The Summing Up: Time to Buck Up, Wisma Putra

February 20, 2012

The Summing Up: Time to Buck Up, Wisma Putra

by Din Merican

What started as a criticism of a vacuous piece in The Star by Tan Sri Radzi Abdul Rahman, Secretary-General of Wisma Putra, unleashed an unprecedented number of comments. Dennis’ article in The Star further added to the lively debate. In the process an inept High Commissioner to the UK, Zakaria Sulong, was exposed by the Bruno Manser Foundation for intemperate comments on the Penans of Sarawak.

A total of 300 comments were received. Though some comments missed the point or tried to shoot the messenger, most were constructive.  Several retired ambassadors and civil servants too contributed by way of useful suggestions.

My blogging friends and associates and I had hoped to see a robust reply from Wisma Putra. But what we got was a shoddy, shallow and thoughtless cut-and-paste piece by Ahmad Rozian, Undersecretary for Information and Public Diplomacy, replete with factual errors.

That he couldn’t get the facts right about Ambassador Hamidon’s tenure as Chair of UN Fifth committee is simply inexcusable particularly since Hamidon is still serving in Wisma Putra as Chairman of the Chemical Weapons Convention, probably a few doors away from Ahmad Rozian.  To add to the embarrassment, Hamidon had to write a letter to The Star to make the correction.

Such gross lapses undermine our faith of the public in the veracity and credibility of Wisma Putra’s information, not to mention public diplomacy. It erodes confidence in our diplomats and our diplomatic service.  If the Undersecretary for Information and Public Diplomacy cannot even get such simple things right how then are we to believe in anything that Wisma Putra says? If Radzi and the Foreign Minister think that such lapses and Zakaria Sulong’s guff are small and should be excused, they are wrong. It shows incompetence and reflects poorly on their leadership.

Wisma Putra in Crisis

Mind you, Embassies here in Kuala Lumpur, including those from ASEAN countries, and chancelleries overseas and governments, and international organisations including NGOs read this blog and know that Wisma Putra is a pale shadow of what it was in the past. Today, it is punching well below its weight.

Clearly Wisma Putra is in crisis. Its leadership needs to approach things as in crisis management.  Crises are opportunity.  It needs an enlightened leadership to recognise the faults and weaknesses of an organization.  A crisis leader needs to be an innovator. A critical ingredient of innovation is openness to receiving and trying out ideas.

In our early days when I was still working under Tan Sri (later Tun) Muhammad Ghazali Shafie, I know that Wisma Putra was open to outside ideas. Working on an outdated playbook is certainly not the way forward.  Wisma Putra needs to be bold to try new ideas.  Here is where Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Radzi (and his immediate predecessor, Rastam Isa) and Rozian have failed, and failed miserably.

Rozian’s response

Rozian’s reply is full of empty phrases that lack credibility.   It reinforces the views expressed by observers here and abroad who say that Malaysia today has no foreign policy, it only has attitude. And our media and the academia tend to be culpable. Wisma Putra’s response or rebuttal shows limited understanding of the realities of regional and world order as pointed out by a former outstanding Ambassador who analysed Rozian’s response and raised many questions. The politicians in Putrajaya dictate  policy and right now, Malaysia is being perceived as leaning heavily towards Obama’s vision of the global order.

For example, Rozian claims “There has indeed been regular foreign policy reviews to respond to domestic realities and the changing external environment. The emphasis now is more on substantive relations and less on the rhetoric. With the dynamic and ever-changing realities of the interdependent and borderless world, there is no denying that Malaysia’s foreign policy continues to be resilient in adjusting and adapting to the country’s domestic policies and external environment.”  What is the meaning of this?   If I were to give an example of rhetorical statement, this one is a classic!

Broad Observations

Bilateral Relations

Let’s look into how Malaysia’s foreign affairs have been conducted.  Our bilateral relations seem to be conducted through private and back door channels.  Successive Prime Ministers have built up Wisma Putra, but the current leadership has scant use for professional advice, relying on Khazanah Nasional to deal with Singapore and Dato Seri Jamaluddin Jarjis (left with Obama)to handle the United States.

 Our deals with Singapore in respect of KTMB land and water issue are lopsided and a proper all-party debate in Parliament is urgently needed.

