In conjunction with the 63rd Hari Merdeka celebrations on August 31, 2020, Khmer Times had the honour of interviewing H.E. Eldeen Husaini Mohd Hashim, the Ambassador of Malaysia to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Since presenting his credentials to His Majesty Norodom Sihamoni on May 2, 2019, Ambassador Eldeen has overseen significant and tangible gains in bilateral relations in all aspects.
The following are his responses to questions posed.
Please enlighten us on your biggest achievements as Ambassador since you took up the post in 2019 and also your biggest challenges?
My most cherished achievements so far in Cambodia include the signing of several MoUs and agreements between Malaysia and Cambodia. In September 2019, we inked the MoU on Tourism and also signed an Agreement on Double Taxation Avoidance. A number of business-to-business MoUs in the area of business development and insurance were also signed since I arrived. These documents give structure to our ties and helps propel our bilateral cooperation to greater heights.
I am also pleased with the successful repatriation of stranded Malaysians back to our homeland due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This required us to be very detailed with the logistical planning and execution. We also had excellent collaboration with relevant Cambodian authorities such as the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MFAIC), the airlines concerned, helpful and charitable Malaysians and many other parties in realising those flights.
The success of the We Care, We Share welfare programme is another aspect that I am very proud of. We managed to reach out and assist more than 500 Malaysians and more than 20 NGOs, religious institutions and other organisations despite the programme being in its relative infancy.
I am also glad to have forged a closer bond with the Malaysian community here. As Malaysia’s representative in the Kingdom, it’s important for me to be closely knit with and know the latest developments of my fellow nationals, as we would be able to quickly assist them wherever possible.
I am also pleased to have established links with key stakeholders in the Kingdom, as soon as I arrived here in April 2019. I have met with many important Cambodian and Malaysian personalities, including ministers, business people and other key individuals. These meetings have given me a bird’s eye perspective of how to boost ties, and these important contacts will help us in this effort.
On my biggest challenges, among them include the spread of fake news. We had to apportion valuable time that could have been used for other things, just to counter these false narratives. In relation to this, another major challenge is people who politicised matters for selfish needs. Budget limitations is another difficulty we encounter. As a modest mission from a modest sized country, plus being in a pandemic situation, we naturally face shortage of funds in carrying out our projects and programmes to the fullest. In addition, we constantly face difficulties in reaching out and assisting Malaysians who need consular assistance who were located very far from us. Thank God that so far, we have managed to largely overcome these issues, often with the help of Malaysians on the ground.
What is the status of bilateral trade between Malaysia and Cambodia last year, thus far this year and has it fared with your projections and expectations?
In 2019, total bilateral trade for Malaysia-Cambodia was recorded at $767.3 million. This was a 37 percent increase from the previous year. However, trade from January till June this year was recorded at $228.2 million, that’s 46 percent lower compared to the same period in 2019.
This year’s figures across the board saw a marked decrease when compared to previous years. This comes as no surprise as Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on global trade and commerce. Obviously, before Covid reared its ugly head, our bilateral trade would most likely have continued on its upward trend.
That’s why I am confident that this is a temporary blip and our trade momentum would pick up again by 2021 or even earlier. Then we can execute the plans we are currently making, to take advantage of all the pent up demand that could not be fulfilled for now. In view of this, we are building up networking and exploring interests from Cambodians to collaborate with us in Artificial Intelligence, Medical Tourism, Automotive, and oil and gas, just to name a few.
What would be the steps you under take to boost these ties given the current unfavourable conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic?
I do not like to wait for opportunities, I prefer to create them. Covid has presented a big challenge to bilateral activities including trade and investment, tourism and others. But our plans and policies to strengthen ties continue to be formulated. We have to be innovative and look for new ways to expand ties, no matter how difficult the situation is. Since we can’t run programmes for now, we will lay the groundwork and build linkages between our captains of industry and their Cambodian counterparts.
We have to be proactive and constantly think out of the box on how we can make a difference even in the time of Covid. Considering this, I am trying to visit as many provinces as possible in order to establish new mutually beneficial links. I am planning to visit Sihanoukville soon, during which time I plan to call on the Governor of Sihanoukville, visit the authorities of the Sihanouk port, SEZ, and of course, possibly have a session with our fellow Malaysians there. Another immediate plan is to visit Battambang to explore trade and investment opportunities there. In Battambang I also wish to visit the site where our Malaysian armed forces personnel were stationed during the UNTAC period. I also intend to visit Ratanakiri and Banteay Meanchey in the not so distant future.
You undertook a lot of social and charity work and reached out to a cross segment of Cambodia’s population. What motivated you to undertake this?
Our charity drive falls under the banner of our We Care, We Share programme. It essentially started as a more organised way to assist our fellow Malaysians stranded in Cambodia due to the pandemic. It is the guiding principle to our exercise and the name reflects our sentiment and what we intend to do about it. After we successfully assisted Malaysians to fly back home, we decided to extend the support to those still in the Kingdom who needed help, not just Malaysians but also Cambodians.
