Dato’ Zainol Abidin Omar, Ambassador of Malaysia to the Russian Federation

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Ambassador, you have been serving as Malaysia’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation for four years. What changes have you noticed in the Russian people over this period?

Four years is too short a time to notice major changes. But what we have noticed is that Russians are becoming more outward looking, more helpful, and more willing to interact with foreigners. The older generation is more cautious; in complete contrast to people under 35 who are very happy to converse with you. Non-Russian speakers find it wonderful that so many people want to speak in English.
What changes are there in the attitude of Russians to Malaysia? Are Russians aware of Malaysia and Malaysians?

I think that is a very salient question. As you know, Malaysia and Russia are thousands of miles away. We do not share a common border, history, language, and in the past we did not share the same political system. Not so with the UK, because we were under the British for hundreds of years, and we share the same kind of education and language. There are practically no Russian speakers in Malaysia. But I think that things are changing, in particular from 2002, when we started sending a lot of Malaysian students to Russia, and we see this as being a very good move in the sense of increasing understanding between our countries. Currently we have 3,000 Malaysian students here; most of them are studying medicine. We have students in 5 major Russian cities: in Moscow, in St. Petersburg, in Nizhniy Novgorod, in Kursk and Volgograd.

How many Malaysian expats – people who come to Russia to earn money – are there in Russia at the moment?

We do not have an expat community here, but do have students. We are hoping that some of our students, when they have finished their studies, will find opportunities in Russia that will be attractive to them, and in this way contribute to increasing mutual understanding of the history and cultures of our two countries.

What are the main goods that are traded between Russia and Malaysia?

2013 bilateral trade came in at only $1.8 billion. Most of our imports form Russia are oil and gas related products, which include petrochemical fertilisers for agriculture. We are a major producer of palm oil, and rubber products, the production of which needs fertilisers. Malaysia exports a number of electronic goods to Russia, we also export a lot of wooden furniture, palm oil, cocoa, plastic products and rubber based products.

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Is Malaysia benefiting from the present situation, where Russia is turning away from goods from the EU due to sanctions?

We are always looking for markets for our products, but we do not see that the present situation has brought about a windfall for us in terms of replacing goods from the EU by Malaysian goods. We do not export a lot of food to Russia, with the exception of palm oil, however as palm oil is only exported from tropical countries, there is no noticeable change. We do not believe that there should be a lot of sanctions between countries. Most of us are members of the WTO, we believe that free and fair trade will promote the global economy.

Malaysia was one of the founding members of ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian nations). Has this been a good thing for Malaysia?

Yes, we definitely believe that ASEAN has been one of South East Asia’s major achievements, because stability and unity has been brought to the region, which is inhabited by about 650 million people. We are not involved in conflict, and if there are issues, which need to be resolved, we have done this on a regional level. ASEAN has provided the political stage for economic development amongst countries that are at very different stages of development. We aim to establish what we call the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. This will establish a single market fully integrated into the global economy. ASEAN is developing, but there is still more scope for further development. For Malaysia, this is a very busy time because we will take over the ASEAN chairmanship in 2015 from Myanmar.

Are you trying to be like the EU?

We are learning from the lessons of the EU. What is good, we will surely try to implement, but we will take a good look at issues which are not accepted by everybody in the EU, such as a single monetary policy, before we implement such measures.

How does Malaysia see the appearance of the new BRICS Development Bank and the formation of a new world and political trade order?

Malaysia has always been requesting for a review of the IMF and the World Bank. In a sense, we feel that some of these organisations’ current policies are lopsided. The world has changed from the time the Bretton Woods system was put into place. Things become very difficult if one does not adapt and change systems to reflect the current state of the world. If you look at the global scenario, you find that some of the BRICS countries are amongst the top 10 global economies. In this sense, the BRICS countries’ interest in trying to influence international finance markets is justified in order to take into consideration the present global scenario.

How do you see Russian-Malaysian relationships developing in the future?
As you know, Russia is the 6th largest economy in the world based on Purchasing Power Parities (PPP). So we see that being more involved with Russia is of tremendous mutual benefit. There is a lot of potential to increase trade and investment. Malaysian companies are also interested in investing in Russia. Russia is not currently investing much in South East Asia, and that is something we would like to change. Hopefully as we get to know each other better, we can work out which investment methods are right and take this forward. There are a lot of things we would like to do with Russia, such as getting more Russians over for holidays. Russians don’t need a visa for the first 30 days in Malaysia now. Kuala Lumpur is a thriving city with vibrant shopping districts. At the same time, Russia is becoming more attractive to Malaysians; we are beginning to see Russia’s individuality in terms of architecture, culture. Russia has a lot to offer.

Do you personally like living in Russia?

Before we came here, my family was a little bit apprehensive about the harsh winter. We heard that the winter is gong to be very cold and harsh. Coming from a tropical country where 31 degrees is the normal temperature; we thought that we would be practically living in an ice box! But my family and I have managed to overcome our fear of the winter, and we all go out and enjoy the snow. We have found that Russia and the news about Russia are two different things. We see that Moscow is a very modern city where you can get practically anything, for a price. Four years have gone by quickly, so that means that we are enjoying our stay in Moscow.