Furthermore why have we not resolved the status of South Ledge as ruled by the ICJ in The Hague some three years ago? Why did Wisma Putra not prevent the trading of 434 acres of KTM land in Singapore for very little in return?  Why has Wisma Putra not pursued the demolition of the Causeway and replace it with a straight (not crooked) bridge?

Why is Wisma Putra doing nothing to revise the price of water being sold to Singapore at 3 cents per 1000 gallons for another 50 years until 2061? These few questions pertain only to one of the neighbours. Many more questions can be asked about relations with the other neighbours.

Bilateral relations with other ASEAN partners too haven’t been great.  Why hasn’t the Philippines President visited Malaysia yet?  Is it a result of the insensitive remarks by the wife of our Ambassador in Manila? Apparently, she had insulted Dr. Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Filipino people. And what did Wisma Putra do? It maintained “elegant silence” on this matter.

We are pleased to note that our relationship with the United States is a vast improvement from its lows reached during the Dr Mahathir administration. However in what way is Malaysia benefiting from this improved relationship?  Why did we agree to send soldiers to Afghanistan when others were pulling out?  Is it a case of trying to make amends to the US for our “bad” behaviour in the past?

While we have been grovelling without a plan in our head, our neighbours like Singapore have been playing a sophisticated game. Singapore and the US recently signed a Joint Vision Statement on New Political Framework. The statement says “This cooperation will be in support of regional institutions including the East Asia Summit, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and other regional organizations and initiatives”.  What are we doing?


We have repeated ad infinitum that ASEAN is the cornerstone of our foreign policy.   But going by Rozian’s reply it is evident that Wisma lacks understanding of ASEAN. He says a “true” ASEAN Community would emerge in 2015.  In the case of ASEAN, is there a “false” ASEAN Community?  It’s no good saying that the ASEAN Community will become a reality in 2015.  What is it for the ordinary men and women?  Can Wisma Putra start by articulating its vision of the ASEAN Community?

If you visit the East West Centre website you will read about “ASEAN Matters for America. .This is part of a broader project called Asia Matters for America. The aim of this project is to ensure that Asia remains an important foreign policy objective for America. It is a comprehensive and multi-activity effort to demonstrate and track ASEAN’s importance to the United States, and the United States’ importance to ASEAN.  Guess who is collaborating with the East West Center on this project – the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) of Singapore. So while we simply talk Singapore is positioning itself as the main intellectual leader of ASEAN.

Wisma’s institutions

We seem to twiddling our fingers while our neighbours are moving ahead.  Have we hosted any important initiatives with key institutions elsewhere?  Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) is a power house when it comes to research and publication. What has our Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Policy (IDFR) done for example?  We have the Southeast Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism (SEARCCT)?  What has it done?  New ideas brought forward, such as the creation of Council on Foreign Relations to provide a second opinion on matters of foreign policy, were simply shunted aside by Wisma Putra. Why?

Language and Thinking Skills

Our diplomats have demonstrated time and again, their inability to hold a conversation in the English language.  Zakaria Sulong is one unfortunate evidence.  He could have better delivered his message had he been more conversant in the language.  Yet Wisma has decided that internal communications are to be in Bahasa Malaysia. We too are patriots and we too want to see Bahasa Malaysia strengthened. Wisma Putra is being complacent by damaging its own ability to conduct business in English.  When a crisis strikes that’s when we will realise that our diplomats are no longer able to rise to the challenge.

Diplomats like academics have to constantly practice their analytical and writing skills. Diplomats must be encouraged, if not forced to write.  They should write articles and ideas in journals or even the press.  Some readers on this blog challenged our diplomats to write in leading journals and magazines such as the Foreign Affairs and Foreign policy. We should also encourage retired ambassadors to also do the same.

Wisma Putra’s Public Face

The consular service and its website are among others constitutes Wisma Putra’s public face.   Both are ugly.   While some improvements have been noted there are far too many grouses about poor service by our diplomats overseas.

The ministry’s website can be improved vastly.  The material on it is pathetic.  It is unclear and not helpful.The so-called Strategic Review is not easy to find on the website. Further one suspects that it wouldn’t be of any use either since academics such as Dr Johan Saravanamutu who wrote about Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in the last 50 years found the report to be anything but strategic .

