Story by Kathleen Pokrud
HE Dato’ Jojie Samuel, Ambassador of Malaysia to Thailand, discusses the very expansive business, trade, and cultural relations between Malaysia and Thailand and his hopes for post Covid-19.
Malaysia and Thailand celebrated sixty years of diplomatic relations in 2017. HE Dato’ Jolie Samuel, Ambassador of Malaysia to Thailand, arrived in Thailand in January the following year, and has now been in Bangkok for more than three years. Elite+ was recently given the opportunity to interview the ambassador to learn about the close ties between the two countries.
A career diplomat, Ambassador Jojie was the Director-General of ASEAN-Malaysia National Secretariat (AMNS) from 2016 until 2017, prior to taking up the ambassadorship in Thailand. He first joined the Malaysian Foreign Service in 1992 when he was appointed as an Assistant Secretary at the Eastern Europe Division. He has served at various Malaysian missions, including Canada, Iraq, Turkey and Austria, in a variety of posts at different levels. His first ambassadorship post was in Havana, Cuba, with concurrent accreditation to Haiti, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (2011-2014). Ambassador Jolie is married to Catherina Catherine Cherian and has been blessed with two daughters.
Could you give us some background of the diplomatic relations between Malaysia and Thailand?
This year Malaysia and Thailand will celebrate 64 years of our everlasting friendship which actually dates back to centuries ago to the time when Thailand was known as Siam and Malaysia as Malaya. It started long before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1957. As a matter of fact, the Thais in the southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani share strong family connections as well as religious, linguistic and cultural bonds with the Malaysians in Kelantan, Perak, Perlis and Kedah.
Could you next talk about the trade relationship between Malaysia and Thailand?
Malaysia’s total trade with Thailand was valued at USD18.94 billion for the period of January to December 2020. Total exports amounted to USD10.79 billion while imports were valued at USD8.15 billion respectively. Malaysia’s major export products to Thailand consist of electrical and electronic products, chemicals and chemical products, crude petroleum and machinery, equipment and spare parts. Malaysia’s major import products from Thailand consist of electrical and electronic products, transport equipment, chemicals and chemical products, natural rubber, machinery, equipment & spare parts . We believe that more bilateral trade engagements, especially through border trade, have to be further enhanced as Malaysia and Thailand can complement each other in many areas of trade.
What advice would you give Thai entrepreneurs interested in investing in or trading with Malaysian companies?
Located in the Asia Pacific rim at the centre of ASEAN, Malaysia remains an attractive investment destination, particularly with our quite attractive economic and business environment, including the availability of excellent infrastructure, telecommunication services, financial and banking services supporting industries, a skilled and trainable workforce as well as market opportunities offered through the 16 Free Trade Agreements that Malaysia has signed.
In Bangkok, we have our trade offices belonging to the Ministry of International Trade & Investment and Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE). MATRADE is actively involved in assisting foreign companies to source suppliers of Malaysian products and services.
I am also the patron of the Malaysian-Thai Chamber of Commerce (MTCC). The organisation has been very supportive when it comes to co-organising activities with the Embassy. This is a great organisation for Thai entrepreneurs to connect with members of MTCC.
How big would you say the Malaysian community is in Thailand and what businesses are they involved in?
There are over 1,200 Malaysians currently registered with the Embassy. Most are businessmen and professionals working with various companies in the automotive sector, food & beverages, consultancy and logistics & services.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Malaysia and relations between Malaysia and Thailand as well as ASEAN states?
The repatriation exercises between our two countries would not have been possible without the support of the government of Thailand, particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of the Interior, which I truly appreciate. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought devastating effects to many of the international community. The Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) released a joint statement on 20 February 2020 in which it set out a guideline of key tasks that ASEAN member states must work together to combat this on-going corona virus.
Again the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting life in Thailand and Malaysia. Can you explain what is currently happening in Malaysia?
Up to April 2020, Malaysia had reported two waves of COVID-19 cases, with the first wave ending within less than 2 months. In early March 2020, the second wave occurred, causing a worrying situation. For the record, the Malaysian government has enforced the Movement Control Order (MCO) since 18 March 2020 to break the chain of Covid-19 infections. During this time, the Government and media have actively promoted the hashtag #stayhome and #staysafe. Non-governmental organisations, individuals as well as prison inmates are now also producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontliners.
