An Interview with Paul Jones, U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia

malaysia paul jonesPaul W. Jones was sworn in as U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on September 8, 2010, after nomination by President Obama on July 12, 2010 and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 5, 2010. Jones is a career member of the State Department’s Senior Foreign Service. Prior to his service as Ambassador to Malaysia, Jones served as Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and concurrently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. He also served in Colombia, Russia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and was Deputy Chief of Mission in Macedonia during the time of the refugee crisis from Kosovo. In Washington, Jones served twice on the staff of the Secretary of State, as Director of the Secretariat Staff and in the 24-hour Operations Center. Ambassador Jones graduated from Cornell University and received master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and the Naval War College. He is married to Catherine Jones, the author of food and health books, and has two children, Aleksandra and Hale.

The Politic: Why did you choose to join the Foreign Service?

Well, I was interested in international affairs from my upbringing. My parents had some international friends and had lived overseas. We hosted a number of exchange students at home and then some friends told me to consider the Foreign Service. I honestly did not know anything about it, but I took the exam and found it really interesting. I did not pass the first time, but I took it a couple more times and after a few more years, I was offered a job. At the time, I still did not really know what I was getting into, but the more I learned about it, the more I liked it.

The Politic: What does your job entail on a daily basis?

My job is wonderful; leading a mission [encompasses] a wide range of activities. We have 300 people here, including 100 Americans and 200 Malaysians across six different government agencies and about fifteen different offices within those agencies. Part of my job is setting the strategic direction for the mission, and then guiding the mission, both as the leader of the mission — keeping morale, safety, health and building a community — as well as policy direction and making all of that happen. Another huge aspect of the job is the public side. I make a lot of public appearances, mostly connected to programs that we have that deal with youth and public education exchange through entrepreneurship programs. For example, last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps initiation here in Malaysia and this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the exchange program.

I also travel out of the country. There are thirteen states in Malaysia and I have been to all of them in my official capacity to promote relations and otherwise call on political leaders, speak at universities, and to engage culturally; that is the second aspect. The third aspect is in government-to-government relations — I try to establish relationships with the top leaders in government as well as members of society. This helps us have an ongoing dialogue to find out their views and explain our views on issues within Malaysia, regionally and globally.

The Politic: What has been your best experience in the Foreign Service so far?

It is really hard to say. Honestly, and I am not just being diplomatic, every experience is so different and I have been very privileged to be in places where wildly important things were happening. The pinnacle of my career so far has been being here — it has been the most fabulous job, and rewarding. It has been rewarding here in particular because there has been a really huge change in the relationship between the U.S. and Malaysia in the past few years. Being part of that, under the guidance of President Obama and Prime Minister Najib [Razak], has been really exciting.

I have also had the opportunity to serve in the Balkans, right after the Dayton agreement for six months and along with the OECD Mission, got into a lot of very interesting situations there, as well as the Deputy Chief of the Mission to Macedonia from 1996 to 1999. And in the run-up to the NATO bombing campaign, we had 300,000 refugees from Kosovo come to a country of two million, which was a tricky situation socially and politically. After that, I was in an operations center in Washington at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the transformation of Eastern Europe, as well as the invasion of Panama and the coup in the Philippines. So I do not know — it is hard to say!

The Politic: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in the Foreign Service?

In the Foreign Service, probably the most difficult times have been when I have been separated from my family, particularly when I was in Sarajevo. My wife and I were relatively newly married, I had just discovered that she was pregnant with our first child and then was gone for almost six months. Living in not necessarily dangerous territory, it still was a tough situation to live in, and it was all work. It was personally difficult to be busy seven days a week, all the time. Communications were not then quite what they are now, so it was hard to stay in touch. So it was difficult, but those are the kinds of assignments that are really rewarding.

The Petronas Towers house the headquarters of the national oil company
The Petronas Towers

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?