Besides giving aid to the needy, We Care, We Share is also to convey our appreciation to those who are much unsung – the frontliners such as those in the medical field, officers at the borders, airports, security personnel and all others who have no choice but to face the disease head on, in order to secure our safety and security. We also went and distributed food packages to those in various places of workshop – they have a part to play in ensuring Covid stayed out of Cambodia and besides, we want to highlight that this pandemic is not specific to any race, religion or nationality.
Another aim of We Care, We Share is to show our support to the Cambodian government. They are hard at work making the people living in this Kingdom safe, thus we also try to help them in this effort.
I am pleased with the outcome of this programme – we have reached or assisted hundreds of Malaysians, Cambodians and scores of NGOs mainly in Phnom Penh. For our future planning, I intend to extend this programme to outside of the capital into other provinces.
How did you manage to handle and overcome social stigma and bad press attributed to Malaysia on several occasions which affected bilateral relations?
First of all, bilateral relations are as good ever, but of course there will be parties that try to paint a bad light or negative image about our ties. Thus, we have to always be proactive in countering bad press or negativity.
The key is constant communication. By having regular communication and engagements with key Cambodian personnel, be it in the media, government ministers and senior officials and also those in the private sector as well as NGOs, you build up the faith and goodwill and this goes a long way to solve sensitive issues because we will be able to convey the real story behind the issue.
Another important element is honesty. I believe that truly strong ties depend on always telling the truth, even when it can sometimes hurt. Honesty allows the problem to be nipped in the bud, and thus lay a more stable foundation for deeper collaboration. Therefore, we always need to be open and address all niggling or sensitive issues head on.
The role played by our fellow Malaysians and Cambodian Friends of Malaysia here, is also instrumental in order to correct any bad press. With their help, we are able to convey the real facts to more Cambodians on the ground. By the strength of our common endeavour, we will achieve more together than we can do alone.
You managed to organise several repatriation flights to Malaysia for Malaysians stranded in Cambodia during the height of the Covid19 pandemic. What were the challenges you faced in obtaining approvals and were you called on to give advice to other embassies and ambassadors?
You must bear in mind that repatriation flights are not your bread and butter flights. It often requires ad-hoc approvals from various agencies and this could be challenging and time consuming to organise. For example, flight clearances in this time of the Covid pandemic would have involved the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Health, Transport Ministries, Civil Aviation Authorities and Airport authorities, at the very least. So close communication, understanding and good rapport is important in order to make this exercise work. Thank God we have had superb assistance from our Cambodian counterparts particularly Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Immigration, as well as the Airport Authorities. We also had great support from the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and the Cambodian police. These helped to make our repatriation operations smooth and successful.
Another challenge is in ensuring that the welfare and comfort of every Malaysian in distress is looked into fairly and expeditiously, even with our limited resources. We took pains to remind ourselves that each of these Malaysians were in such a state of distress that they could not wait to return to their beloved country and have their difficulties alleviated immediately. We endeavoured all the time to solve everyone’s predicament fully and as soon as possible but we often have our own time and resource limitations. We are thankful though that despite being in such a dire state and under so much stress, they were still very polite and understanding! In fact, many of whom we have assisted to repatriate remained friends with us to this very day and have continued messaging us with words of support and encouragement. Their acknowledgement of what we have done is one of the factors that push us to continue giving our very best.
What is your projection for Malaysia-Cambodia ties, in terms of trade, cultural exchanges, tourism, capacity building and ensuring Malaysia remains signifi- cant after the end of the pandemic?
The friendship between our two countries will stand the test of time. We are Asean brothers, we share important historical developments and we are similar nations which rely on global trade and who want to punch above our weight. Thus, sharing so many similar traits makes it easy to help one another to move forward. Covid may have slowed down the growth momentum, but it has not derailed it. We will grow exponentially again soon enough.
We have not been resting on our laurels when it comes to our effort to push ties to a higher level. We are always hard at work, exploring ways and implementing where possible, programmes that promote stronger ties.
All areas of cooperation between Malaysia and Cambodia can be enhanced further, but I intend to give specific focus on sectors where engagement and collaboration could be vastly enhanced including in agriculture, IT, infrastructure, TIVET, defence ties and many more. Covid has allowed us to carefully and meticulously plan the next phase of our bilateral relations.
Would you be promoting security related ties with your Cambodian counterparts since Malaysia has a lot of experience in this aspect?
Boosting defence ties will be one of my main projects for the coming months. Although ties in this area have been good and friendly, in terms of activities and programmes I think we can do much more. Malaysia has active defence ties with a number of foreign partners and now I wish for them to look at Cambodia with renewed focus.
I have recently visited the base of the Cambodian elite defence unit, the 911 Special Forces on 23 July and came away very impressed. I also hosted a luncheon for the alumni of the Malaysian Defence Cooperation Programme (MDCP) on August 5, to reconnect with various Cambodian armed forces personnel who had undergone training in Malaysia since 2002.
I am pleased to note from both events that Malaysia and Cambodia showed eagerness to establish deeper cooperation in defence, and that fits in with my intention to build stronger links between our special forces. Their close linkages could further enhance their capabilities through sharing and exchange of knowledge and experience.