Diplomacy is not for Amateurs

I would like to quote Ernst Sucharipa, whose paper, 21st Century Diplomacy,appeared on this blog on February 13 as follows:

Quote: The globalization of international relations, the internationalization of national policy areas and the growing awareness, that global problems require global solutions signify new important functions for diplomacy. Diplomats have become”managers of globalization”; they are tasked to manage the”global village” in which we live.

The modern diplomat must in the first instance be a coordination expert. He or she must be able to meet the demands posed by globalization and be able to draw the right conclusions and policy recommendations from international developments, which are more often than not interwoven and mutually supportive. The diplomat must be able, also in small teams, to motivate and show leadership. She or he must be a public relations expert and must have a sound knowledge in foreign policy issues in general as well as in global issues. The diplomat must also be well versed in languages. This”generalist” will also need a sound background in economics and should be a seasoned negotiator in theory and practice. In short, our”generalist” is a”specialist” in the art of diplomacy.

However, in particular in the case of smaller foreign services this will not suffice: If we want to recognize the dire reality of scarce resources of available personnel and funding, we must have our diplomacy specialist, also trained to be a true specialist in one particular domain: e.g. multilateral diplomacy, international law, economic integration, environmental issues or development cooperation. And he or she would expect over the course of the career to be able, more than once, to have a posting where this special knowledge can also be put to use.

The 21st century promises to be crowded and contentious. It will need a Foreign Service, which is a repository of the history of civilization; it will need wise and able negotiators and conciliators. It will need the diplomat on the spot, in danger or in calm, who can say what will or what will not work, who can foresee problems and solve them. Ideally, he is the man who is “in control of the occasion” as Demosthenes described the Athenian diplomat, “the man on whose wisdom, steadiness, goodwill, integrity and faithful account policy must rely.”Service, which is a repository of the history of civilization; it will need wise and able negotiators and conciliators. It will need the diplomat on the spot, in danger or in calm, who can say what will or what will not work, who can foresee problems and solve them. Ideally, he is the man who is “in control of the occasion” as Demosthenes described the Athenian diplomat, “the man on whose wisdom, steadiness, goodwill, integrity and faithful account policy must rely.”-Unquote

We need to revamp Wisma Putra so that it can become the driving force for better relations with the rest of the world. This is a matter of top priority, one that cannot be taken lightly. The consensus from my readers is that our diplomacy is ineffective because we lack diplomats who can represent our country on the world stage and command the respect of the rest of the international community for our consistency and clarity of purpose in projecting our national interest. Listen to the message with humility. The message is a simple one: Wisma Putra, it is time to buck up or you, as Dennis said, will be  adrift.

* I wish to express my thanks to commenters, friends and former diplomats who willingly shared their views and expressed their opinions with no malice. We have no axes to grind. We all want our country to be respected for our talent and creativity. After all, we are very talented people. As usual, I remain solely responsible for the contents of the article.

The End of American Intervention

February 2o, 2012

NY Times Opinion


The End of American Intervention

by James Traub

FOR the last 20 years we have lived amid the furious clangor of war — and debates over how to wage it. The intense and urgent clashes in the 1990s over “humanitarian intervention” gave way to pitched battles over “regime change” and “democracy promotion” after 9/11, and then to arguments over “counterinsurgency strategy,” a new battle for hearts and minds, as Barack Obama ramped up the war in Afghanistan.

The foreign policy debate has often felt like an ideological cockfight. And now, although we have not yet realized it, that era has come to an end.

For proof, you need look no further than the Pentagon’s new “strategic guidance” document, issued last month in the wake of Mr. Obama’s pledge to cut $485 billion from the defense budget over the coming decade. It repeats many of the core objectives of recent American national security strategy: defeat Al Qaeda, deter traditional aggressors, counter the threat from unconventional weapons.

But it also states, “In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize nonmilitary means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations.” It goes on to note that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”

With this paragraph military planners signaled an abrupt end to the post-9/11 era of intervention. Only a few years ago the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — wars of occupation, nation-building and counterinsurgency — looked like the face of modern conflict. Now they don’t. Americans don’t believe in them and can’t afford them anymore.

