MALAYSIAN ambassador to Cambodia Datuk Pengiran Hussein Pengiran Tahir was kept busy with official duties at the end of last month, hosting a visiting Malaysian minister and receiving international dignitaries to the country, including the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, even as he found time to meet this writer over breakfast and then dinner in Phnom Penh.
Pengiran Hussein noted a flurry of visits of late by presidents and high officials from many countries to this small and still impoverished country of 14 million people tucked between Thailand and Vietnam.
The same week also saw United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dropping by. In the growing contest for global influence between the US and China, a key player in Cambodia, smaller nations suddenly have added significance once again.
It was, of course, the contest for global supremacy of another era that first saw a hapless Cambodia sucked into the Vietnam war, with disastrous consequences for the country that only now are healing.
The Cambodian capital today is a vibrant city, its low-rise buildings bustling with activity and its French-era wide boulevards teeming with people day and night, hustling, strolling, jogging and enjoying group dancing to music.
Sitting in a restaurant veranda by the Mekong as tourists-laden river cruise boats stream up and down, one can be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu about a Bangkok of a bygone era.
Pride of place in Phnom Penh today easily goes to the sprawling NagaWorld resort and casino complex, the Hong Kong-listed flagship of Tan Sri Dr Chen Lip Keong, strategically situated, fronting the expansive confluence of four rivers and the graceful outlines of the historic Cambodiana Hotel.
The resort complex is also perhaps an appropriate emblem of the long, deep-seated and surprisingly broad-based Malaysian presence in Cambodia. Malaysian business interests in Cambodia run from the commanding heights of the Cambodian economy downwards.
Four of its leading banks are Malaysian-owned, with CIMB about to join in as the fifth. Axiata is among nine telecommunications companies active in Cambodia. A unit of Leader Group has been a long-term local power-industry player. Limkokwing University operates a pioneering local campus.
Malaysian garment manufacturers are a strong contingent among the 60-odd industry players in the country. Property developer Sunway Group and Holiday Villa Hotels and Resorts are among other Malaysian businesses with a presence in Cambodia.
The Tan Sri Tiong Hiew King-owned global media conglomerate runs the leading and only profitable Chinese-language daily, the Cambodia Sin Chew Daily, in a fiercely competitive field of five such dailies.
Unsurprisingly, the 3,000-strong Malaysian expatriate community in Cambodia commands respect and influence in the high councils of the Cambodian government. Dr Chen of NagaWorld, for example, serves officially as an adviser to the Royal Government of Cambodia.
A religious dimension lends a wholesome picture to the Malaysian-Cambodian relationship. According to the head of chancery of the Malaysian Embassy, Syed Farizal Aminy Syed Mohamad, growing numbers of Malaysian Muslims troop to Cambodia each Aidiladha season with offers of sacrificial cows and other acts of charity to the Cham Muslim minority centred around Phnom Penh.
Cambodia has been refreshingly open and liberal with foreign businesses; its laissez-faire ethos perhaps without parallel in Asia outside Hong Kong. Malaysian players are only now enjoying the fruits of patient trials and tribulations within the last two decades, as the economy powers ahead with near double-digit growth most of the decade before the global downturn moderated it the past few years.
Most Malaysian residents in Cambodia that this writer talked to attribute our strong presence in the country to the vision of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and respect accorded him by Cambodian leaders. The former leader is still accorded deference due a serving head of state each time he visits the country.
As Pengiran Hussein busied himself with all the attention showered on Cambodia last week, he was also supervising the move of the embassy to its new chancery and residential complex along Phnom Penh’s embassy row. It will be a stately new perch from which this business-savvy Sabahan plots the next step of the Malaysian footprint in Cambodia.