Cover Story: The Commonwealth Connection

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 26, 2017 - July 02, 2017.
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The friendship between Malaysia and Canada has stood the test of time because of the shared values and ideals that contributed to a 60-year-long partnership. Ahead of Canada Day on July 1, Kong Wai Yeng speaks to Her Excellency, High Commissioner Judith St George, about the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, as well as building a firmer relationship with Malaysia that will put both countries on an even stronger footing.


A string of “Move-to-Canada” memes spread like wildfire in November last year, when people vowed to move to the North American country following the results of the US election. It was probably meant as a joke, but why would anyone not want to move to the world’s second-largest country, which is endowed with postcard views, jaw-dropping national parks, snow-capped mountains, rugged wilderness and a diverse culture and history? The temptation to immediately jet off to this land of wonders, for whatever reason, is hard to resist.

Malaysia is far away from the home of the two most famous Justins in the world: Trudeau and Bieber. We are a 24-hour flight away, or 12,837km to be exact. But Canada and Malaysia, bound by a shared Commonwealth heritage, are closer than you think.

“Canada was one of the first countries to recognise and establish diplomatic ties with the newly independent Federation of Malaya in 1957,” says Her Excellency, High Commissioner Judith St George, during our interview just two weeks before Canada Day on July 1. The national holiday marks the anniversary of the July 1, 1867 enactment of the Constitution Act, 1867 (then called the British North America Act, 1867). Canada became a self-governing dominion of Great Britain and a federation of four provinces: Québec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

St George has become a familiar face whenever Canada makes the headlines in Malaysia, be it at the launch of a clean technology (cleantech) company in Sarawak or a photo exhibition that speaks out against child marriage. In real life, she looks no different from the photos that grace the local press: warm, friendly and unflappably poised. For our first meeting in her well-appointed office at Menara Tan & Tan, she wears a jet-black blazer and softens the look with a simple necklace as well as a silver pin shaped like a maple leaf.

If one needed a reminder of the interplay of fashion and authority, St George’s minimalist but polished style provides it — her broad smile is all the accessory she needs. After all, a cheerful countenance goes a long way, especially in her line of work, strengthening the political, economic and cultural ties between two governments.

“We have always had a strong relationship with Malaysia. But this year is special,” says St George. Indeed, 2017 is an auspicious year for both Canada and Malaysia. The former celebrates its 150th anniversary as a country this July 1 while Malaysia celebrates the 60th anniversary of independence on Aug 31. The two countries are also marking two other historic milestones: the 60th anniversary of Canada-Malaysia relations and Canada’s 40 years as a formal dialogue partner of Asean, of which Malaysia is a founding member.

Canada’s upcoming anniversary celebration, named Canada 150, focuses on four main themes: “Diversity and Inclusion”, promoting a diverse and inclusive Canada; “Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples”, a positive and proactive engagement with indigenous communities across the country; “Youth”, an effort to inspire young people to contribute to Canadian society; and a popular issue on almost every country’s priority list this year, “Environment”.

Malaysians have already soaked up some of the festive atmosphere with the local launch of Canada 150 in March. In line with Canada’s theme to showcase indigenous talents, Sarawakian Alena Murang — known for transmuting the mellow sound of the traditional sape into upbeat contemporary folk music — performed a Kelabit dancing chant alongside Toronto-based composer Jeremy Dutcher, who sang a dance song in his native Wolastoq language, at ASWARA’s Experimental Theatre.

St George says, “Canada’s Minister of Defence Harjit S Sajjan discussed peacekeeping efforts with [Minister of Defence] Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein during his three-day visit to Malaysia last April. He also met with sailors and aviators onboard the HMCS Winnipeg and HMCS Ottawa, which were docked at the Boustead Cruise Centre in Port Klang, Selangor, and attended a reception to mark 60 years of strong bilateral relations between Canada and Malaysia. The deployment of the ships is part of Canada’s commitment to maintaining security and stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

“We also organised an exhibition called Child and Enforced Marriage in Kota Kinabalu,Sabah, as well as a show in Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur, titled 

[email protected]: Then and Now, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

The series of events — cultural performances, high-profile visits and exhibitions — highlights the longstanding relationship between Malaysia and Canada.

