Press conference with the Foreign Minister of Malaysia, the Hon Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-Malaysia partnership; PNG support; Timothy Weeks release.
29 November 2019

Marise Payne: I’m very pleased to welcome my friend and colleague, Minister Saifuddin, to Australia – his first visit here as Foreign Minister but not of course his first time in Australia. Nor is it our first meeting together.

We’ve met a number of times this year but this is an important opportunity to reinforce the importance of the Australia-Malaysia partnership, which is a very dynamic one. We underpin that with our common interests and our values but also exceptional people-to-people links. As the Minister has just reminded me, that’s especially the case apparently in Melbourne so going to have to address those numbers for my City of Sydney. We work very closely in regional fora, particularly with the support of Malaysia as our country partner in ASEAN most recently, which we have enormously valued; and as are some of the closest defence partners in the region whether that's through the longstanding Five Power Defence Arrangements and our joint membership with those or the bilateral Malaysia Australia Joint Defence Program.

Malaysia is Australia's 10th largest trading partner and we have a leading two-way investment relationship. They are a critical partner in combating terrorism, in countering people-smuggling and in tackling transnational crime. And as I said, underpinning that, decades of people to people relationships; ties built through education, through tourism, through migration, through business. We estimate there are now over 300,000 Malaysian alumni of Australian institutions and the Minister and I observed that that goes way back to the original Colombo Plan itself. Fascinatingly, and I think very powerfully, by the end of next year, the New Colombo Plan will have supported around 4000 Australians, undergraduates, to study and to work in Australia- in Malaysia over the past few years.

We affirmed today our shared commitment to continuing to grow and expand cooperation in new areas, to look at ways to elevate our strategic partnership. Of course, that is ahead of Malaysia hosting APEC in 2020. And 2020 is a year of significant bilateral anniversaries between Australia and Malaysia. It will include the 65th anniversary of Australia's diplomatic relations with Malaysia. It will include the 75th commemoration of the terrible Sandakan Death Marches and Australia's role in liberating parts of Malaysia at the end of the Second World War, And I'm also very pleased to announce – as you can see, we've prepared a pull up here earlier – also very proud to announce that Malaysia will be the 2020 focus country for Australia's flagship international public diplomacy program, Australia Now. So that’s a yearlong program of activities. It's going to celebrate our bilateral partnership, showcase Australian creativity and innovation to Malaysian audiences, and it's going to tie in and coincide very well with Malaysia's own Visit Malaysia 2020 tourism campaign, in which I volunteered to take part enthusiastically. We really hope that our Australia Now program is able to work in tandem to attract people to Malaysia next year.

The Minister and I have just signed a bilateral film co-production agreement between our two countries to promote creative and commercial exchange between our screen industries. We, of course, look forward to being asked to participate in film productions in the coming years as we develop that. Just joking. It's also a very exciting period for our relationship. It's one that has significant history and holds significant promise and I'm very committed to working with Minister Saifuddin to ensure that we can capitalise on that enormous potential and continue to enjoy the opportunity to work together.

So Minister, please, over to you.

Saifuddin Abdullah: Well, thank you very much. Good afternoon, brothers and sisters. I would like to start by thanking Minister Marise Payne for hosting the second annual Foreign Ministers' Meeting in her beautiful city of Sydney. This is not my first time in Sydney but first time as foreign minister. And also thank you for your warm hospitality.

As echoed by Minister Payne, the relations between Malaysia and Australia has been very good at many levels: government to government and people to people in bilateral economics, trade, education and many others. And we work together very well both at the bilateral level between the two countries and also at the regional level, particularly ASEAN. Malaysia happens to be the country coordinator for the ASEAN-Australia Dialogue, and we are looking forward to further enhancing and strengthening our relations.

But I would also like to take this opportunity to express our condolences and sympathy to the family members who have lost their loved ones and to the victims of the tragic bushfire and also the victims of the recent storm. The meeting which I have just had with Minister Payne has allowed us to take stock of existing collaborations between the two countries.

And as I said earlier, things are working very well. In 2018, the two-way total trade was recorded at 13.6 billion. For this year, trade between the two countries until September was recorded as 9.15 million. And in the area of education, there are 24,000 Malaysian students in Australia. I think we are ranked fifth in terms of number of foreign students in Malaysia, but for Malaysian students overseas, Australia is the first [indistinct], destination number one. Out of the 24,000, about 14,000 are university students.

I’m very delighted with the announcement made by Minister Payne, that Malaysia has been chosen as a country focus for 2020 under the public diplomacy program, Australia now 2020. And as mentioned earlier, this coincide with Malaysia hosting of the APEC 2020, Visit Malaysia 2020, as well as the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic ties between Malaysia and Australia. And we are also discussing, perhaps Malaysia and Australia can co-host one or two activities next year, because we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the UN in 2002. So, there are various programs on the table, and I'm very, very sure that our relations will become much better.

Thank you.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Minister.

Any questions, anyone?

Journalist: I’ve got a question, but it’s more to do with- not Malaysia, although I do want to visit there next year.

[Laughter]

Saifuddin Abdullah: You will be most welcome. You will be most welcome.

Journalist: Thank you.

Marise Payne: If you do have some questions about Australia and Malaysia, that’d be a great place to start.

Saifuddin Abdullah: And perhaps- and also [indistinct] film.

Marise Payne: There will be a lot of film production, we’ve decided. But if anyone else has got a question about Malaysia or Australia…

Yes?

Journalist: Hi, [indistinct]. I’m from Australian Associated Press. Could you explain, perhaps, why Malaysia was chosen for this public diplomacy initiative? I’m guessing it wasn’t chosen out of a hat. Is there a particular reason why Malaysia was chosen?

