PEOPLE identify with countries through the various landmarks — France with its Eiffel Tower, China with its Great Wall, Egypt and the pyramids.
Sometimes, however, this association of something with a particular country is not visual. It might be because of the existence of a brand name or a specific person connected to that country.
The name Maradona, for example, brings to mind Argentina; Zola Budd with South Africa; and Nadia Comaneci with Romania. The list continues with Ikea and Sweden, Swatch and Switzerland, and BMW with Germany.
These last two categories are what is known as “national champions” – names and brands that are synonymous with a country that sometimes they transcend even the popularity of that country itself. Not all countries have a national champion, while some have several. Ironically, there is no exact formula for establishing a national champion — you could even say that national champions are born and bred, not created.
One of the more visible national champions of Malaysia is its national petroleum company, Petronas. Its iconic twin towers in the heart of Kuala Lumpur itself are already an international landmark, made all the more recognisable through the Hollywood movie, Entrapment, among others.
But more than that, Petronas is an international business concern, with a presence in some of the more lucrative petroleum areas of the world. Living in Malaysia, we sometimes fail to realise just how big Petronas is for a developing country the size of ours. We take its existence as a national champion for granted, often not entertaining the possibility that we could produce a business entity that is nearly on a par with the more established companies from the developed world.
Last week, Senegal hosted an international conference on oil and gas focusing on five countries, called the MSGBC xxx, covering the countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and Guinea-Conakry. All the major players in Africa’s oil and gas sector were there. Petronas, which recently acquired a 30 per cent stake in one of the oil blocks off the shore of Senegal, was also included in this most elite of clubs. More than the mere inclusion of Petronas in the conference, however, was that this Malaysian company was a platinum sponsor of the conference. The top sponsor was, of course, French company Total, but about five other companies were in the second tier of “platinum sponsors”, with Malaysia’s own being the sole company from a developing country to be among the big boys. It reminded me of a United Nations report in the mid-2000s. While negotiating a resolution concerning how south-south cooperation helps to develop countries of different comparative advantages, I stumbled upon a paragraph which spoke highly of two major companies in the oil and gas industry, both from developing countries and both companies were cited positively for “giving back” to the countries they were operating in by creating jobs, reducing unemployment and raising the overall standard of living of the communities. Our national champion had done us proud.
As a country, Malaysia’s presence in Africa is no longer as big as it once was. We have been overtaken by other developing countries that, a decade and a half ago, were not even in the continent. When Malaysia opened its embassy in Dakar in 1992, the city was like a level playing field — there were no tall buildings, commerce was small, and though it had a bustling port, there was little infrastructure to support a booming export-import economy.
These days, Dakar has a number of high-rise buildings, modern apartment blocks, a thriving commercial sector including many good restaurants boasting international cuisines, a number of cinema halls, an administrative capital much like Putrajaya, enough infrastructure to support a thriving commerce sector and even a decent shopping mall. And all these happened as Malaysia started withdrawing from the developing world in general.
What was that old adage — “we don’t miss something till it’s gone”? In international relations, the displacement of one power with another can happen seamlessly, without others actually missing the declining or diminishing power. As long as a country steps into the void, there is nothing to be missed. This is what seems to have happened with Malaysia and Africa. The good thing is that it is not too late to reverse this trend, especially in countries of this continent which hold much potential and little risk.
In January, Senegal will again host an international conference, this time on the topic of emerging economies, focused on Africa. This is the kind of conference that Malaysia would do well to not only participate in but also to take centrestage, given Malaysia’s own track record in this sphere. To make the coincidence even more ironic, the theme of this international conference is the importance of national champions in an emerging economy — again, something that Malaysia has more than enough experience in to be able to share with the aspiring countries of Africa.
It is time that we stopped lurking in the shadows and take back our place on the world stage. We can only do that if we start “conquering” one continent at a time.
Dr Shazelina Zainul Abidin is a foreign service officer and an honorary research fellow of the University of Sheffield. These days, she writes primarily on international affairs, with emphasis on Africa