I think the person that has influenced U.S. policy the most is the Prime Minister, who came into office in April of 2009, around the time President Obama came into office. Historically, we had a very close relationship with Malaysia and had a good military relationship. The political relationship has been difficult at times in the past and Prime Minister Najib came into office and immediately told his cabinet, publicly, that he wanted to change that and upgrade the relationship with the United States. He also told me personally, in our first meeting, that he wanted it to be a comprehensive relationship, not a sort of “à la carte” relationship that it had been before. He said, “I want to move ahead on all fronts,” and he meant very much the people-to-people relationships, as well as the business relationships and a strong government relationship. He had a couple of things in mind for his own country with regard to that. Malaysia is trying to become the second country in ASEAN to reach high-income status after Singapore. I think he sees that a stronger relationship with the United States will open doors for educational ties and technological ties. Moreover, he knows that will enable Malaysia to move up the value chain.

I also think, politically, the population is fairly open to the United States, certainly in the bilateral sense. President Obama is someone who is personally very popular in Malaysia. Politically, it works for [Prime Minister Najib] to have a close relationship to President Obama and to then tell his government, “Let’s see how far we can get in moving our relationship forward.” And so we have seen some remarkable things over the last few years that would not have happened before and would not have happened without a proactive Prime Minister who came to us in the way that he did.

One example is that, at the UN General Assembly in October 2010, President Obama hosted a meeting with the ASEAN leaders. He was discussing what we can do to connect with our people. Prime Minister Najib noted that the Peace Corps was hugely popular in Malaysia — it ended in 1983 because of more development — but inquired about some sort of follow-up to the Peace Corps that focuses on English language education? President Obama reacted with enthusiasm. A [subsequent] conversation with Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, whom I knew well from my previous work, also focused on that. So the Embassy took on a small program that had been in just one state in Malaysia with about 17 American college graduates who would come and help teach English in classrooms; we wanted to get that started and do it very quickly. With the support of the White House and the Prime Minister’s personal support, we got something finished in a matter of months that could have taken years. And the numbers have been increasing: this year, there are 75 teaching assistants and next year there will be 100. They are celebrities here in Malaysia, particularly in the communities, because they are out in the heartland of Malaysia, not in Kuala Lumpur.

I met with them all the week before last and they are having fantastic experiences, just like the Peace Corps used to have. They are having incredibly mind-blowing cultural experiences in these communities, which reorient them on the way. They make personal ties with the students, who will never forget them; many of them will return in five or ten years and they will always have those ties to the country. So that, I think, is a generational change and I think we will maintain these programs.

The Politic: According to the U.S. State Department, a number of cultural exchanges take place with Malaysia. What sorts of exchange/community outreach programs do the most good?

Well, it depends on where you are and what the desires are. Before I came out here, I had never been to Malaysia. I did my best to speak to as many people at home in Washington who knew about Malaysia or had lived there. Several people said that they thought education and youth were the way to go, the things to emphasize in Malaysia because it is a fairly young population and it is an urbanizing population. Doors have opened up and Malaysia has dramatically expanded its universities, really opening education to people who have never had that opportunity before. Now, the goal is to increase the standards of these institutions because they are growing so quickly and that is where we can help… We have a whole series of education programs and exchange programs that we upgraded and gave more attention to.

Several times a year, we also have a camp where students come for a couple of days and we weave in an entrepreneurship theme, which is important for Malaysia. We have connected social entrepreneurship partners (speaking English) with Malaysian students. We involve all of the alumni and the Americans and the lower-income school students who qualify. Basically, making synergy out of a lot of different programs that we have [strengthens] the [bilateral] relationship and really means something to regular people in Malaysia.

The Politic: What do you feel are some of the most pressing issues facing Malaysia today?

I think that Malaysia, like some other countries, is grappling with demographic changes and international changes. For instance, there is significant urban migration. Cities that used to be part of a multiethnic country, used to be more Chinese Malaysian, are now very mixed with Malay Malaysians — traditionally rural populations — and Indian Malaysians.

Malaysia developed dramatically over the last thirty years with a government-inspired developmental model that created infrastructure and income sources for people, which has greatly reduced poverty. Now we are trying to adjust the political structure to handle the large numbers of young people who live in cities, who have different goals. They want higher-level jobs, they want public services in cities. That did not used to be the purpose of the Malaysian government, so we are struggling with that.

