Malaysia-Korea Look East Policy Business Summit: “Navigating New Opportunities for Mutual Growth”


I am delighted to be invited to say a few words at the Malaysia-Korea Look East Policy Business Summit and to join you in celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Look East Policy.

Building lasting friendships

Let me begin by sharing my personal story with a Korean friend and how I think we can promote further mutual understanding.

My friend Professor Hwang In-won of Gyeongsang National University just visited a week and half ago. Having started his PhD with the Australian National University in 1992, his supervisor Professor Harold Crouch, whom I knew personally and who had just passed away recently, decided in the following year that Hwang should write a thesis on UMNO, former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Hwang spent three years from 1993 staying in Kuala Lumpur to complete his very meticulous fieldwork, interviewing hundreds of politicians and academics.

He left in 1996 thinking that he could complete his thesis by 1998, not knowing that Mahathir and Anwar would eventually have a fall out and change everything in the Malaysian political scene. He had to rewrite almost from scratch.

I first met Hwang in 1999 when I was a 22-year student keenly observing what was going on and actively involved in the reformasi movement. Hwang interviewed me for more than 3 hours. I was quite surprised at how thorough his thinking were and I was equally amazed that I was able to be of help to an academic thinking through difficult theoretical questions.

When I finally got a chance to further my studies, I applied to ANU for its strength in Asian Studies. And, I rented a room from Hwang for a year and half, traveling to school every day with Hwang discussing Malaysian politics, and also getting free kimchi from Hwang’s wife every week.

Hwang’s Personalised Politics: The Malaysian State under Mahathir is a must read for political science students trying to understand Malaysian politics in the 1980s and 1990s.

Through Hwang’s arrangement, I later on spent a month in 2006 between Seoul and Jinju, where Gyeongsang National University is located, and I have since visited Korea many times.

I share this story at a Business Summit because I believe that businesses in Korea and Malaysia, and not just the governments and the academia, should put more effort and resources into promoting profound mutual understanding of Malaysia and Korea.

The relationship between our two nations will benefit so much more if we collectively groom young people to spend time in each other’s country to learn and to appreciate the people in these societies.

An industrialised nation

40 years after the Look East Policy was launched in 1983, what can and should Malaysia learn from Korea in the 2020s?

The original articulation of the Look East Policy was heavily weighted towards learning from Korea and Japan to industrialise rapidly and to acquire technologies.

The notion that Asian economies can be great manufacturing houses with sophisticated technologies was a novelty and an ambitious one in the 1980s. At that time, only Korea, Japan, and, to a lesser extent, Taiwan, were leaders in manufacturing in Asia. But the rise of China during the intervening years has upended the idea altogether. Northeast Asia, China included, became the factory of the world and leading at least in consumer technologies.

Malaysia has never reached the level of manufacturing excellence that Korea continues to possess over the decades. In fact, Malaysia experienced premature deindustrialisation after the Asia Financial Crisis in 1997 and after China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

But we are back. With the ambitious New Industrial Master Plan 2030 launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia wants to re-industrialise and it is in this context that Korea remains the best role model.

At 51 million people, South Korea’s population is a bit more than Malaysia’s 33 million people. The quest to keep moving up the technological ladder, massive R&D, investing in innovation, and raising productivity, coupled with a very strong education system, continues to inspire.

This year, in my capacity as Deputy Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, I met Dr. Wang Yunjong, Economic Security Advisor to the President. I learnt quite a lot from Dr. Wang on how Korea sees the need to secure its supply chain and to ensure the economic security of Korea. I am told that Korea maps the supply chains of almost 200 items in the most meticulous manner.

This is something that we in Malaysia need to take note of. First, supply chain resilience is the most important factor for industries and nations; Second, Malaysia should find ways to collaborate with Korea and to develop vertical integration with Korea’s supply chain as much as possible.

I also met H.E. Ahn Dukgeun, Minister of Trade of Korea, in Detroit, and I can sense that he and the Korean Government are keen to foster a much deeper economic relationship with Malaysia in this changing global economic landscape. Tengku Zafrul Aziz, Minister of MITI, and the Government of Malaysia, are keen to strengthen the bilateral trade relationship, too. As Tengku Zafrul pointed out just a few days earlier, “Malaysia also remains open to an FTA with the Republic of Korea and is studying the direction of negotiations based on the benefits to be gained by the country.”

Increasing cultural influence

As I have pointed out before, the Look East Policy originated in the early 1980s in Malaysia’s effort to reduce the intellectual reliance on her former colonial master United Kingdom.

Over the past three decades or so, Korea has become an inspiration in terms of its experience with democratisation and also becoming a global culture influencer.

Korea’s military dictatorship gave way to democratically elected leadership at a rapid pace from 1987 onwards. From the stranglehold of military authoritarian government to holding presidents and government leaders accountable, and building a robust community activism, there is much for Malaysia as a newly democratised nation to learn from Korea. Prime Minister Anwar’s dialogue with the late President Kim Dea-Jung in Seoul in 2006 is still a memorable and inspiring moment for many of us.

Korea emerged as a major global culture influencer in the last two decades, from Dae Jang Geum (大长今) to Gangnam Style to Blackpink, and of course the various tastes of Korean food, the hallyu is a special but it is also something that Malaysia should aspire to.

Malaysia is the original fusion experience with a rich amalgamation of history, culture and story originating from our blend of people from different backgrounds. We have a very unique story to tell the world. We just need to tell the story better, like the Koreans.

Before I end my speech, I would like to make a suggestion that goes beyond Korea. The Look East Policy is a very creative Malaysian foreign policy innovation. Given that Korea and Japan are now in rapprochement, it is time for the governments of Korea, Japan and Malaysia to use the platform of the Look East Policy to create trilateral cooperation among the three nations to continue the legacy of the Look East Policy in the changing world.

With this multifaceted and very rich relationship between Korea and Malaysia, and in the context of the Look East Policy, I look toward a very meaningful next forty years.

Thank you, kamsahamida!

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