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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Setting the tone for better London-KL ties

THERE is so much on his plate, yet British High Commissioner Simon Featherstone is excited about being London’s man in Kuala Lumpur.
The good-natured envoy even made a recce trip to KL to check out his new job before taking up his posting in October.
Featherstone: Excited to be London’s man in Kuala Lumpur.
 
“I’ve actually been here two months and it’s been a fascinating first eight weeks. I think I’m going to enjoy the posting enormously,’’ he tells The Star in his maiden interview.

With trade, education, people and politics as the key areas for him to focus on, the good-natured Mandarin-speaking envoy says he intends to build on the strong political framework for these activities to flourish.

Your forte is trade as exemplified by your work as Ambassador to Switzerland and consul-general in Shanghai. How much of that is going to weigh down here?
Trade and investments are key parts of our relationship with Malaysia and indeed the new (British) Government very much wants high commissioners and ambassadors to be trade diplomats. So I certainly expect that to be a top priority and as you say, I have done that in other parts of the world too.

It must have been quite an experience having been director of the UK’s World Expo programme in Shanghai which closed recently.You must have had a good look at the Malaysian Pavilion?
I did indeed. For the last 18 months I’ve been in charge of the UK programme which was very exciting because apart from building what I think was an iconic pavilion, we organised something like 150 business events and some pretty major cultural events too. It was one of the most exciting jobs I’ve done in the Foreign Office, certainly very different from everything else. I did go and see the Malaysian pavilion and it was very good too. We were rather honoured to be given the gold medal for the best pavilion at the end and that was a nice reward for our efforts.

The British coalition government has revamped the UK’s foreign policy. What is the new tone, the new element, in terms of the UK-Malaysia relationship?
Malaysia is extremely important on a number of levels. Firstly, the UK very much wants to give emphasis on what we call the emerging powers. Countries like Malaysia where the growth rate is much higher than ours is very important to us.
I think there is a feeling among the current government that the previous government didn’t give enough attention to Southeast Asia, and Malaysia, in particular. So we’ve seen an increased tempo of ministerial visits in both directions and I’m sure that will continue right up to the highest level.
We have also given new emphasis on our relationship with the Commonwealth and Malaysia is an absolutely key member. Former Prime Minister (Tun Abdullah Ahmad) Badawi is chairing the Eminent Persons Group which we attach a huge amount of importance to because we are hoping there will be proposals to give new life to the Commonwealth.So Malaysia is absolutely top of the pops in terms of the new Government’s priorities.

The UK government has launched a public consultation on the student visa route to Britain. This is designed to restrict the number of foreign students entering the UK?
Well first let me put this in context which is that we are extremely keen to see top quality students attending really first-rate courses in the UK. Our universities have a very well-deserved reputation, we have the top four universities in Europe and those four are among the top 10 universities in the world. So we certainly want to attract the brightest and best from this part of the world.
I am really pleased to say that the quality of Malaysians students is generally very high indeed. But what the Government is keen to do is to prevent the student route from being used as a way to get around our ordinary immigration rules. They will be looking very closely at a number of aspects, particularly people who are attending courses that are of the lower level and indeed where their English proficiency is extremely low to start with. So part of this consultation is to ensure that we get the rules right so that we continue to attract the brightest and best from countries like Malaysia. But, that we don’t allow it to become a loophole in our normal immigration control.

The consultation will last eight weeks, who are those who will be consulted with?
Anyone can contribute to the consultation, there is a way of doing that online. The consultation ends at the end of January. We are expecting, obviously, educational institutions, organisations which have a particular interest including the British Council and others to contribute. It is open to anyone who has ideas and wants to express a view. There are some clear questions which are set out in the consultation document.

Does this effectively mean an end to students staying back in the UK to look for jobs?
That is one of the areas that the consultation is looking at. How easy it should be to convert from a student visa to a work visa and I think one of the proposals being considered is to require people to come back to Malaysia or the sending country before applying for a work permit rather than it being something which can be done in the UK. But as I said, it is just a proposal which is being considered and that’s part of what the consultation is about.

In terms of Malaysian students, the majority, I should say almost all, go there with a genuine desire to study. What will the impact be on them?
We are very pleased with the quality and level of students that we get from Malaysia. They tend to be very extremely hardworking and a great credit to Malaysia. We don’t see them being affected very much. What we are trying to tackle are institutions which are offering very low level courses which are not really leading to degrees or meaningful qualifications. But I don’t think there are many Malaysians who are entering into such arrangements.

So is this all part of the move to reduce net migration into the UK?
That’s right, we want to make sure that those who go to the UK genuinely are either going to get a worthwhile qualification or have something to contribute on the work front. What we don’t want is people using studying as a way around the immigration system.

Last month, the Migration Advisory Committee published its report into an annual limit on immigration through Tiers 1 and 2, which is about people going to work in the UK. Can you shed some light on this?
What we are trying to do is to make sure that the people who come to work in the UK are genuinely going to add value to the British economy and therefore the high quality jobs, where in the case of Malaysia there are particular qualifications that people can bring to bear. So there will be a ceiling on the overall numbers which is being set centrally. But again we don’t want to deter people who are coming to work and are genuinely qualified to do so.

How many student visas did the High Commission issue to Malaysians for the new UK academic season this year, and what was the success rate?
Over the summer period, which is obviously our biggest period, there were just over 6,000 applications processed and well over 90% of those were successful. And a number of the 10% were re-submitted and were then successful.
We obviously need to make sure that when people apply, they get all the right documentations and that’s been one of our big efforts this year, to make sure that people don’t lose out on a visa just because they misunderstood the instructions or not given the right paperwork.

Our approval rating has always been on the higher end, about 97% to 98%. How was it this year?
I think it was lower than that but it was an improvement on the figures for the previous years. So I think people are getting more used to the system and are applying in a better way. Each year we hope that that figure will go up.

On bilateral trade, the figure from January to September 2010 has increased by £200mil compared to the same period last year. We take it that the tough business climate in the UK over the past two years has passed?
It is still a very challenging economic environment but that’s why trade links with countries like Malaysia where the growth rate is still higher (than the UK’s) in the region of 6% is really important to us.
The Government really wants to promote our trade as a way of helping us get through this economic downturn. So we are hoping that by the end of the year, our exports would have topped £2bil for the first time. And imports from Malaysia, about £1bil or a bit higher.

When will our prime ministers have their first bilateral meeting?
They’ve already had a very good telephone conversation shortly after our prime minister (David Cameron) took office.
We are actually currently in discussion with the Prime Minister’s Office about the best way of getting the two of them together. That’s certainly the intention on both sides, that there should be an early meeting.

The London 2012 Olympics is nearing, how do you intend to promote the games here?
In a sense, for a sports-loving nation like Malaysia, the attraction of going to London for the Olympics will be very strong without us having to do a lot of promotions!
It is going to be a very exciting Olympic Games, we are already well-ahead of schedule in building some excellent facilities, the transport links, the East London line is all going to be improved for the Games.
So we very much hope that a lot of Malaysians and others from the region will want to go to London for the Olympics.

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