We are also struggling with their being a country that has been ruled by one government since its independence in 1957. The opposition is better organized than ever before and, recently, even won the popular vote. Now, the question is: how do they work together in Parliament so that some legislation can move forward without only being sponsored by the ruling coalition? As we know from Washington, sometimes cooperation is hard. But I think that finding the political support for the economic reform that Malaysia needs to attain its 2020 goal of a high-income status is the biggest challenge facing the country.

The Politic: What about the biggest issues facing US-Malaysia relations today?

Well, the bilateral relationship has issues, but it is going very well and does not have great challenges. I think we have figured out the priorities that we want to work on together and are moving forward with our focus on education and entrepreneurship. President Obama plans to visit Malaysia in October, and Malaysia will be the first country to host the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which President Obama initiated in Washington in 2010.

We have also made a lot of progress with regard to banks, technology cooperation and the military. Our law enforcement is working closely with the Malaysians to prevent transnational threats. So our interests and our bilateral relationship are quite similar, and I think we are working well on that. In multilateral arenas, it is more complicated and there are more challenges. For instance, Malaysia is one of the 11, about to be 12, countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiation. They joined this process in October 2010 and it is a much more comprehensive, wide-ranging, and higher-standard free trade negotiation than we had in the past. That is politically challenging. It is challenging for us and even more so for Malaysia, as they have this demographic shift, as well as urban change. There is a great deal of support for free trade in this country, but you have people on both sides of the spectrum, as in our country, who are skeptical of certain provisions. So that is going to be a challenge, but a challenge that the country needs and can use.

Additionally, Malaysia is one of the founding members of ASEAN and we have a big relationship with ASEAN. We really believe that the ASEAN countries represent important economic opportunities. It is important to promote the interests of all of the countries; Malaysia will also assume the chair in 2015. The goal is to create an economic community, so that if you can do business in one, you can do business in all ten member countries, which will be very important for Malaysia and all of ASEAN, but a challenge as well.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of US foreign policy that you personally would want to change? Perhaps your perceptions of how America is represented abroad, specifically in Malaysia.

Kuala Lampur
Kuala Lampur

I think Malaysia is a country where, as President Obama says, there is “mutual understanding, mutual interest, and mutual respect.” This has worked very well because Malaysia is a country that is very sensitive to perceptions of outside interference. Malaysia has politically differed from the United States over Iraq; if you look back even into the 1990s, there was a sense here that after the end of the Cold War that the United States had become a little untethered. They did not know what we were going to do next and were a little nervous of that. That, combined with a huge focus on the issues in the Middle East, particularly Israeli-Palestinian issues, created a bit of a rough spot between us. But I think we have succeeded in changing that perception through a whole lot of public outreach and a humble approach to saying, “How can we work together bilaterally?” Today, Malaysians are fairly comfortable trusting the West in their bilateral relationships. There still remain people who are skeptical, of course, but they are not at the forefront.

I think the challenge that we face here and in other countries in similar situations is that there is still a skepticism about the U.S. role in the world. It reminds me of the people that say, “Well, I like my Congressman, but I do not like Congress.” They like their bilateral relationship with the United States, but they are a little skeptical in general. It is therefore important to begin a conversation that explains and reassures them about other issues in the world. But I think that is a challenge for the future.

The Politic: Any elements of foreign policy you would want to change?

Well, by definition, I agree with all of it. I do not mean to change the question too much, but one thing that I think would be helpful with regard to many countries in the world, and certainly with countries like Malaysia, is more engagement with the United States. Our reach-out to Asia should involve a lot more visits from the Executive and Legislative Branch officials. We have always been well-served with visits from our military officials and our business ties are very strong. But I think the members of Parliament here would really welcome and would really learn a lot from more engagement with our members of Congress. There are several members of Congress who do come out and visit, but it is fairly limited. I think it would help our country if we could return to an earlier era when more members of Congress made regular trips to places like Southeast Asia. I do not mean to say that they don’t come, but more would be beneficial.


Embassy of the United States to Malaysia:

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