His Excellency John K. Samuel is the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Finland and concurrently accredited to Estonia and Latvia. He is a distinguished diplomat who has served the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia for over 25 years. With a bachelor's degree in Law from the University of London and a Master's in Diplomacy and Strategic Studies from the National University of Malaysia, Mr. Samuel has held various positions within the Ministry, including Deputy Director-General of the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism, Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing and Consul General of Malaysia in Frankfurt.
Editor in Chief of the Helsinki Times Alexis Kouros sat down with Ambassador Samuel for an interview. In this Q&A session, we will delve into Mr. Samuel's career as a diplomat and his perspectives on various issues related to diplomacy and international relations.
Q: You have been here in Finland for over four years now, during a very special time with the pandemic and then the Ukraine crisis. How has your time been in Finland?
A: Having been in Russia, I have gotten used to the extreme weather, but I don't think I have gotten used to the darkness and the short daylight time. So that was part of getting used to it. And of course, Helsinki is a smaller and quieter city, which initially took a little bit of getting accustomed to. But it's safe, and because it's small, it's easier to travel around. So I think the first year is usually spent getting familiar with the people and the environment, and the second year is when you start to work like anywhere else.
Q: This is your first exposure to Finnish culture. How do you see it compared to Germany and Russia where you have served before?
A: Finns are blunt and straightforward. They are however, friendly and not as quiet as what others claim them to be. Once you start talking to them, it's very easy to pick up the conversation. There is so much to talk about, from dog walking to the weather and sports. They are not as quiet as they say. Language is also not a problem as English is widely spoken and understood. It's just a matter of starting the conversation.
Q: Tell us about the history of Finnish-Malaysian diplomatic relations, and how long the countries have been having embassies.
A: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Malaysia – Finland relations with relations being established in June 1973. The Malaysian Embassy in Finland was established in 2004 while the Finnish Embassy was established in Malaysia in 1980. Initially, building relationships took some time due to the distance and differences between the two countries. However, in recent years, there has been a significant increase in people-to-people contact, especially in the education sector. More than five Finnish universities are now collaborating with Malaysian universities, and Oulu University will accept 20 headmasters for a short summer course and the placing of several trainee teachers in Finnish education institutions for short and medium term. There are also plans for a Finnish international school in Malaysia. Additionally, a Finnish company franchised their teaching method for early childhood to more than 100 kindergartens and is planning to establish an Early Childhood Education Centre in Malaysia.
We have more than 100 Malaysian students registered with us studying in Finland. Most of them are here on a privately-funded basis, studying various subjects from sciences to engineering to music. We have also heard about 20 Finnish students who have gone to Malaysia under the Erasmus Mundus and other programmes. We hope to sign an MOU on education between the two governments soon to send government scholars here for postgraduate studies.
In terms of trade, there has been a 16.6% increase last year with trade in Finland’s favour. The main products traded between countries are paper and pulp, electrical items, natural rubber, and scientific equipment.
Q: Can you tell me more about the Finnish international schools? Is it similar to other international schools or is it unique to Finland?
A: The Finnish international school is a private initiative that follows the Finnish pedagogic system. It is still in the early stages of discussion, but I learned about it from a Malaysian company that came to Finland with a Finnish partner. It is best to work with Finnish companies, as we already have another Finnish company called Hei Schools that is very active in early childhood education in Malaysia. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we will see some progress in the establishment of the international school. There is already one in Vietnam, but opening one in Malaysia would attract students from Singapore, Indonesia, and locals. Education is highly valued in Malaysia, and parents generally save money for two main things: to buy a house and for their children’s education. Finnish education is already a highly esteemed brand, so we do not need to sell it. If an agreement is reached, it would be a great addition after 50 years.
Q: You have worked in other countries before Finland. Is it easy to be a foreign diplomat here compared to other places?
A: Yes and No. There are slight differences in terms of the manner a diplomat is treated in different countries. In Finland, there's a lot of emphasis on equality, so sometimes it feels like you've lost some diplomatic privileges. However, when I speak to my other colleagues, everyone faces the same issues. You just learn how to accept it and solve problems. If there are any issues, we speak to our counterparts at the Foreign Ministry, and they are very helpful and fast. Each country has their own way of dealing with the diplomatic community, and we adapt accordingly.
Q: During these 50 years of diplomatic relations, a lot has changed, especially in the last 25 years after Finland joined the EU. How has that affected the way you deal with Finland? Do you deal with Finland directly as an individual country or through the EU?
A: We deal with Finland both ways. There are some issues that we need to go through the EU for example palm oil, but usually, we handle bilateral issues directly with the said country. We have good relations with Finland anyway, so it's easy to talk and discuss matters at the bilateral level.
Q: Do you also communicate with the Finnish mission and Ambassador in Malaysia to exchange information or discuss issues?
A: Yes, I have very good relations with Ambassador Sami Leino in Malaysia. There are many issues that are mutually beneficial to both of us. Whenever there are Finnish companies or Malaysian companies interested in coming to either country, we let each other know. We want to do things that are going to be beneficial to our countries individually and bilaterally. We have our own niche areas that we are targeting, but whichever area benefits both of us, we are very open about that.
Q: How has Europe and Russia changed since the ambassador's time in Germany and Russia?
