MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL

Malaysia 2017 | DIPLOMACY | GUEST SPEAKER

TBY talks to HE Maithripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka, on the growing bilateral relationship, the benefits of an FTA between Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and his hopes for the direction of relations.

HE Maithripala Sirisena
BIOGRAPHY
Maithripala Sirisena joined mainstream politics in 1989 as a member of the Parliament of Sri Lanka and has held several ministries since 1994. He was the general-secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and was Minister of Health until November 2014 when he announced his candidacy for the 2015 presidential election.

Sri Lanka and Malaysia have held cordial bilateral relations for many decades. How is this relationship mutually beneficial for the economies of the two countries?

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to commence diplomatic relations with Malaysia soon after it became a sovereign nation. Ever since, ties between our two countries have grown better and stronger with increased trade, investment, education and people-to-people connections. As our economies are rather complementary to each other than competitive, Malaysia has been and continues to be a perfect economic partner for Sri Lanka. In the last decade, there has been a significant growth of commercial ties between the countries. In the light of the Asia-centric foreign policy that my government has practiced, many new avenues of corporation between us have emerged in the recent past, and I am certain the growing relations between the two countries bring economic dividends to the citizens of both countries.

The recent visit by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Dato' Seri Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to Colombo has helped to restart discussions of an FTA between Sri Lanka and Malaysia. What would be the impact of such an FTA?

Trade builds strong and reliable connections between peoples. A few positive moves have been made in relation to cooperation between Sri Lanka and Malaysia. When I visited Malaysia in December 2016, Malaysian Prime Minister Dato' Sri Najib Tun Abdul Razak and I agreed to explore the possibility initiating the Malaysia-Sri Lanka FTA. We are keen to develop a platform on which our economic ties can grow further. Sri Lanka looks forward to improve the existing trade balance with Malaysia while increasing the overall volume of trade. Sri Lanka's existing trade agreement with India will be further expanded soon, making Sri Lanka a preferred investment destination for Malaysia's businesses. In the same way, Sri Lankan businesses will benefit from the many FTAs Malaysia has with ASEAN countries. Sri Lanka's workforce also has shown interest in working in Malaysia, while education exchanges are also on the rise

What are important areas of focus to bolster trade growth between the two countries?

Sri Lanka and Malaysia signed several bilateral trade and technical corporation related agreements in December 2016. They focused on tourism, youth development, employment, agriculture, and heritage and culture. We are keen to develop a broad spectrum of trade links with Malaysia, including apparel and textiles and processed food, which have shown much growth since recently. Malaysian businesses investing in Sri Lanka have increased, benefiting from the conducive environment in Sri Lanka. The volume of trade between the two countries has much space for growth. The existing negative trade balance between the countries reflects the opportunities available for Sri Lankan businesses to export to Malaysia competitively. Agricultural and textile exports will lead Sri Lanka's exports in the near term.

What are your hopes for Sri Lankan-Malaysian relations in the near future?

Malaysia has achieved sustained economic growth over the last few decades and emerged as a high middle-income country. Sri Lanka values the experience of Malaysia and ready to learn from it in our path to achieve development, that is inclusive and sustainable. In many fields, including agriculture, education, tourism and technology, a strong dialog is taking place for collaboration. With these collaborations, government-to-government relations will get still stronger. Businesses from both sides have a shown an unprecedented keenness in exploring opportunities in each other's markets following the business forum we had recently in Kuala Lumpur. An increasing number of business delegations have been visiting Sri Lanka led by key personalities in the Malaysian government. Malaysia is a preferred destination of education for an increasing number of Sri Lankan students. Tourism has seen a surge in the recent years and there are about 60 flights between Malaysia and Sri Lanka every week. That develops people-to-people relations that are strongest. Sri Lanka is a friend of Malaysia and looks forward to mutually benefitting relations.