US Ambassador to Malaysia Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir has been working from home – all the way from Westport, the United States.
She left for Washington DC in late February 2020 for work purposes and then, as has been routine since being posted to Malaysia in 2016, headed to Westport, Connecticut, to visit her parents, Ann Hallan, 87, and Noor A. Lakhdhir, 95. For the devoted daughter this turned out to be the final opportunity to spend time with Hallan, who died on May 7 after an illness.
It was at her mother’s prodding that Lakhdhir joined the US Foreign Service in 1991, beginning a career which eventually led her to a broad range of key positions in Washington and then abroad.
“I would not be a diplomat or an ambassador without her inspiration, you might say, her pushing. And I was very lucky to be with her in her last two months. She was a terrific mother, ” Lakhdhir tells The Star in a video interview.
Lakhdhir was kept from travelling by Connecticut’s lockdown at first and later, travel restrictions. With restrictions lifted now, she’s working with Wisma Putra over details of her quarantine upon re-entering Malaysia.
Here she shares what she’s been doing and how the United States is dealing not only with the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic disruption but also the widespread and ongoing protests over racial injustice.
> Inbound travellers to Malaysia have to be quarantined for 14 days, and we understand this is an issue for the US State Department, which referenced the Vienna Convention. Can you explain what’s happening regarding your return?
Malaysia’s regime in terms of people travelling in – we still have something that we need to work out between the US government and the Malaysian government.
Diplomats have a very special status (under the Vienna Convention). So we’re working with the Malaysian side to try to work through the way we can meet the public health concerns of the Malaysian government, which we understand are serious. And we share them, so we need to find a way to reassure the Malaysian public health side and maintain our status as diplomats. (After our interview, the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur responded to a question about Lakhdhir’s return: “We appreciate the steps the Malaysian government has taken since we spoke with The Star. The ambassador has not yet set a date for her return.”)
> In the meantime, how have you been handling your duties as ambassador, working from home all the way from Connecticut?
I feel like I’m doing the same thing as everyone in Malaysia is doing. Our whole embassy is working remotely. So I’m working from home, I’m just 12 hours in time difference away from you (laughs).
I’ve done video meetings with a number of ministers. I’ve also done telephone calls when it’s easier for the other side. I’m in touch with the embassy team all the time.
But I must tell you, I’m really proud of my embassy team. They’ve done a really great job and I’m proud that I didn’t need to be there. They’re really a professional group of people and they’ve done a lot of terrific work taking care of the community and also continuing to work closely with Malaysia.
> While you’ve been away, there has been a deluge of negative US news, first about the high Covid-19 case numbers and then the recent nationwide protests over racial injustice sparked by the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white police officer. What is your take on these events?
I think across the United States, Americans from every community responded that this tragedy should not be repeated, that we need to have equal justice under law and that we need social change. And now, across all 50 states and more than 12,000 towns and cities, there have been demonstrations.
And I know the Floyd family has just had a funeral (on June 9) and they’ve been speaking out for their brother’s death and for this tragedy to make sense, there needs to be change so that this doesn’t happen to other families.
I think many Americans are responding to that call. Many mayors and governors are in action already and many communities are grappling with how they want policing to be done and how they want justice to be equitable.
At the top of our Supreme Court are the words “Equal Justice Under Law”. And that’s what Americans across the country are asking for. I think many people know we have a long history in the United States of racial injustice, discrimination and prejudice. And this is part of a journey we’re taking as Americans, to have a more just and fair society. We had civil rights demonstrations under Martin Luther King Jr and peaceful demonstrations wanting change. This is part of that history and legacy.
> What happened to Floyd was very graphic. How did you react to the video of his death?
It was tragic. It was horrible. I will tell you honestly that I cannot watch the video. It is just too painful and it’s horrific.
You know, George Floyd is just one person. There are other cases. I think you have seen many of the protesters and demonstrators are calling out other cases of similar concern in other cities. His story is so stark because there is a video that is so clear.
When I hear about it, I feel so sad for his family. I feel so sad for Minneapolis and for the communities that feel that they need justice. But I feel also hope that so many Americans across the United States in places that may not have this experience are coming out and expressing that they want a different kind of America and that they want a different kind of justice.
This is what gives me hope. I look at the crowd and I think it’s not just African-Americans but its people of every ethnicity and race, men, women and children. And that’s what gives me hope.
> There are accusations that systemic racism is a problem with law enforcement agencies in the United States. How do you respond?
I would say yes, that in many cases that is true. In fact, police chiefs, governors and mayors have come out and said, “Yes, we need a change” or “We have made these changes and we’re listening to our communities”.