The strategic guidance hit one other very new note: While American forces will continue to maintain a significant presence in the Middle East, the planners wrote, “We will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region.” This is bureaucratic code for “we will stand up to China,” which, the Obama administration has concluded, has superseded Al Qaeda as the chief future threat to American national security.

To say this is not merely to assert that one region has taken precedence over another but that the traditional threat of the expansionist state has supplanted the threat of the stateless actor that emerged after 9/11. Of course, global problems like climate change, epidemic disease, nuclear proliferation and terrorism won’t go away. But in matters of war and peace, we seem to be returning to a more familiar world in which great powers maneuver for advantage.

We left that world behind, or so we thought, with the end of the cold war, which deprived America of its traditional enemy and thus raised the question of whether and when we would resort to force.

The answer came in the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration felt compelled to respond to political chaos in Haiti and mass violence in the Balkans. Force could be used in the pursuit of justice. During the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush vowed to put an end to these moralistic enterprises and to focus instead on great-power relations.

But 9/11 turned those plans upside down. Indeed, the Bush administration’s 2002 national security strategy asserted that “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” Mr. Bush, far more than Mr. Clinton, yoked the use of force to a transcendent principle, insisting that America “must defend liberty and justice because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere.”

Those were fighting words, and not just abroad. The debate over the war in Iraq revived many of the old debates from the Clinton era. Liberal internationalists like the British prime minister, Tony Blair, joined American neoconservatives like William Kristol and Robert Kagan in arguing for the use of force to bring about transformative political change, while “realists” on the left and right warned of the danger of reckless adventures.

The era we have now entered will be a less ideologically charged one. The questions raised by China’s growing ambitions are categorically different from those provoked by 9/11. China is an emerging power, and once having found their footing, emerging powers usually seek to expand at the expense of their neighbors.

he world is accustomed to dealing with this kind of problem, which involves persuading the bumptious power that its interests lie in cooperation rather than in confrontation. And there is a fair amount of consensus in policy circles about how to deal with it. Conservatives have been sounding alarms about China’s military ambitions for several years, and the Obama administration has now begun to execute a “pivot” to Asia. On a visit to the region, President Obama announced that America would station 2,500 Marines in Australia, even as it decreased military commitments elsewhere.

WHATEVER policy the Obama administration or its successor adopts toward China, the broader East Asian region, unlike the Middle East, is filled with stable, and largely democratic, states. The United States does not have to defend liberty and justice there. Regime change, democracy promotion and nation-building will be off the table. So, for that matter, will war.

America is not about to go to war with China, or with anyone else in Asia. The struggle to balance Chinese ambition will be left mostly to the Navy and Air Force, and our allies in the region. And it will not be a metaphysical one: the very complicated relationship with China is much less a clash of worldviews than of interests.

Finally, there is the elemental fact that America can no longer afford its own ambitions. The failure of last year’s bipartisan effort to solve the deficit crisis triggered automatic cuts that are supposed to double the half-trillion dollars already scheduled to be sliced from the Pentagon budget.

In his 2010 book, “The Frugal Superpower,” Michael Mandelbaum argued that the contraction of the American economy meant that “the defining fact of foreign policy in the second decade of the 21st century and beyond will be ‘less.’ ” Mr. Mandelbaum, himself a leading realist, suggested that the chief victim of the new austerity will be “intervention.”

It may be so, though the NATO air campaign in Libya shows that humanitarian intervention is neither defunct nor doomed to failure. Such ventures, however, will be very rare, as the current stalemate over Syria implies. The coming years may well be a period of at least relative austerity, modesty and realism. Should we feel relieved?

It is easy enough to say that the United States should no longer fight wars of occupation in the Middle East, or seek to promote democracy through regime change, or undertake counterinsurgency campaigns on a massive scale. But in a world of weak and failing states, are we also to abandon ambitious hopes to help build stable and democratic institutions abroad? Is foreign aid to wind up on the junk heap of failed dreams?

America has been and can continue to be a force for good in the world. But those of us who have championed an idealistic foreign policy have been deeply chastened by the failure of so many fine hopes and have been forced to recognize both how much harm the United States can do with the best of intentions and how very hard it is to shape good outcomes inside other countries. So we must accept, if uneasily, the future which now seems to lie before us: We will do less good in the world, but also less harm.

