Kennedy Jawan’s growing years at a sleepy hollow in Sarawak were hardly an indication that the Sibu-born would one day be globe-trotting as a career diplomat.
The 47-year-old Sibu-born whose roots are in Sungai Assan, a village across Batang Rajang, is the newly-appointed Malaysian High Commissioner to South Africa.
He creates history with the appointment as it makes him the country’s first Iban to be appointed head of a foreign mission.
Jawan, who assumed his duties in Pretoria on Wednesday, said it would be a challenging task, especially since currently, there were not many diplomats from Sarawak and Sabah working in the foreign service.
“My roots are in Sungai Assan, a kampung across the Batang Rajang, and even when I was attending university (in the United States), it never crossed my mind that one day, I would be promoting bilateral ties between Malaysia and South Africa,” he told Bernama in an interview here recently.
Jawan, who was here to pay a courtesy call on Yang Dipertua Negeri Sarawak Tun Abang Muhammad Salahuddin Abang Barieng, said his priority was to obtain updates on Sarawak.
This, he said, would enable Sarawak to be promoted to potential investors in South Africa, as well as five other African nations – Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and Madagascar.
Having been posted to Tokyo, Yangon and Washington in various capacities, he was serving as the foreign ministry’s under-secretary for development in Putrajaya prior to his current appointment.
“Of course, I started as a junior officer and while assigned to Japan, we (Malaysian embassy) took part in the process of initiating the overseas development association loan from Japan for the construction of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
“It is something that we remember,” recalled Jawan.
Another interesting experience for the diplomat was during his tenure as the first secretary, based in Myanmar between December 1995 and July 1999.
It was when the ministry was also involved in constructive engagement for the military junta-controlled country to be admitted to the Asean regional grouping, despite tremendous opposition.
While serving as the Malaysian embassy’s counsellor in Washington between October 2002 and August 2005, he handled visiting journalists covering the official trips of Malaysian leaders as he was dealing with information.
“I had the opportunity to go to the Oval Office. It was very exciting because not everyone gets to go there,” he said, adding that on that particular occasion, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi met with US President George W. Bush at the latter’s formal workspace which was used to confer with heads of state, diplomats, his staff and other dignitaries.
Malaysia was viewed as a modern and progressive Islamic country, said Jawan, of the general feedback received during his stay in Washington.
Since joining the foreign service 20 years ago, it had been an enriching experience for the father of three as his children had also adapted well, from their exposure to different cultures.
“There are many opportunities (in the foreign service). We tend to want to be close to home and less adventurous but there should not be any inhibition for Sarawakians to carve a successful career as full-fledged diplomats,” he said, adding that he would always find time to return to his hometown, Sibu.
For Jawan, it is equally challenging to measure up to the state’s first career diplomat, former Malaysian ambassador to Venezuela Datuk John Tenewi Nuek, a Bidayuh from Bau.
He said Nuek did a splendid job, adding that his fellow Sarawakian would serve as a benchmark for his passion for the job.
Jawan said South Africa, as a major economic power, could enhance bilateral ties, especially in trade relations.
In the last 15 years, Malaysia had established full diplomatic ties with South Africa.
Before 1992, there was not much diplomatic relations due to South Africa’s then apartheid policy.