Marise Payne: Well, I think some of the background that I went through in my opening remarks, including the history of our relationship, the depth of the people to people links, and of course, the vital relationship between Australia and ASEAN. And so, a leader in ASEAN, as Malaysia is, provides us with an opportunity to focus on the country for a year, and in doing that we want to capitalise on all of that history, and then all of the potential that we've talked about today. As a public diplomacy program, it gives us an opportunity to range over a vast scope in terms of activities and interests, and to run some really significant cultural- maybe the odd sporting activity between our countries, and really make sure that Malaysia is front and centre in our Australia Now program. I remember speaking to New Colombo Plan participants who have had the opportunity to study in Malaysia, either on scholarships or as mobility students in the past year or so. And they have all come back with such an amazing and positive outlook. They're the best ambassadors you could possibly have for the relationship between Australia and Malaysia. So we're going to build on that. And as I said, I'm going to take advantage of Visit Malaysia 2020, and Minister Saifuddin and I are going to work very hard on our Australia now program.

Thank you very much.

Saifuddin Abdullah: If I may add, as a response - I think that this program is very timely, because Malaysia is now under a new administration. And I think I should say to you, that there have been some collaborations in the areas of parliamentary reform and law reform in the past. And I think we can make this one year, you know, where we can also organise activities along those lines, along democracy, freedom, human rights, and [indistinct].

Journalist: Just this week, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the decision to grant $440 million loan to PNG was completely unrelated to the China's offer of funding. But in the PNG budget, it explicitly states the loan replaces the proposed China Development Bank loan. Was Senator Cormann misleading in saying that they were unrelated?

Marise Payne: Not at all. Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister Marape, sought financial support from Australia. And our contribution, our loan, is in response to that request. That of course does not exclude Papua New Guinea from seeking financing from other sources; that's a matter for them. But our decision was about supporting a close friend and neighbour in the context of longer term economic reforms that the Marape Government is pursuing. They are matters on which we worked very closely together and ones which I'm very pleased to say are making good progress.

Journalist: What is the term of that loan?

Marise Payne: The term, which I don't have with me this afternoon and I apologize for that, the term is one which we can update you on in private happily. But of course, it's done under Export Finance Australia and one which conforms with all of the structural requirements in that process.

Journalist: So would it get to be repaid immediately if the IMF offers PNG a loan package?

Marise Payne: Well, I don't think it's helpful to pursue hypotheticals of that nature. It is a loan from Australia to Papua New Guinea under our Export Finance Australia arrangements and one which we have made in the context of a longer term economic performance, which Papua New Guinea is pursuing.

Journalist: Timothy Weeks – do you have any comment about Timothy Weeks? [Indistinct]

Journalist: [Talks over] That was going to be my question as well. So specifically, do you know if he’s returned to Wagga Wagga? Is he well? And have you spoken to him since his return?

Marise Payne: I spoke to him on Wednesday night before he flew to Australia. It was a particularly inspiring conversation for me because I had spent some time in my previous portfolio of defence and of course in the last year plus in this portfolio, working with agencies and working with counterparts, particularly in the United States, on trying to seek the release of Professor Weeks and Professor King. And I want to acknowledge the work of President Ghani and of United States agencies in securing the release of both of them after three years in detention. The conversation I had with Professor Weeks was very positive. He was very much looking forward to returning to Australia, very much looking forward to being reunited with his family. I had spoken to his father and sister in previous days, preceding days, and they are as excited as you could imagine to have him back after three years. I’m not going to go into the details of his return. They have asked us to respect their family's privacy and I think it's only appropriate in the circumstances that we do that. But I can say that to hear his voice and to have a conversation with him and to hear an Australian say, virtually, the best thing he'd heard in three years after all of that time was an Australian accent. That the Australian accent came from a member of DFAT’s consular team was very special and the work that our consular team does to support people like Professor Weeks is also very special.

Journalist: Minister Payne, Maria Exposto arrived in Sydney this morning.

Marise Payne: She did.

Journalist: Can I ask your initial thoughts on her return, and I guess given she came from Malaysia, whether you discussed the case- obviously, it’s a legal case, but have you discussed in a causal sense with your counterpart?

Marise Payne: Well, I did acknowledge to Minister Saifuddin that we are very pleased to see the court acquit Maria Exposto and to see her return again to her family today. There are some very heartening photographs in the media, as you would know, and we are very pleased that she is also able to return to her family. I acknowledge the Malaysian court system’s decision in that regard.

Journalist: Are you able to give us, I guess, any information on just how complex that negotiation process was in relation to Timothy Weeks’ release?

Marise Payne: Well, Australia is not a party to the negotiation, as you would be aware. But I can say that over the last three years, there have been a number of efforts to try to secure the release of Professor Weeks and Professor King. These are extremely complex negotiations between governments and between non-state parties, and they occurred in a way that is very, very- it's a very focused effort to try and secure a single release. In this case, the release though of two people. The work that is done by professionals and by governments on these matters, no matter where they occur, [indistinct] Professor Weeks. But there are people held hostage in a number of places in the world. I have just, in the last two weeks, attended the No Money for Terror Conference in Melbourne, the second of those conferences, which had a significant focus on not paying hostage ransoms because it has the effect of perpetuating that sort of activity. Australia is very focused on that work that we do with our counterparts. I don't want to go into the details of this negotiation. As I said, it's not one to which Australia was a party. But you can be confident in assuming that they are very difficult, very sensitive, very complex no matter where they are being done, and that is why we are so grateful to President Ghani, to the Afghan Government, and to the government of the United States for their support in securing their release.

Thanks everyone. Thank you very much. Thank you Minister.

Saifuddin Abdullah: My pleasure.

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