James Traub is a columnist at, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation and the author of “The Freedom Agenda.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on February 19, 2012, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: The End of American Intervention.

Netto: Pakatan Rakyat Shadow cabinet not necessary

February 20, 2012

Netto: Pakatan Rakyat Shadow cabinet not necessary

by Terence

COMMENT In politics, rash talk is cheap especially on the part of those who do not have the responsibility.Right now, the cheapest bilge is the one about Pakatan Rakyat not having the guts to announce a shadow cabinet.

BN supremo Najib Razak had only ultra partisan political motives in mind when he alluded to Pakatan’s lack of a shadow cabinet. He attributed it to the absence of a plan to govern because, after all, he said Pakatan was only “a motley collection of parties and individuals who shouldn’t really inspire confidence in the public.”

This was how Prime Minister Najib last weekend set off a newly heightened phase in BN’s Pakatan-bashing campaign when he officiated at an MCA-organised seminar. His coalition ally, MCA president Dr Chua Soi Lek, took the cue, accentuating the shrillness of the BN rhetoric by attacking DAP rabidly before and during his televised debate with its secretary-general the same day.

Sure, credit the PM for elegant phrasing – “motley collection” is one of the more pithy phrases to drip from a Malaysian politician’s arsenal in this election season – but debit him for amnesia about the history of his own party where unwonted haste in delineating the line of succession had been detrimental to its ability to allow talent to emerge from intra-party competition.

Succession based on pre-selection or appointment to the upper brackets of democratic groups is always a tricky issue. In gestating political entities, even in mature ones, haste in this matter quite often results in choices that are a poor fit for the challenges the party might have to face.

Hence a calculated stall when it comes to establishing the line of succession by publicly announced allocation of portfolios is a wiser move, especially in coalitions that are still in the embryonic stage of their evolution.

Pressured by Mahathir

Najib had only to advert to his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s coerced (by Dr Mahathir Mohamad) selection of him in January 2004 as an example of shortened gestation leading to heightened intra-party rivalry that complicates the task of meeting its challenges when these are at their most acute, as is the case with UMNO at present.

Recounting what happened in that Abdullah-appoints-Najib episode helps make the point.Abdullah had taken over from Mahathir as UMNO president in late October 2003. He delayed appointing a deputy simply because he wanted to call a general election before holding the UMNO internal election which would then anoint him as president and elect a deputy.

This process, albeit slower, enjoyed the advantage of being reliant on legitimate, democratic norms of succession and replenishment. As with justice in constitutional polities, so with democracy in political parties: the succession process must not only be done democratically, it must be seen to be so.

However, an arbitrary note was introduced to the whole question of the post-Mahathir succession in UMNO by Mahathir’s sabotaging of the process. He feared that Abdullah would appoint Muhyiddin Yassin. To forestall that move, Mahathir, still powerful despite having left office, pressured Abdullah to appoint Najib in preference to Muhyiddin. A dithering Abdullah obliged.

The post-Mahathir phase of succession in UMNO, already fraught from the selection and spurning of three deputies (Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba and Anwar Ibrahim) during Mahathir’s protracted reign as president, was rendered even more tenuous by Abdullah’s forced appointment of Najib as acting deputy president in January 2004.

The appointment gave Najib an undeserved edge in the race to succeed Abdullah: pre-appointed deputy presidents in UMNO are seldom upended. But the pre-selection of Najib was added fuel to Muhyiddin’s ambitions.

Muhyiddin himself is rather down-the-line as a candidate for elevation in UMNO, he being a beneficiary of the factional battles in the party as a consequence of Mahathir’s prolonged tenure.
Damaging rivalry

What UMNO has been witness to since January 2004 is a damaging rivalry in its upper echelons which, though it is conducted in camouflaged mode, is destructive to the party’s ability to come up with viable responses to the challenge of its declining support.

Would this have eventuated had Najib beaten Muhyiddin – or vice versa – in the contest for deputy president in party elections in 2004 after Abdullah had been unchallenged as president following his thumping victory in the general election earlier that year?

