Peace Corps Photo Exhibit Launch Speech
Ambassador Paul W. Jones
"The Story of Our Friendship: An Enduring Bond"
Peace Corps Photo Exhibit Launch Speech
Kuala Lumpur Library
April 12, 2012
Yang Berhormat Minister Dato’ Raja Nong Chik, Minister of Federal Territories and Urban Wellbeing; Dato Matshah Sapuan, Chairman, KL Library Board; Puan Rosidah Ismail, our terrific partner here at the KL Library, hosting one of the 9 American “Lincoln Corners” information centers across Malaysia; Tan Sri Ghazzali, Former Malaysian Ambassador to the U.S.; Former Peace Corps Volunteers, honored guests, members of the media, ladies and gentlemen:
Apa khabar semua?
Selamat petang and thank you all for joining us on this special day. For today we’re here– in this beautiful library on Malaysia’s historic Merdeka, or Independence, Square – to kick off an entire year of recalling and reconnecting deep, lasting friendships forged between our peoples and our countries in an earlier era. The story of the U.S. Peace Corps in Malaysia is extraordinary. I’m often struck by the vivid, poignant memories that Malaysians, of my generation or older, share with me about Peace Corps volunteers they knew. I’m equally struck that many Malaysians 30 years old and younger have no idea that more than 4,000 Americans came to Malaysia from 1962 to 1983 to help develop Malaysia and build an enduring bond between our peoples. These younger Malaysians, who are active in today’s exchange and volunteer programs don’t realize the foundations laid by the Peace Corps.
Malaysia’s remarkable relationship with Peace Corps began in 1962 – 50 years ago – when the first 36 Peace Corps Volunteers arrived, invited by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. They were welcomed personally by then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, the father of Prime Minister Najib Razak, on a warm, January afternoon. The volunteers were young and idealistic men and women, bursting with energy and a desire to learn and to give.
Over the next 21 years, as thousands more joined them, Peace Corps Malaysia became one of the largest programs in the world, with almost 600 volunteers here in 1968. Most volunteers taught in schools, in Bahasa Malayu and in English, helping address the urgent need for teachers after Malaysia opened secondary schooling to all in 1964. Others worked in health care, agriculture and a variety of fields – some making major contributions to state-level development plans, to a university astrophysics curriculum or a speech therapy specialty at the Central Hospital, to name a few. Volunteers served in all of Malaysia’s states, often in rural areas far from any town or city. They studied Bahasa Malayu for months before arriving, and spoke the language in their daily lives. When I visited Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, I heard of the Peace Corps Volunteers who had taught there, known to many of Malaysia’s leaders today. American Peace Corps Volunteers were proud to play a small part in the great story of Malaysia’s development in the decades immediately after independence.
Beyond their concrete contributions to education, health and development, the personal and human ties were perhaps the most significant legacy of the Peace Corps. In communities across Malaysia, an encounter between two worlds became a meeting of minds, thoughts, ideas, and friendships that reached across cultural and linguistic barriers. Sometimes these encounters led to very tangible impacts: for instance, a Peace Corps connection helped create the remarkable relationship between Malaysia and Ohio University, from which thousands of Malaysians have graduated over the years.
We’ve sought to capture some of these extraordinary connections in this photo exhibit – and an accompanying Peace Corps anniversary publication. I think it’s important to note that after remaining on exhibit here for several weeks, this exhibition will travel throughout Malaysia just like the original Peace Corps volunteers. In a similar vein, creating this exhibit and the publication has been an exciting, collaborative effort between Malaysians and Americans, working to piece together memories of these magical encounters. Special thanks go to Tan Sri Dr. Yahaya Ibrahim, Michael Ong, and Dr. Chia Keng Boon, who have recorded marvelous anecdotes that are captured in the exhibit and in the publication. Dozens of other Americans and Malaysians contributed to this effort but were not able to join us today. I would also like to thank our Public Affairs team at the U.S. Embassy, without whom this exhibit would not exist; and to our terrific collaboration with the KL Library. It’s been a wonderful journey to put this exhibit together.
Not long ago, a Malaysian named Hoon Liang Goh shared with us a touching letter, written to him by Elizabeth Kunst, his form five teacher. She wrote:
“As my farewell gift to you, I am enclosing two flags: one, your country’s; the other, mine. May they serve as a reminder of the days we shared and as a symbol of the exchange between Malaysia and the United States which has been the result of my sojourn here.
Yet, somehow I feel that I have received far more than I have given. It is my wish, also, that the flags may in future years remind you of the friendship between an American teacher and her Malaysian pupils.”
So many former Peace Corps have told me the same – they received more than they gave. Some came back for a second tour later in their lives, or extended their original two year assignment to four and even five years. About a dozen American Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Malaysia are living in Malaysia today. We’re honored that three are here with us this afternoon – all teachers at the International School Kuala Lumpur: John Stupka, Joanne Mahendran, and Karen Palko. Please stand John, Joanne, and Karen so we can acknowledge you (applause). An association of returned Peace Corps Volunteers, Friends of Malaysia, still contributes to U.S.-Malaysian understanding and service projects all across Malaysia.
The Peace Corps’ legacy lives on today in an extraordinarily successful program created to build English language abilities and ties among our youth. This past January, a group of 50 young Americans – known as Fulbright English Teaching Assistants – arrived in Malaysia, at the request of Prime Minister Najib to President Obama. These young people have settled into communities across the states of Terengganu, Pahang, and Johor, serving as volunteers in schools to help teach English. Once again, bright and idealistic American men and women, bursting with energy, are establishing new bonds of friendship and mutual respect with their Malaysian students, teachers, mentors, neighbors and communities.
I’ve seen firsthand how the memories and relationships created under Peace Corps remain bright despite the passage of time. My sister was a Peace Corps Volunteers, next door in the Philippines. A couple of years ago, when I was stationed in the Philippines, my sister and I traveled to the town where she had served 30 years prior. From the welcome reception we received and the many meals shared in private homes, it was as if she left just the year before.
I know from the many stories I’ve been told that it’s the same for former volunteers here in Malaysia. Allow me to close with part of a Malaysian pantun, quoted by a former Peace Corps volunteer talking about his own feelings after leaving Malaysia:
Hutang emas boleh dibayar,
Hutang budi dibawa mati.