July 2, 2014
Growing Up With A Nation That Isn’t
by Dr. M. Bakri Musa,Morgan-Hill, California
Ahmad Kamil Jaafar’s Growing Up With The Nation
Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013. 256 pp. RM135
The life of a diplomat, as the laity sees it, is one of glittering cocktails parties, spacious residences in leafy exclusive neighborhoods, and being pampered in MAS first-class cabins, all paid for by taxpayers.
So it was a surprise to read this opening line in Growing Up With The Nation
, the memoir of Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, Malaysia’s former top diplomat, “The life of a diplomat and foreign policy maker can be pretty much routine and humdrum during the best of times.” Then as if to underscore this point, midway through the book, in the chapter “China – A Transformational Journey,” he writes, “Finding myself with ample free time I tried my hand at learning Chinese … and Chinese brush painting.”
This was the mid-1980s when China was undergoing, as per the chapter title, transformational changes under Deng Xiaoping. To be bored or have ample free time at such a period reflected more on the caliber of our diplomats generally rather than on Kamil Jaafar’s talent, ability, or diligence.
It was commendable for Kamil to learn Mandarin. It would have been even more impressive had he done it before being posted there. There was (and is) no lack of opportunities for learning that language in Malaysia. Granted, the Malaysian Chinese accent may be way off the Beijing variety, nonetheless the basics remain the same.
Kamil Jaafar is privileged to have been given the great opportunity and responsibility to guide the young nation. There are many others, but most are content to spend their retirement collecting lucrative GLC directorship fees and hitting golf balls. Malaysians owe Kamil a huge debt of gratitude for having taken time and effort to recollect his experiences so others could benefit.
Maximal Recollection, Minimal Reflection
Kamil’s memoir, competently written, spans a career of over three decades. He retired in 1996 as the top civil servant in the Foreign Ministry, and then continued on as Special Envoy. He covers vast expanse of water. However, as any scuba diver would tell you, the world underneath is even more rich, challenging and fascinating. Skimming the surface may get you far but at the price of missing this wonderful universe below. Stating it diplomatically, Kamil’s memoir has maximal recollection but at the expense of thoughtful reflection.
On the rare occasions when he does pause, Kamil is astute and penetrating, revealing much. Recalling a meeting between Prime Minister Mahathir and Chairman Deng, Kamil noted the large spittoon which Deng used only three times during the entire encounter. Kamil congratulated Mahathir, deeming the meeting a success, at least by that criterion. Deng may be a transformational leader of the biggest country, but in mannerisms he was just another coolie. Diplomatically spun, Deng remained faithful to his plebian origin.
During Abdullah Badawi’s tenure as Foreign Minister, Kamil felt like his ministry was under the Prime Minister’s Department. That reveals volumes as to Abdullah’s capability and contribution. Apparently Abdullah was satisfied if not reveled in being sidelined.
Abdullah was a special guest at the book’s launching. He obviously had not read the book, or if he did, missed that subtle but devastating jab. Or I could be over reading that passage.
In a post-publication interview Kamil related how tough he was with his subordinates. I wish he had been equally frank and tough on his political superiors. Did he see any parallel between Abdullah’s performance as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister? As for the other dozen or so foreign ministers Kamil served under, none merited more than just a few bland lines penned in passing. Most were skipped entirely. Perhaps that said it all.
Of all the Prime Ministers, only Mahathir did not serve concurrently as foreign minister. Yet Kamil devotes more ink to him than to anyone else. His adoration for Mahathir is unbridled, and evident throughout the book. Yet when Kamil lamented on the poor English of our young diplomats and how that handicaps them professionally, he fails to make the connection. Mahathir is most responsible for this sorry state, first as Minister of Education and later as Prime Minister.
Mahathir appointed Kamil Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry; I reckon that has much to do with this uncritical appraisal. As for that promotion, Kamil recalled his colleagues urging him to decline it, in deference to the incumbent who had been at it for only six months. That reveals the destructive culture of the civil service, this tunggu geleran (patiently waiting your turn), like landing planes at a busy airport. That, more than anything else, is responsible for the anti-meritocratic norms of the civil service. There is no such thing as “fast tracking.”
Kamil rationalized his acceptance thus: “I dare not go against the Prime Minister’s decision.” I would have preferred had he asserted that he could do a better job. False modesty is hard to conceal while the genuine form is overrated. Besides, a senior civil servant should never fear of going against his political superior if that is the wise thing to do.
Kamil had a brief and less-than-laudatory paragraph on Prime Minister Hussein Onn, recalling a meeting involving a sensitive issue related to a neighboring country. Kamil and his counterparts in the Home Ministry including its Minister, Ghazali Shafie, had concocted a nefarious scheme the nature of which was not revealed. When they finished briefing Hussein, he became visibly angry and reprimanded them.
“What you are doing is a bottomless pit. You cannot do to others what you do not want others to do to you,” Kamil quoted Hussein, who ordered an immediate halt. Kamil did not describe his or Ghazali’s reaction to this dressing down.
Hussein was not known to be a decisive leader but on that occasion when he most needed to be, he was. That brief anecdote epitomized Hussein’s integrity and fair-mindedness. I remind readers that the odious phrase “cronyism, corruption and nepotism” entered the popular Malaysian lexicon only after Hussein left office. As an aside, he was not cited in the index, perhaps an honest slip.
John Kenneth Galbraith, Kennedy’s political-appointee Ambassador to India, wrote in his Ambassador’s Journal that Kennedy read his (Galbraith’s) dispatches because they were a joy. I assume that most diplomatic communications are not, consumed as they are with being detached and laced with bureaucratese as well as bewildering acronyms. They are also written so as not to offend anyone.
Kamil no longer needs to be deferential to his former superiors. He should have been critical of their performances. He should go beyond lamenting the current sorry state of Malaysia and analyze the “who, what, where, when, why and how.” Which leaders were most culpable for our nation not growing up? If luminaries like Kamil shy away from this crucial responsibility, then by default it would fall on the tin kosong jaguh kampong (empty tin-can village champions). And the nation would be the poorer for that.
Proposed Diplomat’s Assignment
Kamil recalled how as a young diplomat he was clueless as there was no one to guide him. Now having reached the pinnacle of his career, he put forth few ideas to guide his young successors, except for them to improve their English. That in itself reveals volumes on the state of our foreign service.
To fill this void, I share with our diplomats, young and old, this advice, the one my late father gave me before I left for Canada back in 1963. Observe the country and its people, he counseled me, be perceptive of and receptive to your new environment. Heed the wisdom of our culture, Alam terkembang di jadikan guru (Let the expanding universe be your teacher), echoing Wordsworth’s “Let nature be your teacher.”
In particular my father asked me to ponder this question: Why was it that Canada was offering those generous scholarships to young Malaysians and not Malaysia to Canadians?
Tailoring it to our diplomats, I would advise them thus. Study one feature of your host country that is worthy of our emulation, or conversely, the one to avoid falling into. Our Third Secretary in Venezuela could learn how that country successfully used music to empower poor children and produce superb youth orchestras as well as many accomplished young conductors. Our High Commissioner to Nigeria would warn us of the fate that awaits Malaysia if it does not get a handle on corruption, while that to Pakistan, the dangers if religious extremists were to get the upper hand.
With that assignment tagged onto their regular duties our diplomats, novice and seasoned, would never again complain of their posting “being routine and humdrum,” or having “ample free time.” Thus occupied, they would not likely get themselves into mischief or otherwise embarrass the nation.
Dr. M.Bakri Musa’s own memoir, Cast From The Herd. Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia, is due out in 2015.