A democratically elected choice made in the fullness of time in comparison to a forced appointment made in exigent circumstances pacifies the body politic whereas the latter roils it.

Pakatan’s appointment of a shadow cabinet now would replicate UMNO’s practice of pre-selecting its deputy president – the only time it did not do so was once in the 1950s and in 1981 – and expose itself to destructive intra-component party and intra-coalition rivalries.

Such rivalries can be both plasma and poison to democratic political parties; the fact of it’s being the one or the other dependent on the particular time the parties find themselves in.

There is no hard and fast rule but it is certain that an evolving political entity would be unwise to hasten the gestation of its talent and personnel that would emerge in due time, like those pellets that have to lie under the surface of water before they can flower.

Myanmar’s New Dawn

February 20, 2012

Myanmar’s success is good for ASEAN

Myanmar’s New Dawn

by Dato’ Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria

“Myanmar is on the verge of a new political and economic beginning. Trade and investment sanctions are coming down. National reconciliation dominates domestic politics. And the conditions for the commencement of economic reconstruction appear to be falling into place…All this is good news. Myanmar is a country full of promise. It has vast reserves of natural resources and its people are hardworking and capable. Given the space and the opportunity, it will develop and grow, driven by a desire to prosper and join the developed world.”–Dato’ Dr. Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria

ON February 26, International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed will meet with his ASEAN counterparts in Nay Pyi Daw, Myanmar, to discuss regional economic issues.

This will be the 18th session of the ASEAN Economic Ministers’ (AEM) meeting, and the fact that it is being held in Myanmar is of no special significance, given that it is the country’s rotational turn. Until now, that is.

Events in Myanmar have unfolded so rapidly that this meeting in Myanmar’s new capital city has now assumed a much higher profile.

Myanmar is on the verge of a new political and economic beginning. Trade and investment sanctions are coming down. National reconciliation dominates domestic politics. And the conditions for the commencement of economic reconstruction appear to be falling into place.

All this is good news. Myanmar is a country full of promise. It has vast reserves of natural resources and its people are hardworking and capable. Given the space and the opportunity, it will develop and grow, driven by a desire to prosper and join the developed world.

Myanmar’s success will be good for ASEAN too. It will give the regional organisation more heft and make the ASEAN Economic Community a more meaningful proposition. In practical terms, how will Myanmar’s economic development proceed?

There are models of development in ASEAN that Myanmar can look at. Its three fellow members in the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) grouping in ASEAN. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam opened up their economies earlier and have achieved different levels of success. The development experience of the six other more mature economies in ASEAN can also be instructive.

Tax exemption

The Myanmar has announced a number of measures to boost private investment and take advantage of the overwhelming interest from the global business community. On the cards are: eight year tax exemptions to foreign investors; revision of its investment laws within the first quarter of the year; increased health and education budgets while reducing the defense budget. To boost tourism and facilitate trade, Myanmar plans to re-introduce an e-visa system. It is also looking to upgrade the Yangon International Airport to accommodate more planes and passengers.

And there’s also good news for Myanmar’s business community and citizens: Myanmar money exchangers are now allowed to process up to US$10,000 into kyat without documentations, a 500% increase from what was previously allowed.

There is no doubt that significant amounts of loans and foreign investment will be needed to fund its development. Maintaining a right balance between public sector effort and private enterprise is equally important in determining the pace and direction of development. The Myanmar economy is forecast to grow at between 4% and 6% in 2012 and 2013, and probably at a higher rate after that. Much would depend on the country’s ability to deliver on economic reforms, which in turn will lead to increased investment flows.

Myanmar, no doubt, will chart its own development path. The rest of ASEAN will want it to succeed, and indeed, one of Mustapa’s priorities at the coming weekend’s AEM meeting will be to push for greater effort to narrow the development gap between the CLMV and ASEAN Six.

Before attending the AEM retreat, Mustapa will lead a trade and investment mission to Thailand and Myanmar from Feb 22 to Feb 25. Joining him will be a sizeable private sector delegation from Malaysia.

Familiarisation trips

The minister’s investment mission to Myanmar aims to familiarise Malaysian businesses with the rapid changes taking place in the country. Malaysia’s business community has much to contribute to the growth and development of Myanmar.

