We’ll just call them Asia’s Switzerland

by DG Martin

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

‘“Well, if North Carolinians don’t know anything about our country, what could you tell them that would make them remember us?’”

As I ended a week in this Southeast Asian country, almost exactly halfway around the world from North Carolina, my new Malaysian friends and I had found that we knew little about each other. Our ‘“brand names,’” Malaysia and North Carolina, just did not register with each other. (In an earlier column I wrote about my attempts to connect them to North Carolina.)

They wanted me to suggest something about Malaysia that would make North Carolinians remember them.

Here was my answer to them. Call your country ‘“Malaysia ‘— Asia’s Switzerland.’”

‘“But Switzerland is an alpine country while we are tropical, close to the equator. How can there be a comparison?’”

I explained that I was not thinking about the weather, but rather the way the two countries had turned their internal ‘problems’ into national assets.

Switzerland has three main language/cultural groups ‘— German (about 65 percent), French (18 percent) and Italian (10 percent). Switzerland’s challenge has been to keep all three groups happily Swiss. It has succeeded by developing national standards for respect and tolerance for other language groups and religions. These tolerant attitudes, when translated into respect and tolerance for peoples who live in other countries, open the door for the Swiss to be a trustworthy business partner throughout the rest of the world.

Malaysia has a similar challenge and a similar opportunity. It also has three main language/cultural groups ‘— Malay (about 58 percent), Chinese (26 percent), and Indian (7 percent). Malaysia’s challenge, like Switzerland’s, has been to give all of these groups a sufficient stake in the country to embrace it as their own. It has been harder in Malaysia. The three groups have different cultural backgrounds and distinctly different appearances. The groups also have very different religious faiths. Because the dominant Malay group is largely Muslim, Islam is the religion of the state, which makes for an extra challenge. But the government has strong policies that reinforce its commitment to religious tolerance and freedom of worship.

How the Malaysians have pulled off their ‘unity in diversity’ goal is a long story, but having largely succeeded at home, they now sell the advantages that their different groups give them in doing business in Asia.

‘“Want to do business in China?’” the Malaysians ask rhetorically. ‘“We have Malaysian Chinese who know the culture and can open the doors.’”

‘“Want to business in India?’” they continue. ‘“We have the people.’”

‘“When you’re ready to tap the 300 million Indonesian market, our Malay language is almost the same as the official Indonesian language ‘— and we know their culture.’”

These connective links that the Malaysians proudly assert would not mean much if it were not for another similarity between their country and Switzerland. In an amazingly short time, Malaysia has built a business friendly environment that has attracted a host of international businesses. The director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kuala Lumpur says American firms seldom have any complaints and are ‘“comfortable’” in a way they might not be in other parts of Asia.

The Malaysians have another connective link they like to bring to a visitor’s attention. It is another Swiss-like asset. As a neutral country, Switzerland often provided a forum for ‘enemies’ to do business.

During the Cold War, the Americans and the Soviets could always meet in Switzerland.

Today, the Muslim world has replaced the Soviets. The United States has trouble understanding how to do business with some countries that have a Muslim majority. The Malaysians want to help us do business with other predominately Muslim countries, saying, ‘“They trust us, when they might not trust you, because we are good Muslims. And you can trust us because we share the same pro-business culture. So, we can help you do business with them.’”

But the Malaysians are not waiting for us. They are building rapidly on their own ‘— trying to be as attractive as possible to foreign investment and at the same time building the resources for internally generated Malaysian businesses.

Like the Swiss, the Malaysians are hustling ‘— in a very businesslike manner.

Whether or not my brand name suggestion catches on, the answer a North Carolinian will get when he asks me about Malaysia is going to be this.

‘“Malaysia ‘— it’s Asia’s Switzerland.’”