“Malaysia is truly Asia”
Text: Martina Hošková and M.Zisso; Photo: Archive
“In our country, one can experience the diversity of Asia in one stop,” says H.E. Ms. Suzilah Binti Mohd Sidek, Ambassador of Malaysia. She has only been to Czechia for a short time so far, and has not had the opportunity to explore any other region besides Prague, which she describes as “charming, just like most of its people”. We spoke to the Ambassador about her lifelong interest in the happenings around the world, the experience that she has gained in her profession, and the one responsibility that ambassadors can never delegate to others.
Can you tell us a few words about Malaysia, and about yourself?
I am the youngest of five siblings, brought up in a town called Kuantan in Pahang, a state on the east coast of West Malaysia. After completing my studies, I worked in the private sector for a short while before joining the civil service.
Malaysia is a multicultural country, located a bit north of the equator. Malaysians are a mix of people of different races and religions, mainly Malays, Chinese, and Indians, but also many other ethnic groups who practice Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, among others. We enjoy a warm tropical climate, with rain and high humidity all year round. Malaysia IS truly Asia. That has been our tagline in promoting Malaysia, and the best way to explain and sum up what Malaysia is all about. One can experience the diversity of Asia in one stop, all at once – and that stop is definitely Malaysia.
What made you join the civil service and eventually become an ambassador?
As I was growing up, I watched a lot of TV, and I watched the news with my late father. We had both the Malay (national language of Malaysia) and English language newspapers delivered to our home, and it was a daily routine for me to go through them and read about the news of other countries. This contributed to my interest towards the happenings in other parts of the world. Other than that, the fact that geography classes were compulsory in our schools back then also influenced my interest.
When I had to choose my major after A-Levels, I came across an “international relations” course, which was alien to me back then. Feeling intrigued, I went around asking many people about it and what it meant, which no one could really explain. Contrary to today’s world, where the Internet and search engines are readily accessible, the quest to answer my curiosity remained limited. Despite that, I knew deep inside that this was my calling, and what I would like to pursue – something less familiar to others.
My friend, who did the same course with me, shared that we could join the Foreign Service once we graduated. Again, this was not something I had information about, and that intrigued me even more. Only much later did I find out how exactly to join the Foreign Service in Malaysia, and gave it a try. Our Foreign Service is part of the larger civil service, and we had to undergo a series of exams, interviews, and courses in order to be accepted. After about six months of civil service training, we could then indicate our interest in joining the Foreign Service. After two interviews, I was accepted to join Wisma Putra, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it has become my beautiful journey for the last 22 years.
You arrived in Czechia less than a year ago. Have you collected any impressions so far to share with us?
Our countries established diplomatic ties in 1971, and we have had a good 52 years of this relationship. Nevertheless, there is always room to further connect our people and continue to have exchanges at all levels. In my case, the Czech Republic is the fourth country that I have served in up until now. My first post was in Ottawa, Canada, my second was in Vienna, Austria, and my third was in Bangkok, Thailand.
I have only been based here for about five months, and so far I find Prague to be charming, just like most of its people. For me, Prague is neither too big nor too small, and undoubtedly very beautiful. One will never get bored being here. I am yet to explore the other parts of the country, and am definitely looking forward to meeting more people, of course.
How does being an ambassador fit into your lifestyle?
As mentioned earlier, my interest in other countries sparked when I was quite young. I must say that I am very fortunate to have landed on this career path, as it gives me the opportunity to learn and experience living in other countries while working. Being part of an Embassy is a big bonus too, as it makes settling into new places slightly easier. It is good to be able to move to different countries for a certain length of time, knowing where my roots are, and be able to travel back to Malaysia from time to time. It is a kind of nomadic lifestyle which I am used to by now. The only downside is the packing and unpacking that comes with it!
In my free time, when I am in a foreign country, I prefer to walk and explore the cities and towns, as that will be a good way to discover cafés and restaurants. Yes, I am a bit of a foodie, and eating is one of the more popular pastimes for Malaysians. Other than that, watching movies and reading books are still among the things I love doing.
What has been your best professional adventure so far?
The first thing that comes to mind would be my first visit to Timor Leste in 2003. I was part of the Southeast Asian desk, and we had to prepare farewell visits by our outgoing Prime Minister at that time, Tun Mahathir Mohamad. His farewell visit there was the first foreign visit for Timor Leste, as they had just gained independence the year before. Not only did we get to witness the birth of a new country, but we also had the honour of being part of something very significant to both of our countries.
On the other hand, what do you consider the weirdest thing you have dealt with?
That would definitely be living through the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangkok. Bangkok is one of the busiest postings for a Malaysian diplomat. It was very quiet during COVID-19 compared to the year before, when Thailand was the Chair for ASEAN. In 2019, there were so many delegations travelling to Bangkok and other parts of Thailand to attend meetings, all of which kept us occupied with various activities. Everything came to a sudden stop when the pandemic hit, and we all had withdrawal symptoms!
That year (2020), I was also the chair of the working group on draft resolutions at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (UNESCAP). It was really tough to get people to negotiate for the first time via Zoom. As it was an extraordinary circumstance, we agreed to only negotiate one resolution, which was the year’s theme resolution. Little did I know that it would be the most difficult (resolution to negotiate), as that year’s theme was oceans. We spent so much time negotiating, and it was really complicated – not only because of the substance, but also due to getting used to the technicalities of negotiating online. Furthermore, since there was a partial lockdown and the UN office was closed, we had to have the sessions in my Embassy’s multipurpose hall. The UNESCAP Secretariat joined my colleagues and me at our Embassy, and most of the time negotiations were done while listening to people arguing and staring at black boxes with only their initials. We finished at 3am on the final day of negotiations, shortly before the curfew imposed by the Thai government ended, which was until 4am. The good thing was that vehicles with diplomatic plates could travel with fewer restrictions then.
What is the most difficult part of being an ambassador?
Making swift and correct decisions. This was highlighted to me by the Czech Ambassador in Bangkok when I met him before assuming this post. He was absolutely right.
We can consult others, of course, but the decision and the responsibility that comes from making that decision belong entirely to the “ambassador”, as are the sole consequences of it.
Can you give a piece of advice to the next generation of ambassadors?
Make sure to keep yourself updated. This goes across the board, not just in politics but also in technology, lifestyle, and everything else as we may be asked about – anytime and anywhere.
This interview is done on the occasion of your national day. What are you wishing for your country? And for the Czech Republic?
This year, Malaysia is celebrating our 66th National Day on 31st August, and the 60th year of the establishment of Malaysia, which was on 16th September 1963. 16th September is also significant for Malaysia-Czechia relations, as that date marked the start of our relationship back in 1971. In celebrating both National and Malaysia Day, I hope that both of our countries will make a strong economic recovery for the betterment of our people, in a safe and peaceful environment.