Flying the national flag abroad is what a high commission, the primary line of communication with a foreign government, does and St George is no stranger to the job.

Previously, she served in the US, Vietnam, the Philippines and the UK; this is her second posting to Malaysia. She was First Secretary at the High Commission in Malaysia from 1989 to 1993, before assuming the role of High Commissioner in April 2013.

She was born in Montréal — the most populous municipality in the province of Québec — which is famous for its remarkable architecture, the historic Notre-Dame Basilica and the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal — a tangible embodiment of Canada’s cutting-edge modern art and cultural renaissance. In her youth, she aspired to be a veterinarian but decided to pursue a liberal arts degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, instead. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in Public Administration from Carleton University, Ottawa, and entered the auditing field in the federal capital. After she passed the Foreign Service exam in 1986,  and spurred by her love of travel as well as public service, she eventually found her real métier.

“I have always loved animals, but by my last year of high school, I realised that I didn’t enjoy biology or chemistry at all. I think it was dissecting animals that really turned me off. So I decided to take a liberal arts degree, thinking I would go into law afterward, until I learnt of the Master in Public Administration Programme,” St George says.

“Anyway, I feel really happy to be back. I was thrilled when the posting [to Malaysia] came up. It’s the only posting I have come back to for the second time, so I must have enjoyed it the first time. The first time I was here, I was carrying out trade commissioner services.

“It was a very busy time. Malaysia in the late 1980s looked really different — a lot of infrastructure was being built and there were many trade delegations. My job now as a High Commissioner is a lot broader. It involves dealing with security matters, public relations, and pretty much the whole breadth of what an embassy or a high commission does.”

Security and counter-terrorism have risen to the top of the global agenda, especially after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, as governments worldwide continue to cripple and dismantle terrorist and extremist networks.

Malaysia has been a beneficiary of many Canadian counter-terrorism and anti-crime initiatives in Southeast Asia. In 2005, Canada partnered with the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism to organise the first Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear International First Responders Training Programme in Malaysia. The training is useful, particularly during an emergency like the recent killing of North Korea’s Kim Jong Nam with the highly toxic VX nerve agent at klia2.

And in 2013, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance security cooperation between Malaysia and Canada, resulting in over CA$10 million being spent on security projects.  A three-year Special Forces training exchange programme between Canada and Malaysia, an arrangement funded by the Canadian Department of National Defence that started in 2014, has been extended for another year. In addition, security at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and klia2 has been enhanced with the VERIFIER travel documents and biometrics system, developed by the International Organisation for Migration with funding from Canada. VERIFIER can detect fraudulent travel documents or imposters in just under 20 seconds.

“It’s hard to understand what motivates people to turn this way,” St George says grimly when I ask her if we are doing enough globally to combat terrorism, especially after the recent bombing of a pop concert in Manchester and several attacks on London in recent weeks.

“The only way we can get to the bottom of this is through international collaboration, in which everybody learns from each other’s best practices. You read about the attacks and are horrified because they make world headlines. But you don’t see the attacks that were foiled. We do have a good security system. Malaysia is focusing on a lot on deradicalisation [to thwart home-grown terrorism]. Canada is increasing its efforts too.”

Security threats do not only come in the form of extremist acts but also human trafficking as migrant abductions have become a highly lucrative business. Unauthorised border crossings are rampant and human trafficking — not to be confused with human smuggling, which involves migrants paying smugglers to deliver them, illegally, to their destinations — has seen an uptick here in recent years. To help put a stop to the trafficking of people who are coerced into working against their will, Canada presented the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency with two rigid-hull inflatable boats to enhance maritime security.

We move on to another issue that has persistently plagued this country: child marriage. The debate about ending child marriage in Malaysia flared up recently, with controversial statements by politicians hitting the headlines.

“Child brides are everywhere. It’s a worldwide problem. It happens in Canada too. You have to continuously shine a light on these issues so that people know what happens to girls who become brides at the age of 14 ... [how it affects] their life expectancy, the health risks … and that these girls leave behind their education so they don’t have the same opportunities as other women,” St George laments.