One of the challenges in the United States is that our police are tied to locality. We don’t have a national police. We have the FBI but every community, city or town has their own police. It’s very decentralised. So changing so many different police stations and their practices is going to require the whole country to do that. And it’s going to require communities to hold their government and police accountable. It’s going to shed a lot of light onto what is happening because the change will have to be across the country in all different cities and towns. And it’s very hard.
Even though our Congress is debating on having a law to establish certain requirements in terms of police practices, the implementation will have to be at the local level. So it will require communities to hold police accountable and to continue to demand of their government and police that they uphold these standards.
> The US Covid-19 coronavirus death toll has reached 121,407 (as at June 20, 2020) and a top American scientist has predicted another 100,000 deaths by September. What is being done to save lives?
A lot of states – not every state – in the United States went into a lockdown, the Tri-State (Region, comprising New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) most intensively. In California, it’s very strict and was very early. So a lot of lives, through that action, were saved.
It’s the challenge Malaysia faces, though on a larger scale (in the United States) millions of people lost their jobs. The economy across the country basically came to a halt. We need to resume economic activities, at the same time we still have the coronavirus. And do we resume economic activities but also try to continue to fight the spread of the virus?
What we have seen is that across the states, there are different things happening. And also rural versus urban areas. Some communities have very few hospital beds. So for them, the challenge is even greater. One of the most upsetting case is the Navajo Nation, one of our native communities, and they have very high numbers.
So one of the challenges in the United States, and it’s true in Malaysia on a smaller scale, is how you differentiate what kind of resources you put into different communities and what they need and how much economic activity can you allow. New York has just started allowing, I think, 400,000 workers to go back to work. There are a lot of worries.
> There is a huge debate in the United States on whether the country should reopen. People are saying “open up America”, “the virus will disappear like a miracle”. Miami’s beaches have opened. Americans seem to be back on the move. Do you think there is going to be trouble ahead?
I think there is a variety. Different states are still doing different things. Different communities are doing different things. I actually think a lot of Americans aren’t on the move. I think a lot of Americans are still sheltering (in place, ie, in lockdown). Especially if they’re in the vulnerable category and if they’re elderly or immune-compromised.
American schools are basically still closed. There are public schools that are still closed. A lot of universities and colleges are still grappling with what they would do to reopen in August. Would they open online? A lot of universities are making decisions based on their factors – are they small and can they do social distancing or are they large universities, so that’s not possible so maybe those would go online.
A lot of institutions and companies are choosing not to go back to work. If (their employees) can remain at home, they will tell everyone to stay home. I think like in Malaysia and like in every country in the world, the worry is, will there be another wave? I think a lot of people are looking at the situation and trying to limit their exposure. It’s extremely complex.
> The United States almost seems like a different country right now, fighting Covid-19 and racism at the same time. What do you think about this?
We also have a third problem which we share with the world, which is an economic situation and unemployment that is very serious. We have families and individuals who don’t have an income or are facing not having an income. So they are concerned about their livelihood and whether they are able to pay their rent or feed their children.
To me, it’s a public health crisis. It’s an economic and an employment crisis. For the United States, we have a crisis about social justice and policing.
What is interesting to me is that there are, all over the world, people demonstrating for George Floyd, opposing what happened to him. I also think they are responding in their own countries in that we want greater justice and greater accountability by government and police. The United States is not alone in the challenge of prejudice and racial discrimination.
> President Donald Trump recently had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin discussing the importance of working together to ease the impact of Covid-19 on the international community. What can Malaysia do?
Part of what they talked about and part of what the embassy and Miti (Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Ministry) had been working on with our private sector is that… I think a lot of Americans and even Malaysians don’t know that Malaysia is part of the global supply chain, particularly in health and electronics.
When Malaysia imposed the MCO (movement control order), our private sector, our American Chamber of Commerce, the embassy and Miti all worked together to get approvals because some of these companies needed to continue their operations, as they are part of the critical response in terms of public health. In addition, Malaysia, as you know, is the world’s largest producer of gloves for medical first responders. The United States, working with Malaysia, did a series of air bridge flights where they brought 500 million gloves to the United States. And Malaysia is continuing to produce.
So Malaysia played a critical part in helping the United States respond to the coronavirus (pandemic). There are medical devices and all sorts of things that Malaysia is producing. Ventilators, and I could keep going.
There was an expression of appreciation from our President through the Prime Minister to Malaysians for the important role Malaysia plays in the global supply chain.