Our Defence Attaché is following up on this mutual desire by among others, exploring ways to enhance defence linkages such as offering scholarships and training to Cambodian elite forces in the area of commando training and counter terrorism.
Malaysia has been successful in transforming its economy from labour intensive to mid tech to high tech. Would you be sharing these experiences with Cambodia since Cambodia is facing economic and trade turbulence as a result of turbulence in multi-lateral trade which affects labour intensive industries here.
Malaysia and Cambodia are brothers in Asean. Our fate will always be intertwined. In this respect, it serves our best interests to ensure that our Cambodian brothers prosper with us. Therefore, we will always endeavour to share whatever experience and knowledge that could help Cambodia grow in the coming years.
Yes, Malaysia has come a long way since the days when we were colonised by a number of countries before independence and yes I agree that we have quite a bit of experience in growing and modelling our economy successfully from heyday into what it is today. Malaysia has a lot to offer in terms of economic planning and we have dedicated agencies such as MITI, MIDA, MDEC and others who will be able to assist and advise Cambodia on matters such as economic transformation.
In many of my courtesy calls and meetings with Cambodian ministers and key individuals, I have always emphasised that Malaysia is keen to offer its expertise in whatever areas that Cambodia would like assistance in. The feedback we received has been encouraging as Cambodia looks forward to exchanging knowledge with us.
What would be your reply to your Cambodian colleagues if asked about the political developments in Malaysia?
Obviously I get asked that more often these days. My initial response would be that Malaysia needs to struggle today to build up the strength that our country needs for tomorrow. These challenges will build the character and fortitude that will make Malaysia’s future brighter.
One thing that is certain is that Malaysia’s political developments in recent years is solid proof that democracy is alive and well. Another positive aspect is that Malaysians, including those in the media are free to report on the various contrasting views of our politics, and this is another healthy thing for us. In my view, Malaysia has many experienced politicians, and even young ones who have shown maturity and capability to lead our country. This abundance of talent and level of competition is partly why political developments back home is very fluid and colourful.
Anyway, the essence is that as a civil servant, our duty is to guide our political leaders and help to ensure whatever policy they wish to implement, would derive maximum benefits for Malaysians.
What is your personal target for this year, given the current situation which could linger for some time?
My objective is to make Malaysia’s presence felt in Cambodia. Towards this end, one of my main targets is to elevate Malaysia’s ranking as a foreign investor in Cambodia. At the moment we are at fourth position but I believe we have what is required to overtake countries that are ahead of us in the ranking.
I also intend to elevate our bilateral trade, the pillar of our relations. My Embassy is working closely with Malaysia’s regional trade office to expand bilateral trade. Many of the programmes that we were planning to organise had to be put on hold such as business matching sessions, visits by trade representatives, forums etc. but once the Covid situation clears, we will go into full gear in organising events even better than before.
Tourism figures could be boosted further, especially when many would be travellers were forced to delay their holiday plans this year. There is certainly a lot of latent desire to travel between our two countries so we want to prepare the necessary groundwork so that when borders are free and open again, it would result in an explosion in our bilateral tourist numbers. Our tourist office is hard at work doing this with a number of interesting programmes on social media that will expose more Cambodians to the beauty of Malaysia.
As I have mentioned earlier, our effort to boost ties proceeds as usual but because of Covid, much of our programmes and activities may not be able to take off until the pandemic situation gets better. In the meantime, we will continue to lay the groundwork so that when the time is right, we will come out with guns blazing. In the meantime, we have resorted to online diplomacy such as Zoom and Skype meetings, online interviews for recruitments as well as teleconferencing with our other agencies which are not in Phnom Penh.
How has the embassy worked with Malaysian entities to provide aid to Malaysians as well as Cambodians?
Malaysian individuals and organisations here have been stellar. When we had many Malaysians stranded here, we housed some of them temporarily inside our Embassy compound. This is one of the many occasions when the Malaysian diaspora in Cambodia have shown their patriotism. They immediately stepped with offers of help for our stranded countrymen. Their valuable support has made this process a whole lot smoother and easier. So I once again thank all of them for their wonderful contribution.
Would you encourage Malaysian entities here to continue to be bullish about Cambodia and the opportunities it presents?
Absolutely. There is enormous potential in the Kingdom, but Cambodia could still be considered a best kept secret as not many know about its full potential. Plus, the pandemic has curtailed much of global travel and slowed down trade. I am confident however, that when the Covid situation clears, investors and businessmen would come pouring into the Kingdom again. Thus, I have been encouraging Malaysian businessmen and investors to quickly explore business and investment opportunities here before others start flooding the market again.
There are many niche areas that our companies and investors can still fit into. Just look at the many successful Malaysian businesses here who have set up successful operations, even in the midst of strong business presence from other countries. They have become the benchmark and are very capable of advising interested Malaysian businessmen and investors on how to make inroads into Cambodia.
In fact, I see a potential synergy between Malaysian businesses and those of other nationalities. Thus I want to push for closer cooperation among businesses and investors Asia Pacific, Europe as well as America. I am certain that a dynamic collaboration among us would also provide more benefit to Cambodia.