The twin towers of Petronas, the landmark of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, are a metaphor. The two identical spires rising above the rest of the capital city tell a tale of two countries whose cooperation is strengthened by the past, present and future. Though they may be on opposite sides of the globe, Argentina and Malaysia have much more in common than one may think at first glance. The towers, which simultaneously became the iconic figure of the city and the tallest buildings in the world, were designed by Argentine architect César Pelli. The uniquely Argentine influence in the design is a symbol of the countries’ partnership and the potential they have for further cooperation.
Nur Azman Abdul Rahim, Malaysia’s ambassador to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, is focused on strengthening these ties and encouraging investments and strategic partnerships.
Long history of relations
The Malaysian Embassy is a stately house with vaulted ceilings, perfectly maintained and styled to even the finest of details. It sits just 50 metres away from “Calle Malasia,” or Malaysia Street to English-speakers, a tribute to Argentina and Malaysia’s long history of relations. This past year, the two countries celebrated the 55th anniversary of bilateral ties with a new ambassador who is keen to boost bilateral relations and share his country with the world.
Many years later Nur Azman Abdul Rahim proposes a new approach. As I sit down in the dining-room, I am offered fresh melon and medialunas, as well as a traditional Malaysian tea, teh tarik, which is served in elegant white teacups with the sweet taste of condensed milk. The diplomat joined the foreign service in 2001, and after completing postings in the United Kingdom, Papua New Guinea and Singapore, he presented his credentials for his first role as Ambassador to Argentina at Casa Rosada on August 29, 2022, after almost a year of delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The three previous countries I had [been] posted [to before] were all Commonwealth countries, and it is my first time in this region,” he said. “I am full of excitement. I love this region, because it offers this new environment and the people are very friendly.”
Casting an eye back over more than five decades of bilateral relations, the ambassador thinks the cooperation between the two countries is only getting stronger, and that there is an unlimited potential.
“In Argentina and Malaysia what we have is a special relationship: unique and special,” he said. “From my point of view, our relationship has been growing fantastic, at the peak of our ties only was in the 1990s, with the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and then [former] president Carlos Menem. So I think this is the time for us to restrategise, to revitalise our bilateral ties and for me we are in the right direction.”
As Argentina heads into election season, Malaysia is settling in with new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was elected at the end of November. It is likely there will be no major changes in public policy from the Southeast Asian country’s end, but the new ambassador is anticipating a president with a friendly economic policy, specifically when it comes to foreign investment.
“Trade investment is something needed on both sides by both countries,” he said. “I think the Argentine policy needs to be more friendly, to have more incentives for the investor. Investment here is long term; Argentina has a lot of natural resources which are yet to be tapped. We need the existing natural resources which Argentina already has to be fully utilised by not the region, but the entire world.”
In 2022, Petronas and YPF completed a Memorandum of Understanding for feasibility studies to establish a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export terminal in Bahía Blanca. A US$10-billion project, the terminal which will connect to the Vaca Muerta through a pipeline, is currently looking for partners. This is a milestone in the relationship between the two petrol giants, who have only grown closer together since their initial partnership in 2014.
“Our philosophy is growing together,” he said. “Investment is not only dollars and cents but we also would like to share our experience, our expertise, and our knowledge to our local buyers. As I'm talking now we are in the midst of recruiting local talents from Argentina to be trained here.”
Although there are only around 75 Malaysians living in Argentina, according to their Embassy, there are hopes for a greater exchange of people and knowledge. A renewed partnership would increase opportunities for intercultural learning.
“We hope that the expansion of business here in Argentina is going to bring more executives from Kuala Lumpur,” said Ambassador Abdul Rahim. “We are recruiting local talents to be absorbed into our dynamic team in Buenos Aires because Petronas office will be expanded, the business will be expanded.”
In addition to the role of ambassador to Argentina, the diplomat also oversees the relationship between Malaysia and Uruguay and Paraguay. According to Abdul Rahim, Uruguay has a future-forward business investment policy and incentives, while in Paraguay he sees opportunities for digital economy initiatives.
“In Paraguay the mate is different, and they have young and vibrant businesses,” he said. “Sixty percent of the population in Paraguay is young, which is why I think the digital economy is something we can explore and we can establish.”
Since Abdul Rahim assumed his role, the Embassy has hosted many events to promote Malaysia and share the country with Porteños. As a badminton fanatic, the Kedah-born envoy introduced the first “Copa Malasia,” part of CABA’s Badminton Copa to reward promising badminton players.
