About the Author: Scott Rauland serves as the Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Nearly 500 students, faculty, NGO representatives, entrepreneurs and government officials packed the Banquet Hall at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC) in Kuala Lumpur today to engage in a conversation with Secretary of State Clinton on themes ranging from women's empowerment, education, and entrepreneurship to Afghanistan and the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
During the "townterview,” Secretary Clinton was interviewed by two well-known journalists working for Malaysian TV conglomerate Media Prima and also entertained questions from the audience, both in person at the venue and remotely from Lincoln Corners at the Kuala Lumpur City Library and the State Library in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo), where groups had gathered to participate in the conversation via webchat.
Malaysian journalists have not had a great deal of experience conducting such public foreign policy conversations for worldwide viewing. Media Prima warmed up to the concept, however, and indicated that this might be a format they would like to utilize more often to promote discussion of important issues in this country.
The audience certainly loved listening to Secretary Clinton describe the challenges of her job and the accomplishments of the Obama Administration over the past two years. Amongst those attending was a student who had won a contest on U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur's Facebook page, which gave her a coveted spot at the event and the chance to ask the Secretary a two-part question on the U.S. and ASEAN and on the difficulty of women breaking through the glass ceiling in politics.
Asked what kind of advice she would give to women to inspire them, the Secretary replied, "Malaysian women are demonstrating unequivocally that the rights and roles of women are important for advancing society's growth and opportunities into the future. I am looking for more chances to set up exchanges between Malaysian women and American women, and the minister [Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Dato' Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil] and I have agreed to work on that." She added, “It is not possible in the 21st century to disenfranchise half of the population and expect that there will be progress for the next generation.”
The Secretary was also asked how Malaysia's role could expand in terms of being a close ally in the region, as compared to India or China. She replied that "Malaysia, both by geography, [its] economic dynamism, the role that Islam plays, which is a role that is not divisive as it is in some parts of the world, has a real opportunity to be a thought leader in a number of significant areas."
A major part of the conversation focused on relations between the West and Islam, and the Secretary was asked how the gulf between Islam and the West could be bridged. The Secretary replied that "the U.S. needs to do a better job, but so does the Muslim world in reaching out to one another.” She pointed out that, within any religion, the few who would exploit their faith for extremist purposes do not represent the vast majority of adherents to that religion, and she asked for more moderate voices to speak out and stress mutual respect and mutual understanding. The Secretary's comments on religion were featured in the first news reports on the event that were broadcast later that evening.
In response to a question about Muslim frustration with U.S. policy in the Middle East, Secretary Clinton provided a lengthy explanation of how much effort has been expended to resolve issues between Israel and Palestine. She said the United States was supportive of the Palestinians -- the U.S. is the top donor to the Palestinian Authority -- and backs the idea of a secure Israel living alongside a Palestinian state. She concluded by observing that "It is important for a country like Malaysia to support Palestinians in their state-building."
The event ended with the audience wishing there were more time, as they had many more questions to ask, and afterward ISTAC showed the very best of Malaysian hospitality by inviting all 500 guests to lunch amidst the beautiful surroundings of its campus.
This was Secretary Clinton's first-ever trip to Malaysia in any capacity, she is the first U.S. Secretary of State to make a bilateral visit to Malaysia since Warren Christopher visited Malaysia in 1995.