Our bilateral trade and investment flows are limited. In 2011, total bilateral trade amounted to only RM2.4bil or less than 1% of Malaysia’s global trade. The good news: trade has been growing at an annual average of 13.5%.

Malaysia is the seventh largest investor in the country. Our investments in Myanmar as at December 31, 2011 however amounted to only US$977.46mil. Clearly, so much remains untapped.

The Government would also be keen to find out how it could collaborate with its Myanmar counterparts to support its development plans. Currently, Malaysia provides technical assistance to the CLMV through the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme and the Initiatives for Asean Integration (IAI). Under the IAI, Malaysia contributed US$5.2mil to various projects in CLMV. This we will continue to do.

On route to Myanmar, Mustapa would also make a stopover in Bangkok. As with Myanmar, his message in Thailand would be that Malaysia is committed to enhancing trade and investment relations with our ASEAN partners. Although Thailand is Malaysia’s fifth largest trading partner (US$23bil in 2011), Thai equity investments in Malaysia have been minimal. One of Mustapa’s objectives would be to encourage more Thai companies to invest here.

Dato’ Dr Rebecca Fatima Sta. Maria is the Secretary-General of International Trade and Industry Ministry.

Grounding Those High-Flying Kampong Boys

February 20, 2012

Grounding Those High-Flying Kampong Boys

By Dr M. Bakri Musa
Morgan-Hill, California

As I reflect on the many sordid scandals that have blighted Malaysia over the years, I am struck by one sobering observation. That is, the principal players are Malays like me, and of my vintage.

There are exceptions, of course. The mega-ringgit Port Klang Free Zone Development is one. Then there was the Malaysian Chinese Association’s Deposit Taking Cooperative debacle of the mid 1980s. So as not to slight the Indian community, there was the equally ugly affair of MAIKA, the investment arm of the Malaysian Indian Congress.

In East Malaysia there was the Chief Minister of Sabah, one Osu Bin Haji Sukam, who skipped on his multimillion-pound gambling debt incurred in a London casino. His Haji father would roll over in his grave on that one. On a far grander scale with respect to sheer avarice and outrageous obscenity would be the still-to-be-fully-accounted glutton of another chief minister, this one of Sarawak. Purists may argue that these two characters are not Melayu tulen (“pure” Malays), so I will not focus on them.

That would still leave me with plenty of loathsome characters with whom, embarrassingly, I share far too many ready commonalities. Meaning, among others, we were poor, from the kampong, and the first in our family to go to college.

Stated differently, in an unguarded moment, scratch a bit and our “kampongness” would ooze out of our pores. I could readily swap old familiar stories with these high-flying former kampong Malays, of having to light pelita (kerosene wick lamps) in order to study at night, of hauling water in pails hung at the ends of a bamboo pole painfully strung across the shoulder, and of back-breaking plowing of rice fields with our primitive cangkul (hoe).

Those are not just distant hazy memories. Every time I visit my kampong, I am painfully reminded of this harsh reality.

The Laggak (Swagger) of these Malays

I meet many of these high-flying Malays when they visit America on their taxpayer-paid junkets; you could not have guessed their humble origins from their laggak (swagger). One official stayed at the presidential suite of a five-star hotel, the sort usually reserved for President Barack Obama. She then had the audacity to complain that her car in which she was driven in was not the latest luxury model! As for her flight, it was first class all the way.

Recently Prime Minister Najib stayed at a $20,000-a-night penthouse suite of the Darling Hotel in Sydney while his wife splurged on a $100,000 shopping spree in a single day. Even if those figures were in our devalued ringgit, that would still be obscenely extravagant. Najib’s wife denied that Australian report, but having seen her behavior while she was visiting America, I believe the Australian account. Najib’s predecessor from Kepala Batas, Penang was even more indulgent, what with his fondness for custom-made, ultra-luxury Airbus and yacht!

Najib and his wife, self-styled Malaysia’s “first couple,” compare themselves to our Sultans, who in turn model themselves after the British and Saudi monarchs. More the latter as the House of Windsor is now much more restrained; not so the House of Saud, still amply funded by their overflowing oil wells. Ours are fast drying up.