“Malaysia is one of the superpowers of badminton, a producer of many world champions,” he told the Times. “We would like to unearth, to identify new players of Argentina who can become world leaders [in the sport].”
Abdul Rahim also sees Argentina as the perfect package for Malaysians looking for a vacation, and vice-versa. Both countries are considered to be budget-friendly, and current visa policy allows for easy movement between the two. While there is currently no direct connection – Malaysia Airlines pulled the plug on their flights to Buenos Aires in 2014 – more opportunities for connecting flights between the two capitals are opening up.
“I think the Embassy of Argentina in Malaysia needs to promote it as not only a football nation,” said the envoy. “People in Malaysia don't know this country has glaciers, snow-capped mountains, waterfalls… everything!”
In addition to promoting tourism to Argentina, there has been a focus on tourism to the country of 33.5 million, specifically high-end tourists. In 2022, two “Malaysia Truly Asia” seminars were held to promote the rich offerings of the country to Argentine travel industry professionals.
“The cost of living in Malaysia offers a cheaper city to visit with more value for money,” he said. “We are a relatively safe country, and we have a lot of things we can offer in terms of culture and heritage.”
For Abdul Rahim, overlooking the distance and focusing on the substance of the relationship between the countries is essential. He hopes to foster human connection in addition to economic links and sees awareness as a challenge.
“We need to generate awareness not only at the political and corporate level, also people- to-people connectivity and students specifically. We need cooperation by all parties to grow together,” he said. “We hope there will be more high levels of engagement between both sides, and hope that 2023 will be the year of Malaysia and Argentina growing together.”
In May, a trade mission of 40 delegates from Mercosur member states will set off for Kuala Lumpur, to discuss trade investment and education as well. Just this week it was reported that Mercosur is trying to sign a free-trade deal with Singapore, an ASEAN member. This is happening as turmoil grips the South American bloc with Uruguay looking to pen an individual free-trade agreement with China. The other Mercosur members are in staunch opposition and prefer the European Union. It is Abdul Rahim’s goal for greater cooperation between Mercosur and ASEAN.
“Our leaders need to be connected,” he said. “At the moment the first thing we need to do is for Mercosur and ASEAN to be engaged, to institutionalise their meetings once or twice a year. It’s a time for businessmen and investors from this region to look to ASEAN, Mercosur especially.”
Huge potential for halal industry growth, says envoy
The halal industry is a multi-trillion dollar industry that is broadening outside Muslim countries.
Halal, which means “permissible” in Arabic, is not just about meat; fashion, banking, tourism and pharmaceuticals are also key players in the momentum of the halal movement. This rapidly-growing market provides economic opportunities for those who become halal-certified, and Malaysian Ambassador Nur Azman Abdul Rahim believes it is the lifestyle of the future.
“Halal is something that is no longer considered as a Islamic or religious method; it’s more than that,” he told the Times.
Malaysia’s passion for the halal industry could translate into profit for the Argentine meat sector. The global potential is shocking; the halal market is projected to grow to US$3.27 trillion by 2028.
“ I would like to see halal cooperation to be aggressively pursued by both sides,” said the ambassador. “Imagine that Argentine exporters can get 71 percent of this [US$3.27 trillion].”
Halal has made a name for itself around the world in Muslim and non-Muslim communities as a symbol of hygiene and quality. Malaysia’s envoy in Argentina is sure that people will taste the difference.
“Halal is also considered as a lifestyle, as a symbol of high quality of hygiene, a symbol of clean safety,” he added. “If you look at halal meat and normal meat, you can see the freshness, and the quality.”
Malaysia’s halal certification board (Foreign Halal Certification Body, or FHCB) is world-recognised as an authority on halal practices, and with their approval, Argentine beef can be exported on an even wider global scale. The ambassador thinks such cooperation is key to bilateral relations.
“Argentina produces the best meat in the world,” Abdul Rahim said. “So imagine that all slaughterhouses in Argentina got our halal certification, they could penetrate not only Muslim countries, but the entire world.”
So far, 21 national slaughterhouses and four dairy companies have been inspected by the halal agency, which visited this past September. The first to be certified was Azul Natural Beef SA, and the report regarding the rest of the surveyed slaughterhouses is slated to be published in the coming months.
“The reason I am going back to Malaysia is to ask when it will be done, so hopefully soon,” the ambassador revealed.
Even European banks, like HSBC, are catching on to the demand for a halal lifestyle. They have an Amannah account, which is Sharia-compliant Islamic banking.
“It is not only meat, the ecosystem of halal is very huge,” he said. “we really need to fully utilise it.”