A Chat With... Kamala Lakhdhir, the United States ambassador to Malaysia
Updated 1:41 pm, Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Until the early 1970s, when women married, they were forced to resign from the Foreign Service. Asked if she planned to marry, Ann responded, “Yes, I would like to get married, but first I would like to have a career.” The answer failed to meet the standards of the U.S. State Department, and as a result, it didn’t seriously consider her candidacy.
Sixty-two years later, Lakhdhir did what her mother never was allowed to — after joining the Foreign Service at her mother’s urging, she was confirmed by the United States Senate as the country’s ambassador to Malaysia in December of 2016.
That is a long way from Westport, where Lakhdhir grew up, attending Kings Highway Elementary School, Bedford Junior High School and graduating from Staples High School. “I had a wonderful childhood in Westport. I had a number of great teachers who inspired me,” she said in a telephone interview.
A regular participant in the town’s annual United Nations Day, Lakhdhir had a rich international background — her father, Noor, immigrated to the U.S. from Mumbai, India, to study and Ann served as president of the NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace and Security at the United Nations.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1986, Lakhdhir set off to China to teach English and American history for two years. When she returned, her mother suggested she take the Foreign Service exam but, recalling her mother’s disappointing experience, she rejected the idea.
A 1988 New York Times article explaining a rise in women joining the Foreign Service changed Lakhdhir’s mind and she eventually heeded her mother’s suggestion under one condition: they would both apply to the Foreign Service together. So mother and daughter drove to Fairfield to take the written test and both were called back to take the oral exam in Washington, D.C.
Only Kamala Lakhdhir passed the oral exam and three years later in 1991 she received a call to join, but by then she was working for the New York City budget director and was pursuing her graduate degree in public finance at New York University. She said no. Another three months passed and the Foreign Service came knocking again — when the timing was right.
“I always say I was having a bad day at the office and that’s why I joined the foreign service,” she said. A week after the offer, Lakhdhir accepted and joined the class of 1991 that August.
In the last 26 years, Lakhdhir has served in various capacities for the U.S. all over the world including Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Jakarta, Indonesia and Beijing, China. She also did an assignment in the Secretary of State’s office, where she advanced then Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s travel. More recently she was the U.S. Consul General in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the Executive Assistant to Under Secretary for Political Affairs.
Since her December confirmation, Lakhdhir has had her hands full in her new post.
Malaysia is a country where the constitution states “Islam is the religion of the Federation, but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Since President Donald Trump last month signed an executive order blocking people from seven predominately Muslim countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — from coming to the United States, citizens from the majority-Muslim Malaysia have been seeking clarity on what the ban actually means and how it could possibly affect them.
“The focus is wanting more information on what this means for Malaysians. There were some false news stories saying that Malaysians would be swept up in this or not be able to travel to the U.S. A lot of the engagement we’ve had was try to explain what the Executive Order did and did not do in the Malaysian context,” Lakhdhir said.
As for whether the executive order has affected Malaysian views of the U.S. Lakhdhir said it’s hard for her to predict until the executive order is adjudicated in the courts and Malaysians, puzzled by the American system, see how the balance of powers plays out between the executive and judicial branches.
Although there has been plenty of international unrest in the wake of Trump’s order, Lakhdhir emphasized that Malaysians can, in fact, travel to the U.S. and can apply for visas.
“Many Malaysians that apply for visas (business, education and tourism) usually get their visas accepted by the U.S. and will continue to do so. As a general matter, Malaysians have a very low refusal rate. In the vast majority of cases of Malaysians applying for visas, they will receive it,” she said.
Although some Malaysians left the country for Turkey or Syria to join the Islamic State extremist group, Lakhdhir said there has not been a rise in Islamic extremism in Malaysia. The Malaysian government has been very proactive with security measures and cooperates closely with the United States on counterterrorism and law enforcement efforts, she said.
on human trafficking
Another issue on her radar is human trafficking. According to the State Department’s annual report trafficking report for 2016, “Malaysia is a destination and, to a much lesser extent, source and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and women and a small number of children subjected to sex trafficking.”
Malaysia has a history of human rights violations with regard to human trafficking, especially in the commercial fishing industry. But it has made improvements since 2014, the year the United States gave the country one of its lowest trafficking rankings because the government did not fully comply with the minimum standards and was not making sufficient efforts to do so. By 2016, the U.S. upgraded Malaysia to the Tier 2 Watch List. That means the government is still not in full compliance with the American standards but is making efforts to do so.
Lakhdhir said the progress is ongoing with the government increasing the numbers of trafficking investigations, prosecutions and convictions.
“There has been a lot of engagement and cooperation and capacity building between our law enforcement and the Malaysian side,” she said. “The Malaysians are very aware of the U.S. concerns on this issue.”
When Lakhdhir arrived in Malaysia in early January the way she was received underscored, for her, the state of the U.S. relationship with the Southeast Asian country.
She said the “most compelling part of the job is how warmly and graciously I was welcomed by Malaysians, both in the government and the community and how welcome they wanted me to feel.”
Former President Barack Obama visited the country twice and Lakhdhir believes Malaysia is committed to maintaining strong bilateral relations across many fronts. In terms of security and counterterrorism cooperation, U.S. companies doing business in Malaysia, and vice versa as well as programs where young U.S. college graduates come to Malaysia for a year to teach English in Malaysian high schools.
Although she spends the bulk of her hectic schedule shuttling between the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur and Washington, D.C., Lakhdhir still makes it back to her family’s house on the Saugatuck River, where she used to swim, to see her father who is 91, and her mom, 84.