involved in training courses at the Malaysian foreign ministry’s Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism, said Ms. Shaharudin.

Some commentators have charged that Malaysia’s strategic importance has largely spared it from international criticism over human rights issues. The country’s prime minister, who’s fought corruption allegations in recent months, has been accused of using the justice system to crack down on legitimate dissent. The government has blocked websites and suspended newspapers reporting on the financial mismanagement allegations. The prime minister has said he didn’t do anything wrong and didn’t take any money for personal gain.

When he was foreign minister under the Conservatives last year, John Baird released a statement in response to the country’s continued use of a sedition law, urging Malaysia “to ensure that enforcement of its laws does not run contrary to its democratic principles by selectively prosecuting individuals for expressing views critical of the government or its policies.”

In response to concerns about free speech, Ms. Shaharudin noted that the government had repealed another law that used to allow for detention up to 60 days without charge. “So we are making a lot of progress,” she said.

“We are a sovereign country, and any sovereign government would want to protect the peace and harmony of the nation.”

kshane@embassynews.ca

@kristenshane1

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