This year, His Majesty the King of Malaysia declared a nationwide State of Emergency on 12 January 2021. The aim is to help combat a devastating third wave of the pandemic in Malaysia which began in December 2020 and then spiked in January 2021 when Malaysia began recording up to four digits in new daily cases. Now, we have once more brought the spread of the virus under control.
The first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine arrived in Malaysia on 21 February, and very quickly, the country kicked off the Covid-19 immunisation program on 24 February with Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, our Prime Minister, receiving the first jab. We have also received vaccines from Sinovac.
Can you tell us how government restrictions in Thailand are affecting your work, particularly when it comes to cultural and investment promotion?
The pandemic has certainly impacted our work at the Embassy. Due to the travel restrictions, there have been no high-level visits since last year. On the cultural front, people-to-people exchanges have been ongoing through our Tourism Malaysia office. While recognising the challenges in promoting tourism in the Thai market during the pandemic, I believe that promotional activities in Thailand should not come to a halt. Instead, we have continued promoting the Senses of Malaysia campaign as well as Malaysian cuisine and products in Thailand.
We also have been actively promoting trade and investment by having webinars, seminars and workshops virtually using online platforms.
What types of activities had you been promoting after your arrival before the pandemic struck and what adjustments are you making now?
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the Embassy conducted various engagement programmes with Malaysians and local communities, some with generous support and cooperation from the Malaysia-Thai Chamber of Commerce (MTCC) and the Kelab Malaysia of Thailand (KMT). Among the activities held were the Malaysia Durian Fest in 2018, Malaysia Fest 2019 and the National Day celebration as well as other festive events where the best of Malaysia through food, products and cultural performances were showcased.
In 2020, we did not have the luxury of organising any physical events or hosting a national day reception. We switched to a series of small-scale celebrations and programmes. We had, among others, a “Merdeka Fun Ride” cycling event to foster the spirit of patriotism among Malaysians residing in Thailand and a mini food festival to promote Malaysian cuisine to friends of Malaysia living here.
In addition, I believe the tourism industry has great potential to attract Thai tourists to Malaysia. Our Tourism Malaysia office in Bangkok has participated in various travel fairs here. In October 2019, a trip to Sabah for members of the diplomatic corps and some Thai entrepreneurs was organised. Sabah is located in East Malaysia and has a lot to offer in terms of natural wonders and wildlife.
On the economic front, our trade offices have utilised digital platforms to promote Malaysian products and services by organising e-BizMatch sessions, webinars and virtual exhibitions. These continued bilateral engagements will remain an important focus with the aim to strengthen bilateral cooperation in all areas such as trade, investment, defence, security and tourism.
Since coming to Thailand, what has impressed you most about Thailand and its culture?
I feel honoured to be here as Thailand is an important neighbour of Malaysia. Two of the most important Thai festivals that I have enjoyed are Loy Krathong and Songkran. For me, Thais are the most polite and well-mannered people you will ever meet, kind, welcoming and hospitable, and this is why so many people love visiting Thailand. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ because of the constant smiles we receive wherever we go.
Have you been able to travel much around the Kingdom and region, and what impressions and memories will you take with you when your posting here ends?
Throughout my stay in Thailand, it has been wonderful. Living and working in Thailand is a pleasure. I have travelled to many provinces in the country, from the northern to the southern, northeast as well as northwest. The most memorable experience would be meeting the different people of Thailand and to discover and explore Thai cultures. Thailand, for me, means a lot of things. It means a beautiful country, great people, pristine beaches, cultural and historical delights, markets for shopping, stunning temples and festivals.
To conclude, do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
I would like to see more and more Thai people know Malaysia better, our people, cultures, food, and popular destinations. I would like to encourage Thai people to visit Malaysia. There is a saying in Malaysia, “To know Malaysia is to love Malaysia.” As a close neighbour of Thailand, we welcome the Thai people as well as expatriates residing in Thailand to come and experience the warmth and hospitality of Malaysia.
My work as a diplomat is never-ending. I would like to create much more understanding and awareness among the Thai people about Malaysia and our people. Malaysia has some of the best tourist attractions in this region with our rich cultural history, beautiful landmarks and remarkable cities.
We are proud of our famous tagline, “Malaysia Truly Asia”, as this is where people can experience the various cultures and food of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and our indigenous communities all in one place.