Child marriage, which inexplicably links to domestic violence, can only be eradicated with an unstinting commitment from the government and the local community.  To raise awareness and promote dialogue about the issue, the High Commission and Girls Not Brides — a global partnership of more than 700 civil society organisations from over 90 countries committed to ending child marriage — hosted the Girls’ Voices: Speaking Up Against Child Marriage photo exhibition at The Spring Shopping Mall in Kuching, Sarawak. The programme also marks Canada’s collaboration with Sarawak Women for Women’s Society, an NGO that promotes gender equality, female empowerment and children’s rights.

As a matter of fact, Sarawak’s long history with Canada dates back to 1910, when their engineers discovered Malaysia’s first oil deposits in Miri’s “Canada Hill”. The Land of the Hornbills is now a place where Canadian enterprises go to invest their dollars. For example, Hydro-Québec, Canada’s largest power utility company, and Sarawak Energy have signed an MoU to share experience and conduct technical exchanges on hydropower development. More collaborations are underway on the east coast: protecting Malaysia’s biodiversity, preserving forest cover, transferring technology, and building more initiatives in renewable energy and water technologies.

Bilateral trade continues to grow with merchandise trade amounting to RM11 billion last year. But more impressive is the rising number of cleantech companies — Biorem Technologies, Clear Blue Technologies, SciCorp International, Canadian Solar, Singer Valve, and Solmax BioEnergy — that have expressed interest in bringing their green technology expertise to Penang.

“Apart from cleantech, Celestica Inc — the Toronto-based multinational electronics manufacturing company — has been operating in Malaysia for over 17 years. It was first set up in Kulim, Kedah, in 1999, and the company later expanded to Johor. Did you know that the facility in Kulim is manufacturing products for the aerospace industry?

“There are other key Canadian companies that have opened up job opportunities to Malaysians, including Bombardier Inc [which was involved in the original LRT project and helped deliver the rail system for the second line of the Klang Valley MRT network], RBC Royal Bank, Sun Life Financial and Manulife insurance.”

Canadian conglomerates and expats are as interested in our economic opportunities as we are in theirs. Case in point: Petroliam Nasional Bhd acquired energy firm Progress Energy Canada Ltd as well as gas assets from Talisman Energy for over CA$7 billion in 2013. Admittedly, investments between Malaysia and Canada may have scaled back a little due to the sluggish global economy, but education and tourism — buoyed by an influx of students and tourists in both countries — have remained bright spots.

Over 80,000 Malaysians have studied in Canada and the numbers are not slowing down. Apart from the competitively priced and high-quality education system, Canada woos international students with an exciting campus lifestyle, good healthcare and a multicultural local community. Needless to say, education has always been a subject of paramount importance to the two governments — many Malaysians have also benefited from the Colombo Plan (at least CA$50 million worth of aid so far), a post-colonial initiative launched in 1957 to help boost Asian economic and social development.

Tourism has consistently been on an upward trajectory as the number of Malaysians travelling to Canada rose from 12,681 in 2013 to 14,233 last year.  A smile lights up St George’s face when I confess my desire to see the Northern Lights, which ripple across the heavens on winter nights.

“There is a growing interest among Malaysians who enjoy outdoor sports like fishing and skiing in Canada too. We have lovely scenery in Atlantic Canada. But I definitely recommend taking a cross-Canada train journey to take in the scenic views along the way, or a road trip to the east coast, where the Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland is simply stunning. Some adventurous travellers also visit the Arctic to see the polar bears,” says St George, an adventure junkie herself who has explored the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak and dived off most of the islands in Malaysia.

With so many Malaysians travelling to Canada and vice versa, I cannot help but ask St George if we will ever get a chance to see the debonair Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — also a lover of the great outdoors, if the viral photo of him kayaking to a dock on a lake to speak about climate change is any indication — engaging in any of our local attractions.

St George answers me cheerfully, “Well, his father, the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, came to Malaysia three times. Justin is currently busy with the Canada 150 celebrations and he’s focusing on a lot of important things in Canada. But we most certainly hope that he will make a trip to Malaysia very soon.”