> In the past few months, over 36 million Americans have lost their jobs. How is the United States dealing with this and how will it affect economic relations with Malaysia?
Recently, there was a job report that two million jobs were added. There was a lot of surprise because our economists had predicted that the numbers were much worse. They are also predicting that the 30 million was actually not the full number.
So there is, I would say, a greater cautious optimism, let’s put it that way, that the economic situation can resume more rapidly than our economists were predicting.
There are a lot of factors we still don’t know. The coronavirus is not disappearing. So how it develops, both globally and in the United States, could be a big set of factors that we don’t know yet. There is a lot more hope that jobs will come back.
I noticed some companies have already gone into bankruptcy and some of the small-and-medium-sized companies have indicated that they don’t think they can come back as they may have been having problems before the coronavirus outbreak. So there is going to be a huge impact on our economy and I think that’s true globally, including in Malaysia. I think we’re all facing some of the same challenges.
There is also in some cases – this is a terrible comment – but there is opportunity in crises. There is regional competition. Much of the private sector and the MNCs (multinational corporations) have started thinking about the risks of how they distribute their manufacturing and production, so that may bring opportunities that there could be investments in Malaysia or into South-East Asia. That wasn’t expected. Companies are looking at what happened and saying “Now we have to rethink where we are for the future”.
> It was recently announced that the United States is officially in a recession, ending the longest economic expansion in US history. We all know that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold!
Unfortunately, the whole world has caught the virus, so we all are sick already (laughs)! It’s a shared virus. It’s not one country.
I mean, this is true for the whole world and it’s true for so many aspects of the economy. What will consumers do? What will Malaysians and Americans do? Will they be worried so they stop spending? If people don’t have jobs and if you don’t spend, then there is no consumption.
I mean, there are so many aspects of this that we don’t yet know. On education, there’s a discussion in the United States about students choosing not to go to college next year. Because of the coronavirus and the economic situation, they may be delayed. What will happen to universities and colleges? I think it’s still very early to predict the long-term consequences.
> You have been working with the Prime Minister’s Office, Finance Ministry and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) on the recovery of 1MDB funds from the United States. So far, the DOJ has repatriated over US$600mil (RM2.5bil) to Malaysia, including US$300mil (RM1.28bil) moved in April 2020. Are things going according to plan with this aspect of the 1MDB case?
My colleagues at the DOJ are continuing to work out the assets that they have been able to seize. In some cases, like the US$300mil, Jho Low (Low Taek Jho, Malaysian businessman fugitive wanted for 1MDB fraud) had said, “Fine, these are assets that I’m not going into court and saying are mine”. So that freed up a lot of assets for the DOJ to monetise so that money could be returned to Malaysia.
There are more assets that they are still working through. Either they have to sell them – I know recently there were properties sold – or there are other assets the DOJ is still litigating or working on the legal arrangements. So there’s more to go.
This is still an ongoing criminal case. If the DOJ can find more assets, they may seize more. This is part of the commitment the DOJ made a long time ago and they started in 2016 to return the stolen assets to the Malaysian people.
They are still working hard on it. I have a lot of respect for those who pursued this at the DOJ.
> What is your reaction to the sudden change of government in Malaysia in February?
Before I left, I saw some indications that things were happening and there was uncertainty. I admit that I was surprised by the timing. So, yes. I was in the United States when the new government was formed.
> Are any of the projects that you launched with the previous government in jeopardy? What about the English Teaching Assistants programme?
What happened to our English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) is more about the coronavirus. There was a decision that the schools were closing. There was a decision about the health of the ETAs worldwide… they were brought home.
But the new government, the embassy and our colleagues in Washington have agreed that our objective is to resume the programme in January 2021. It would be a smaller number. Hopefully, if everything goes right, the ETAs will come in January 2021.
We’re actually talking to the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education about renewing the programme for another three years, starting in 2022. I had a video call with the Minister of Higher Education. I think the programme has really proved itself. I know the new government is also concerned about education and English language education.
> Have you spoken to Muhyiddin?
I had a call with the Prime Minister. Before President Trump and he spoke, two or three weeks before that, we had a conversation about the coronavirus, what was happening, what was happening to US companies and also the global supply chain. We were talking about the bilateral relationship in terms of the economy.
> Is there anything you miss about Malaysia?
(Laughs) I really miss everybody. I miss Malaysia and miss all the wonderful people at my embassy. I miss being every day in Malaysia. I miss Malaysian food (laughs). I’m laughing that here in Connecticut, my brother and I have to cook. There is no going out for nasi lemak!