When international business consultant Bernhard Schutte made his first trip to Malaysia three years ago, he was amazed to find the Southeast Asian nation far more modern, wealthy, pro-American, multi-ethnic and open to foreign investment than he'd imagined.
A monorail whizzed him around the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, past what was then the world's tallest office buildings, the Petronas Towers. Railways with clean cars and new highways easily linked him to other cities. And Schutte found English widely spoken in the ex-British colony, where British-style schooling is free through university level and U.S. companies are the top investors.
"I was astonished to find better infrastructure than South Florida," said the chief executive of Fort Lauderdale-based Digital Media Network Inc.
Schutte gave talks during that visit to Malaysian executives and officials on opportunities for business in South Florida, invited by Malaysia's trade agency.
But back in Broward County, he realized the opportunities were as great -- if not greater -- for business in the opposite direction, from Florida to Malaysia.
After all, the tropical nation of 25 million people had transformed its economy since the 1970s from mainly exporting raw materials, such as rubber, to supplying electronics worldwide, especially computer chips. Already middle-income, it is still climbing the economic ladder, focusing most recently like South Florida on biotechnology.
Furthermore, with one of four Malaysians of Chinese descent, the fast-growing nation offered a solid platform into booming China, he realized.
In February, after more than a year of planning, Schutte will take one of the largest U.S. business delegations to Malaysia. He hopes to accompany about 40 people from 15 companies and from federal, state and county groups. Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, an advocate for U.S. exports, is helping promote the weeklong trip and also may join.
The group's aim: To sell more U.S. goods and services in Malaysia, find new suppliers there and explore partnerships to invest in Malaysia or Florida.
Best prospects for U.S. exports include such sectors as energy, health care, aviation, environment, telecom, franchising and education, organizers said.
Already signed up for the trip are executives from the Florida Space Authority, an economic development group based at Cape Canaveral, representing the state's aerospace industry; plus Alpine Engineered Products Inc. of Pompano Beach, which sells software and services for the building industry.
"With its substantial economic growth and access to other Asian countries, Malaysia offers an ideal opportunity," said Alpine chief executive Chris A. Cronje.
Fort Lauderdale-based food trader John P. Bauer, president of Basic Food International Inc., also plans to travel, aiming to find new sources of seafood, especially shrimp. With Washington slapping extra duties on shrimp from China and other key suppliers amid trade disputes, he wants to diversify his supplier network.
The trip comes as Malaysia's economy has rebounded from the Asian financial crisis of 1997, posting economic growth of 4 percent in 2002 and nearly 5 percent last year. The economy sprinted at a 7.2 percent pace in the first half, thanks in part to buoyancy in China and other Asian markets.
Malaysia's political leadership is boosting business confidence, too. Soft-spoken Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi last year replaced Mahathir Mohamad, who served 22 years at the country's helm and was known for sometimes lashing out at U.S. policy.
Mahathir had made headlines in 1998 by rejecting some International Monetary Fund recommendations and imposing some controls on capital. But with Malaysia's strong recovery, the government ended the most controversial control in 2001 -- a 10 percent exit tax when foreign investors cashed out from stocks and bonds and took that money out of the country.
Indeed, Washington's relations with Malaysia have been warming since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. U.S. officials cite "excellent cooperation" with the mostly Muslim and secular nation in the war on terror. Mahathir visited President Bush in 2002 and Abdullah visited this summer, pledging further support.
"Abdullah's visit to Washington in July has people taking a fresh look at Malaysia," said Marc Mealy, senior director for the U.S.-Malaysia Business Council in Washington, D.C. "And what they see is lots of new investment coming in, political stability and a good business environment."
Schutte is organizing the Florida trip to Malaysia set for Feb. 25 to March 6 with help from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Florida District Export Council, the Broward Alliance and other groups. Malaysia Airlines, which operates a regional office in Fort Lauderdale, will provide discounts on flights between Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpur.
Doreen Hemlock can be reached at 305-810-5009.