(Originally published on WireTap.)
What is Malaysia? A country at the edge of the map? A place with funny foods and foreign accents? A really green plot of earth, famous for.. rubber?
About two months ago, I landed an internship that dropped me into the heart of the Malaysian capital, stripping away these stereotypes to reveal a complex and dynamic Southeast Asian state. Between train commutes, Friday prayers at the National Mosque and dining like the locals at cheap food stalls known as mamaks, I got to speak to people, particularly youth, about their views of their country and how it relates to the United States. The answers I got to my questions were as interesting as they were surprising. These answers, from university professors to taxi drivers to young activists, made one thing clear at the end of my stay last week: for America, Malaysia matters.
As an American Muslim with an interest in international affairs, I already knew that Malaysians (60.4 percent of whom are Muslims) have reputations as moderate, peace-loving people. What I didn't know about was the deep cultural affinity Malaysians have with America — making it an opportune ally for the United States in the region. Malaysians' profound faith in democracy, as well as their unabashed admiration of the United States, surprised me at a time when the internationalization of democracy was losing ground and praise of the United States was rationed out with blushes and flustered excuses.
In my conversations, it became clear that what Malaysians like most about America is what they described as its culture of openness, the confidence it inspired in its citizens, and its legal foundation for democracy and equality - all things that they hoped to see more of in their country and around the world. What they didn't admire about the United States, of course, was the hypocrisy often witnessed in relation to these principles, usually manifested in racism towards minorities and foreigners.
As a majority Muslim country, Malaysia also represents a modern, “moderate” Islam that many Muslims around the world admire. Local groups, such as the Muslim Professionals Forum or their youth spin-off the Young Muslims Project, work to reconcile Westernization and modernity with Islamic values that stress tolerance, openness and acceptance. In this context, a positive American relationship with Malaysia will achieve two goals: first, it will show Muslims around the world that America is not anti-Islam and is open to cooperation with the Muslim world; second, it will help promote the environment needed to support the growth of the modern, moderate Islam seen in Malaysia.
Now is the best time to focus on deepening American-Malaysian ties. A partnership with Malaysia will give America a solid ally in Southeast Asia, as well as improve American standing in the Muslim world. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has already invited President Obama, who has well-known ties to the region, to visit Malaysia. What both leaders chose to do with this potential relationship will impact not only their two countries, but the greater international community.
Funny foods, foreign accents and colonial-era rubber are a thing of the past. It is now more important than ever that America makes high-potential partnerships with countries like Malaysia matter.