Malaysia’s High Commissioner to Singapore H.E. Dato’ Dr Azfar Mohamad Mustafar takes the measure of investment opportunities, digital and green economy, tourism, education, healthcare and people-to-people connectivity as the building blocks for stronger ties between the two nations. Interview by IN Diplomacy Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Ms Nomita Dhar
CONGRATULATIONS on a very successful trip and visit of your Prime Minister to Singapore. Singapore and Malaysia are excellent partners, great neighbours. What went behind the scenes in preparation for this visit?
The Prime Ministers already know each other well. Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister in the late 1990s. As it was custom for a new PM of Malaysia to visit neighbouring countries we have been preparing for this visit since he was sworn in as Prime Minister. It did take a little bit more time than usual for us to organise but this was due to scheduling conflicts on both sides.
Can you tell us more about the three MoUs signed and what is happening to get into actuality?
Singapore and Malaysia relations have been very close. We are close neighbours and this close relationship is also the anchor of our economic relations; so, the MoUs signed were related to the digital and green economy, including energy. These MoUs involved digital trade, cyber security, personal data protection and so on. Both sides will establish a working group to implement these MoUs. and we expect the first meeting will be in March.
Can you share your thoughts on the composition of the delegation that Prime Minister Anwar brought with him to Singapore?
The Prime Minister was in Indonesia and Brunei before he came to Singapore but it was in Singapore that he brought the most number of ministers and senior officials. Of course, there was our Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Trade, Minister for Communications and Digital and we had also the Chief Minister of Johor and Premier of Sarawak. The size of the delegation also reflects a measure of the importance we place in Singapore relations.
PM Anwar’s visit marked a good start in our relations so that we can move forward with Singapore to explore new areas of growth and so on and so forth. The visit has been well received on both sides.
What can businesses look forward to in 2023?
We hope with the MoUs on the digital and green economy signed between our two countries will result in new heights. I am happy to report the S$150 billion mark for 2022 for the total amount of trade between Singapore and Malaysia was achieved.
High Commissioner, causeway traffic has returned to pre-COVID levels. Is more being done to facilitate the movement of people at the causeway?
The causeway is one of the busiest in the world with many Malaysians commuting daily and this issue was discussed by both Prime Ministers and they agreed to find solutions especially during peaks hours. A few ideas were discussed but now we are waiting for the technical agencies to look into this. One idea was to expand the numbers of counters. The other is to ensure a more efficient flow of vehicles and so on. As mentioned by PM Anwar he too hoped that Malaysians working in Singapore do not need to leave their homes as early as 4am but can instead spend more quality time with their family. So, both sides have agreed to work closely on this issue.
There are also many from Singapore who travel to Malaysia for education to schools in Iskandar. During COVID it was difficult for them to travel. Are there going to be any new developments in terms of education cooperation?
Yes! Education is also one of the important pillars in our people-to-people relationship and there are a number of leading educational institutions in Iskandar established by companies from Singapore in Malaysia. We see this trend will continue to grow. Of course, during the pandemic travel had to be restricted but many schools in Iskandar have student dormitories and residential complexes to house them. They are not so badly impacted in terms of their education; only they cannot commute during that period. But, you know, things are getting back to normal and we see this sector strengthening.
Another aspect of our relationship which has taken off is in the medical field. Some hospital chains from Singapore have expanded to Malaysia and medical tourism and general medical services are on offer. Is the government supportive of this trend?
We all know the costs of living and of medical treatments have risen tremendously in Singapore. I think these hospitals can probably bring down the cost of medical services for Singaporeans seeking treatment in Malaysia. This will be win-win for both sides.
Singapore businesses can grow in Malaysia and Malaysians (and any foreigner) can avail themselves of these greater choices and variety of healthcare systems. Medical tourism has already grown to be an important sector in places such as Penang.
Talking about tourism – Malaysia is the first place Singaporeans to run to. Is there any new national tourism drive or are there promotions to watch out for in 2023?
Tourism is another one of those important linkages between our two countries. Many Singaporeans are aware of the attractions and facilities available here. After almost three years of COVID there are many aggressive promotions available online for the Malaysian tourism sector this year.
Does Desaru hold a special place in terms of accessibility and range of facilities (e.g. new hotels/resorts are opening up) for the Singapore market? Singapore has also a large expat market and IN Diplomacy readership itself consists of foreign diplomatic staff and their families. How would you promote Desaru for these demographics?
As you mentioned, Desaru has gone through a process of rejuvenation recently. So, last year, in late October, I brought a group of ambassadors and high commissioners, to Desaru. It was quite interesting, in the sense that we now can go there directly by ferry from the Tanah Merah ferry terminal. It is about a 90-minute ride. Desaru even has its own dedicated immigration custom clearance!
Desaru is already being marketed for Singaporeans and expats in Singapore as a weekend and weekday getaways. You can reach there in 90 minutes without any traffic jams. And then, you can spend your 2 – 3 days there – swim, play golf, visit the mangrove park, fruit gardens and the children can play at the water park, and so on. It’s an attraction for the whole family.
Desaru also offers potential investment opportunities as it still has a lot of land to be developed. Desaru development authorities welcome potential investors from Singapore. It is a worthwhile place, to take a break or to invest.
InvestKL is very active in promoting Kuala Lumpur; but aside from Malaysia’s national capital, are there other states or sectors offering investment opportunities to Singapore-based companies or MNCs? Do you have any message for them?
Malaysia is always an attractive investment location, we have talented manpower, economic stability, a pro-business environment and good infrastructure. These qualities will continue to be developed by the government. So, there are many potential places to be explored in Malaysia.
Last year, we launched the National Investment Aspiration (NIA) www.miti.gov.my/NIA/. NIA focuses on a few sectors that includes manufacturing, as well as advance manufacturing– and, we have already talked about digital and green economy. These are all areas that we would like to grow. For example, we have very strong ecosystem for semiconductors, Many companies are now based in Penang, and it is already being scoped for investment by MNCs based in Singapore. Johor has positioned itself as a leading location for data centers. We already have a few companies based in Singapore now establishing their own data centers in Johor.
High Commissioner, where were you born and brought up? Tell us three things about that place and why you should invite us to come and visit your home?
I come from Pahang which is the largest state in Peninsular Malaysia. There’s a lot of green, beauty and rich diversity there so those are the reason why you should come to Pahang. We have talked about a green economy and the need to be sustainable – Pahang is where it all starts.