Interview: Ambassador Joseph Yun


Joseph Yun is the U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia. Madhu Narasimhan recently spoke with him about U.S.-Malaysia relations, the pivot, ASEAN, and domestic politics.

You’ve spent much of your career working in Asia and embassies across Asia. I’d like to ask – are we witnessing the rise of the Asian century, and if so, what would that mean for American global leadership?

There is certainly, any method you take, a cycle, and the trend is on the Asian side. You look at countries like India, China, Southeast Asia, they’re growing faster, and ultimately your economic and demographic power will determine the amount of influence you have in the region. So I’d say there is no question that there is a shift from Western Europe to Asia, especially to South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.

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Now: the implications for U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has always looked to both the Atlantic and Pacific and increasingly, it is looking more to the Pacific side. And you’ve seen this happen over the past six or seven years. You know, [President Barack] Obama’s signature foreign policy is the “pivot to Asia,” where there is a recognition that in economic, security, global issues – [Asia] is going to be the center. That’s why we’ve started the TPP negotiations, which is now in the closing stage. We could conclude it within the next few months or so. That is going to be the biggest free trade agreement that the U.S. is involved in. And then, in terms of global issues, this is where you have big disasters, this is where you have countries with human rights issues, this is where you sometimes have values issues – like religious freedom. Security wise, of course, as nations become more influential, there is bound to be friction with your neighbors and beyond. And that’s why the American presence here has done a lot to underwrite security and prosperity in this region, and we should be doing just as much if not more in the decades to come.

Has the pivot to Asia stalled as a result of ongoing crises in other parts of the world?

I don’t think so at all. Remember, the pivot to Asia is a long-term policy. Of course, there’s always going to be crises. And there’s going to be more than one crisis at any given time. So I don’t think it’s stalled. The U.S. is a big country, we have a lot of people doing foreign policy. Certainly, I think we are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. I don’t think it’s stalled.

You spoke a bit about security earlier. What types of counterterrorism initiatives are the U.S. and Malaysia undertaking jointly, and how would you rate the success of these programs?

You know, we have always had very good counterterrorism cooperation with Malaysia. In very recent history, for example, we worked well together after 9/11. We have also worked well together during the JI crisis. And now, we are working together well over ISIL issues. As you can see, Malaysia has made foreign fighters a very big issue. Right now, they have detained about a dozen or more – and they have stopped about 40 or so foreign fighters – from going to the Middle East. So we cooperate on many levels, and it’s been a very good cooperation.

I want to talk a bit about domestic politics. In what ways are you engaging the Opposition, and who have you been talking to? Do you speak frequently with Anwar Ibrahim?

We speak to all opposition. You know, I’ve had meetings with PKR, with DAP, as well as PAS. I’ve met with Anwar on several occasions. And of course, it’s not just me. Americans in general have engaged with the opposition, as well as we do with civil society, NGOs, and religious groups.

Was there a reason why President Obama decided not to meet with Anwar during his visit in April?

The person who met with Anwar was the second-highest ranking official in the whole American delegation, after President Obama. It was Susan Rice, our NSA. She had an excellent meeting with Anwar, and I think that’s a very senior-level meeting. Certainly, Anwar Ibrahim was very appreciative and it was a good meeting overall.

If Pakatan Rakyat was able to form a government in the next ten years, let’s say, how would this change the nature of U.S.-Malaysia relations?

I don’t think it changes the nature of relations at all. We work with the government of the day, whoever it is. We’ve certainly worked well with the current BN government, and there’s no reason that we wouldn’t work well with Pakatan.

Can you comment on race, religion, political, and media freedoms in Malaysia?

Malaysia as you know, has three major groups. About 65 percent Muslims, about 20-25 percent ethnic Chinese, and about under 10 percent ethnic Indians. And these three groups have now lived together for centuries in Malaysia. And in many respects, there is a degree of moderation, tolerance. But at the same time, there are also intolerant elements. That’s been manifesting on the religious side, as well as in ethnic rivalry and competition. Coming from America, we do believe multiculturalism is good, but everyone has their own way. I believe it is a challenge for Malaysia. I do think we would obviously like it if there was more tolerance but it’s really up to the Malaysians to decide.

Can you comment on Malaysia’s relationship with its regional neighbors? What can we expect from Malaysia’s chairmanship of ASEAN next year? What role do you want ASEAN to play vis-à-vis China, and how might that differ from the reality?

Malaysia was a founding member of ASEAN, along with the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia – and I think those were it, those were the founding members. Soon after, ASEAN was joined by Brunei and the four states up north – Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. So as a founding member of ASEAN, Malaysia has an enormous stake and it’s always taken its ASEAN responsibilities very seriously. And you can see recent examples of Malaysia helping neighbors, in getting a peace agreement between Bangsamoro and the Philippine government in Mindanao. And also helping with southern Thailand, with talks between the BRN-C separatist group and Bangkok. So I believe they are very interested in stability.

In 2015, with the chairmanship of ASEAN, they really want to make progress with the ASEAN Community. That’s going to be a big theme: community, primarily in the economic sense, with the movement of goods, movement of services, movement of people, movement of money. And I think they’re also looking forward to having good dialogues with their ASEAN partners, including China, the U.S., Japan and Russia.

Malaysia has a very good relationship with China. Just a few months ago, Prime Minister Najib made a long visit to China, which celebrated 40 years of diplomatic relations. And I think Malaysia was the first ASEAN country to diplomatically recognize China.

What are the major sources of agreement and disagreement in the U.S.-Malaysia relationship? And what do you envision for this relationship, say ten years from now?

We’ve also had very close economic relations – as well as security relations – with Malaysia. So the U.S. still remains the number one investor here, we are now the number three trading partner with Malaysia. So doing the TPP alone is going to be a huge deal for both the U.S. and Malaysia.

Diplomatically, we’ve been up and down. Probably during the Mahathir years, relations were not as close as they are now, for example. So diplomatically it goes up and down. On the military side, we have always been fairly close. So I do think for Malaysia, it is very important for them to have a distant power close to them. So this is why security wise and economic wise, we’ve had a very good relationship. I don’t expect that to change. I think for the U.S., Malaysia is a central part of ASEAN, a central part of Southeast Asia. We want to see a stronger ASEAN, and Malaysia is very much a part of that. When President Obama was here in April, we signed a Comprehensive Partnership Agreement. So in ten years’ time, I expect we’ll have finished the TPP, which will be good for trade and investment; I expect by that time Malaysia will be a member of the visa waiver programs, so many Malaysians will go back and forth; and hopefully we’ll have built up other educational linkages so there is really something in it for the people of Malaysia.

Madhu Narasimhan was a 2014 U.S. Fulbright Fellow based in Southeast Asia.

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