A: I think that nowadays States have become more inward looking, which could at times create animosity. This shift differs from national interest at times and has expanded to what is more important for the region or Grouping, sometimes based on race, shared history , economic interest or a particular tradition. Unfortunately, this is often done at the expense of smaller countries. While having economic power is good, it's also important to consider how it's being used. Responsible use of power, either political or economic is vital, especially when we live in a closely interlinked society. When I was in Germany, it was a much more peaceful European entity, as there wasn't a common enemy. But today, there's a common enemy that has broken up the rest of the world, as people ask "Are you with us or against us?" If you don't have the same enemy as me, then you're seen as being against us. This kind of disunity is dangerous, as it's not possible to force people to pick sides. National interest should be the ultimate decision of a sovereign state.
Q: How does Malaysia handle being pulled in two different directions, such as in the situation with Ukraine?
A: We are very clear that an invasion of any country is not acceptable according to the United Nations Charter. Malaysia also doesn't agree with unilateral sanctions unless it is agreed at the United Nations. If asked to pick sides, Malaysia will always take into account its national interest, as it is a trading country that requires a steady and ready market to sell its products. No man is an island, and that also applies for a state. Picking sides could therefore have a negative economic impact on our trade activities causing the man on the street to suffer.
Q: Do you think that the role of the United Nations has weakened recently?
A: First, I think that the P five should be expanded because times have changed from when it was formed. There should be more representatives from Asia, Africa and Latin America as the political landscape has changed drastically since the establishment of the UN. Additionally, the United Nations cannot be seen as the vehicle of any one particular regional organization or country, and impartiality is crucial; not just in speeches, but in action also. And it is not impossible although it is difficult at times, because the United Nations - whether we like it or not - has got some who at times is seen and heard to dictate terms on certain issues. So, impartiality is extremely important in what they do. People want to see you walking the talk.
Q: One peculiar issue facing Europe today is that while all these countries joined together to become the European Union, Europe has moved towards a homogenized ethnicity and nation. For example, Czechoslovakia separated into Czechia and Slovakia before joining the EU, and Yugoslavia was dismantled based on ethnicity. The problem facing Ukraine is also partly due to ethnic groups attempting to separate themselves based on linguistic differences. This stands in contrast to Asian countries, which are fundamentally multi-ethnic and have learned to live as one nation despite religious, linguistic and ethnic differences. Looking to countries like Malaysia, which have effectively balanced different ethnicities and religions, could provide insights into overcoming these challenges. What can Europe learn from Malaysia when it comes to dealing with multiethnic societies?
A: Tolerance is easier to achieve in a homogeneous society where people share the same beliefs. However, in a pluralistic society, it becomes much harder and challenging. Malaysia, with its diverse ethnic groups, different religions, and languages, faces this challenge but also offers valuable lessons to learn from. As Malaysians, we know that we have no other place to go, as this is home, despite our different cultural heritage. In that regard, we cannot say or do things that might offend our neighbors of different races or religions both in action and speech.
In Europe, some countries handle an influx of foreigners well, while others, which are predominantly one race and one religion, struggle and perceive other groups as threats. Such situations often result in the imposition of rules. However, it is essential to understand the difference between integration and assimilation. We must allow people to continue practicing their religion, upholding their race, and following their dietary habits. These basic things cannot be imposed on others, which can be challenging to accept.
I believe that we can teach Europeans about tolerance, not because we are superior, but because we have gone through this earlier and for a more extended period.
Q: What is the structure of Malaysian society?
A: Malaysia has three main races, including the Malays, Chinese, and Indians. The Malay community is the largest, followed by the Chinese, Indians and others. There is also the indigenous community. In terms of religion, we have Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and others. Islam is the official religion, but the Constitution also provides the right for all other religions to be practiced freely.
There are 13 states in Malaysia and the King is appointed on a five-year rotation basis out of the 9 States which are ruled by a Sultan. Of course, people always look forward to their state's Sultan being the next King. I am from Johor, the southernmost state and closest neighbor to Singapore. Our national language is Bahasa Malaysia, but English is widely spoken. Another interesting thing is that in – line with our practice and respect for different cultures and languages, we still have government schools that teach Mandarin and Tamil.
Our parliament follows the UK’s Westminster system, with a lower and upper house also known as Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara. The country today, like Finland, has a coalition government, and in reflection of a robust democratic system, we now have many more political parties compared to 10 years ago.
Q: Tourism is an important source of income for Malaysia. How did the pandemic affect that and do you see it improving back to that pre-pandemic level?
A: Before COVID, we had 12,600 Finnish tourists, which was slightly less than those going to our neighbouring countries. And for the first few months of 2019, we had about 1,000 visitors, and the number was increasing. I remember speaking to a group of what they call "old time tourists," who are 60 and above and go for long-term stays. There were 100 of them in that group, and 60 of them signed up. After that, COVID hit, and there was a big decline to only 100. I think last year we only had that number because we needed to start all over. Recently, when we had the Matka travel fair in Helsinki, we had some agencies here, and more than 20 immediately booked on the day. So we need to have more publicity because we're trying to attract tourists from the whole Scandinavian region, not just from Finland, but also from Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. When they come and stay, they can come for a short term, but they also enjoy the more expensive places. We know that there are a few islands that they are very used to. In Malaysia, tourists are treated like kings, and the hospitality business is very advanced. We have so many beautiful and secluded places, like long white sandy beaches which are not over-crowded. So, we're trying to revive tourism, and we have had two agents who have already started this. We are trying to tell them that if they are going to send tourists to that region, they should also include Malaysia. It takes a bit of time, but we are working on it.