By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
After just short of three years in Mexico, Malaysian Ambassador Mohammed Azhar bin Mazlan and his wife Amelia Amani Lee Abdullah will be heading back to Kuala Lumpur next week, where he will take up a new position inside his country’s Foreign Ministry.
But in the short time he served in Mexico (he had to wait nearly 11 months before presenting diplomatic credentials to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto), Mazlan focused primarily on trying to boost bilateral economic and commercial relations, organizing trade exhibitions, hosting commercial missions and showcasing Malaysia in every possible Mexican forum he could muster.
Mazlan’s efforts paid off.
Between 2015 and 2017, combined two-way trade between Mexico and Malaysia jumped by 15 percent, from $2 billion to $2.6 billion in 2017, according to Malaysian statistics, and that figure is expected to rise another 15 percent in 2018, to nearly $3 billion.
Mazlan accomplished all this despite the fact that there exists no free-trade agreement between Mexico and Malaysia.
“Mexico is our Number One trade partner in Latin America, and we are its Number One trade partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” Mazlan told Pulse News Mexico earlier this week.
“In fact, three quarters of our Latin American trade is with Mexico.”
Moreover, while a small portion of Mexico’s exports to Malaysia fall into the agricultural basket, the majority of the goods exchanged between the two countries — on both sides — are manufactured products, with considerable value-added worth, including electronics, electrical equipment, auto parts, petrochemicals and aerospace technology.
And if Mazlan has his way, the two countries will be enjoying a lot more bilateral cooperation in the crucial field of aerospace in the years ahead, including an exchange of best-practice technologies at the academic level and conception-to-assembly-line competence, thanks in great part to a two-way aeronautics agreement signed between Mexico and Malaysia in 2016.
“I think that once the Trans-Pacific Cooperation (TPP) – to which both Mexico and Malaysia are inscribed – we are going to see an even faster uptick in our bilateral trade, perhaps as much as 15 to 20 percent each year,” the envoy said.
As for investment, Malaysian companies have capital holdings in Mexico to the tune of about $500 million, mainly in the form an offshore oil exploration and extraction project initiated late last year by that country’s state-owned petroleum giant Petronas (short for Petroliam Nasional Berhad) in the southern Mexican state of Campeche, due to begin production in 2019.
“With the recent opening of the Mexican energy sector, I think there will be a lot more binational cooperation in the energy field,” Mazlan said.
Malaysia is also represented in Mexico by DXN, a coffee and beverage plant in Tlaxcala that provides direct-sales jobs to some 120,000 Mexican distributors, and the Likom sheet metal factory in Ciudad Juárez that produces computer casings.
Mexico, in turn, has investments in Malaysia through the Monterrey-based cement giant corporation Cementos Mexicanos (Cemex), a Gruma tortilla factory in Selangor, and the amusement park conglomerate KidZania, worth, collectively, about $35 million.
Mazlan said that there are a seemingly infinite array of sectors in which Mexico and Malaysia could cooperate, given that the two countries have complementary economies.
One project that he has worked hard to promote during his time here is the establishment of prime halal cattle ranches that would produce high-end steaks and other beef products that could be sold in Malaysia and the rest of the Islamic world.
“The international halal market is massive, worth about $6 trillion a year,” Mazlan said.
“Malaysia is interested in helping Mexico develop a solid foothold in that market by helping to set up ranches, slaughterhouses and packing plants that are halal-compliant.”
Mazlan is right.
There is no other sector in the agricultural industry that is expanding as fast as the halal market.
There are 57 predominantly Muslim countries around the world, and about 65 percent of the halal meat and poultry they consume is imported.
SuKarne, Mexico’s largest meatpacking company, has already opened a small ranch and slaughterhouse in Culiacán with three Muslim butchers, all of whom have been halal-certified, and has begun to pioneer the international halal market for Mexico.
“But we are not just talking about meat,” Mazlan said.
“There is also a demand for halal-compliant cosmetics and medications.”
Mazlan pointed out that Malaysian meat producers have developed a complex guidebook to how to meet halal standards, and are now helping Japan to get ready for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo by preparing the meat suppliers there with halal-compliance knowhow.
Mazlan admitted that there are still some obstacles to doing business between Mexico and Malaysia, mainly a vast mutual unawareness and a geographic separation of nearly 16,000 kilometers.
“We are working to bridge the awareness gap through cultural, gastronomic and tourism events, and in today’s world of internet connectivity, geographic distance becomes much less importance,” he said.
The ambassador also said that he and his government are working to establish direct flights between Mexico and Malaysia through AirAsia Berhad, a low-cost Malaysian airline.
“Malaysia and Mexico are close friends and I see the bilateral relationship improving even further in the years ahead,” Mazlan concluded.
“We are already cooperating with one another in the economic, commercial, political and cultural fields, and there are many other possible avenues of even greater cooperation in the years ahead.”