ASTANA – Despite the geography that separates them, Kazakhstan and Malaysia are natural partners, with much in common – like relatives separated by a continent, Malaysian Ambassador to Kazakhstan Dato’ Hidayat Abdul Hamid says.
“Malaysia and Kazakhstan are similar in many senses,” he said in an interview on June 23. “While we embrace modernity, many traditional family values, such as respect for elders and old customs, are still being practised by our communities.”
They are also multicultural, multiconfessional, predominantly Muslim nations with populations living in harmony, he noted. “I think Kazakhstan is a model of religious tolerance and ethnic harmony, just like Malaysia.” While extremists are attempting to hijack Islam, he said, Kazakhstan and Malaysia stand as examples of moderation.
The countries have a history of cooperation in education, with Malaysia a favourite destination for Kazakh students travelling abroad for higher education and other courses of study. “Human capital development is an important area of our cooperation. Apart from university students and youth undergoing English language and other short term training, the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme has offered training courses in many fields to Kazakh officials,” he said. Thousands of Kazakh students have passed through these and other programmes.
These courses, in addition to their technical merits, bind the countries through the human contacts they build. “When I first arrived in Kazakhstan, one of my first courtesy calls was on the deputy foreign minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Hamid recalled. “To my surprise, the gentleman that I called upon was a colleague from when we both took an International Diplomatic Course at the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in Kuala Lumpur in 1993!”
Malaysia is not the first nation you would imagine stepping in to offer support and educational outreach to newly independent Kazakhstan, but in this, too, the countries have something in common. “Malaysia played an important role in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Palestinian issues, in South Africa during the apartheid period,” Hamid said. “We always like to contribute in whatever way we can. I think this is similar to what Kazakhs are doing now,” he said, noting the country’s work on nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear security, interfaith dialogue and regional stability.
“If you can help to achieve world peace, why not?” he said. “You contribute in any small manner and eventually you hope you can attain [these great goals].”
Despite their similarities, and their close government-to-government contacts – Hamid notes that the two leaders are “just a phone call away,” and that such calls are made regularly – this has not translated into bilateral trade that reflects their true potential, he said. One of his primary goals here is to change that. “My mission is to enhance economic relations between both countries, to promote more business and trade, to match potential investors and businesses,” he said.
To that end, Malaysia opened a trade office in Almaty in April, which it has combined with its existing tourism office. The ambassador hopes having a permanent presence here will help spread the word to Kazakh business owners about the possibility of working with Malaysia and help bring more potential partners together. “We hope to actively participate in more trade shows and organise Malaysian trade exhibitions to promote Malaysian products and services” to Kazakhstan’s attractive market, he said.
Already, delegations are arriving. A recent mission saw representatives from Malaysia’s oil and gas sector travel to Kazakhstan. “It was a small mission, but it was an eye opener,” Hamid said. “Malaysia in South Asia is fast becoming a hub for the oil and gas industry … so we see that there are a lot of things that can complement each other. On the last mission, quite a number of companies met their counterparts.”
Malaysia’s oil and gas service providers, including small businesses, could find a lot of potential in Kazakhstan, the ambassador noted.
The country is also ahead of the curve in diversifying extractive industries here, he said. A Malaysian company operating two fields in Aktau is expanding into producing methanol and liquid petroleum gas. “This is what Kazakhstan aspires to, to diversify the industry further downstream. … I’m happy that we could also contribute something here. That is another area with a lot of potential,” Hamid said. He also noted that Kazakhstan’s biggest cement factory, Central Asia Cement, is majority owned by Malaysian investors, and is making a profit.
The work that Kazakhstan is doing to improve its infrastructure and connectivity – building railways, roads and multimodal transportation hubs – will support increased trade, the ambassador said. “I think this all will facilitate the movement of goods, especially from Southeast Asia. It’s a long, long way and the cost of transportation used to be very high,” he said. This will change as connectivity improves. And, of course, Malaysia hopes to get in on the action. “Malaysian companies are also interested in participating in highway construction management, building houses and apartments, power generation, et cetera.”
The elimination of some administrative barriers between the two countries was also a significant recent step, the ambassador said, and was warmly welcomed. “We were very encouraged by the opening of the visa regime last year … we hope, and we feel quite sure, that it will be extended. … The effect, you can see clearly – there are more Malaysian companies coming here.”
The ambassador hopes to encourage more tourism in both directions. Tourism from Kazakhstan to Malaysia has been stagnant for the past few years, he reports, but there is still a steady stream of about 20,000 people travelling from the steppe to the tropics each year. “We are increasing our tourism promotion in Kazakhstan,” he said. “We opened our Tourism Malaysia office in Almaty in October last year as a hub for Central Asia.” Malaysia was also the country partner of the Kazakhstan International Tourism Fair in April 2015. Hamid hopes to encourage more Malaysians to visit Kazakhstan as well.
Despite the distance, Kazakhs and Malaysians are finding each other. “In the past years, many Kazakhs and Malaysians have married, including from influential families in both countries,” Hamid commented. “The high level of comfort and acceptance of both societies speak volumes about the potential for these unions to benefit both countries.”