Foundation visit reveals a resilient Malaysia

After two years without travel to Asia, an Asia New Zealand Foundation delegation led by the Foundation's Chair Dame Fran Wilde touched down in Malaysia in June to reconnect with stakeholders. In this article, the Foundation's Suzannah Jessep reflects on the visit and what it revealed about the mood of the Southeast Asian nation as it reopens to the world. Thanks to Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor David Capie, who was part of the delegation.
Dame Fran Wilde and David Capie crossing a large road in Kuala Lumpur

Dame Fran Wilde and David Capie in KL

Everywhere we went in Malaysia, we were met with warmth, good humour and a genuine enthusiasm to connect and exchange perspectives.

We connected with young leaders, academics, diplomats, businesspeople, analysts at leading think tanks, and our advisor and former Malaysia Trade Minister, Tan Shri Rafidah, and got a first-hand feel for how Malaysia is contending with the Covid-19 pandemic and other related challenges.

Life over the last couple of years has been really hard for most – but we were impressed by the grit and determination we saw, and left feeling inspired by the impressive young leaders who are shaping the future of Malaysian society. 

Among them is the team leading the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) – a non-profit, non-partisan research institute based in Malaysia and dedicated to promoting solutions to public policy challenges.

Run by a dynamic group of young analysts and change-makers, the institute is using its research programme to gather ideas and perspectives and then using its people to work them into fresh policy proposals for government consideration. 

They are involved in some tough areas, where there are political and cultural sensitivities, but their work is focussed on building consensus, being inclusive and finding common ground. Amid the Covid pandemic they are developing solutions for Malaysia’s food distribution, transport system, political financing rules, taxation and a range of other areas.      

A woman buying flowers from a store

Suz: "Outside on the streets of Kuala Lumper things were humming."

Outside on the streets of Kuala Lumper things were humming. After a long period of Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions, restaurants were full, shops buzzing, streets alive, and international flights picking up tempo every day.

Malaysians are grappling with a number of familiar challenges that New Zealanders are also facing – rising costs of living, employment disruption and a health system under pressure – but there was a tremendous sense of community spirit, with a practicality and pragmatism about how people are rebuilding. Of course, being warm and sunny helps the mood – rather than the thick of winter, as New Zealanders find themselves now!

For many in business, we heard how Covid forced a complete reinvention of their business models and adaptation of products, services and markets.

These are businesses that are used to balancing and moderating their activities according to conditions – economic, political and social – but the social isolation brought about by Covid forced many online, and others to sell different goods, offer new services and for some, switch to different markets altogether.

There was now a sense of fluidity to business, with fewer shop fronts and more mopeds buzzing around the streets offering door to door delivery.       

David Capie listening to Prof David Capie with Prof Kuik Cheng-Chwee, sitting at a table

NZ High Commissioner to Malaysia, HE Pam Dunn, hosted a roundtable with leading Malaysian commentators such as Professor Kuik Cheng-Chwee from the National University of Malaysia, here in conversation VUW’s Professor David Capie, head of the Centre for Strategic Studies

Looking to the region, we heard how Malaysia had all the attributes to be a ‘bridging country’ between continental and maritime Asia. It had the right geography, industrious people, and an outward looking foreign policy, but many felt Malaysia was being held back by domestic problems, notably corruption in government and concerns with the spread of hyper-conservative Islamic doctrine among young people.

There was a sense of Malaysian society getting squeezed by those holding power and influence, and people being left to their own devices to forge a positive future. It was for this reason that many Malaysians looked fondly to New Zealand’s system of “clean government”, young leadership and egalitarian society. The message we heard again and again was “let’s do more together.”

People-to-people connections are at the heart of every relationship between New Zealand and Asia, and Malaysia is no exception. If the young leaders and change makers we met are the face of Malaysia tomorrow, then Malaysia’s future is bright.