With such extravagances and excesses at the top, no wonder lesser kutus (characters) try to outdo each other. Consider one Khir Toyo, a former dentist. Thanks to a liberalized legal definition, this son of a Javanese immigrant is now Melayu tulen. He fancied himself a shrewd businessman who could drive a hard bargain and thus secured for himself a mega-mansion at half-price! The only problem was that his “victim” was someone who did considerable business with Selangor while Toyo was its Chief Minister.

It was of course no shrewd bargaining, merely of, as Prime Minister Najib would inelegantly but nonetheless accurately put it, “Gua tolong lu, lu tolong gua!” (You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours!). A more appropriate term would be extorting, but then this Khir Toyo was a product of our all-Malay education system and had only recently learned English; hence his inability to discern the not-so-subtle difference between negotiating and extorting.

Too bad this Toyo did not use his negotiating prowess to secure for Selangor similar lean contracts! Thank God that he is now a former chief minister! He would still be Chief Minister if Barisan Nasional had won the last election(2008). This point is worth pondering come the next general elections.

The latest but by no means most egregious example of these sordid scandals involves the National Feedlot Corporation, tasked with spearheading a meat-production industry to help poor rural dwellers. At least that is the rationale, hence the generous government low-interest loans.

The principal there is one Dr. Salleh Ismail; he is now more known as the husband of a federal minister. Many Malays who reach the top today are not known for their brilliance; they may have degrees but often from third-rate universities or even blatant degree mills. Imbecility is the norm at the highest levels.

Salleh, however, is the exception. He is one of the early Malay PhDs in science, and not just any doctorate but one from Cornell at Ithaca, New York . He is precisely the sort of Malay the government should be rewarding.

So I have no problem with his getting the cattle project instead of some incompetent UMNO operatives or science-illiterate retired civil servants. Nor do I quibble with his putting his children on his company’s payroll; after all it is his company.

As with any project, the best way to get the best candidate or price would be through competitive bidding. Today, there are many more qualified Malays with proven entrepreneurial flair especially in this field of rearing animals. Many also have proven research expertise directly in the area. The likes of Salleh Ismail are no longer a rarity.

My greatest disappointment is with Dr. Salleh using taxpayer-subsidized loans to buy luxury condominiums. The irony of his getting special Bumiputra discounts! Dr. Salleh is, of course, free to do what he wants with his personal assets. Equally if not more reprehensible would be the responsible ministers and treasury officials; they should have disbursed the loan conditionally and in phases, upon proof of satisfactory performance.

This “cowgate” scandal pales in comparison to an earlier and much more expensive one involving Tajuddin Ramli and Malaysia Airlines. Like Salleh, Tajuddin is the son of a villager from Simpang Empat Kangkong, near Alor Setar in Kedah, a predominantly Malay and very poor state. Like Salleh, Tajuddin too still has many poor relatives back in the kampongs.

You would think that the memories of their still miserable relatives in the kampong would put a damper on the laggak of these high-flying Malays.

 Shaming By Showing Them Up

Dr. Salleh is from Kelantan. I was on vacation there once and witnessed the appalling poverty that tugged at my sensibilities. I wonder whether Salleh feels that way too when he visits Bachok; those villagers could well be his cousins, once or twice removed. He could have invested in building homes for them and his would-be franchise farmers instead of splurging on luxury condos. He would then be hailed a hero instead of yet another spouse or relative of an UMNO minister hogging the public trough.

To develop our society we must give young Malays, especially those from the kampongs, a first-class education that would prepare them for the best universities, the kind that Dr. Salleh was privileged to partake. That is our only hope. Yes, some will forget their humble origin and be consumed with their newly-acquired luxury tastes, courtesy of Ketuanan Melayu of course. However, there will more than a few with enough conscience; their modest behaviors would then shame these high-flying pseudo-sophisticated kampong Malays with their taxpayer-supported laggak.

There is a viral video on the Internet showing Gary Locke(left with Mrs Locke), the current American Ambassador to China, carrying his own luggage and ordering his coffee at an airport cafe. Locke is an American Chinese, but his very American style – singularly lacking in pretensions – is causing much discomfort among Chinese officialdom.

We have many brilliant and unassuming former children of the kampongs. They are doing their best under very trying circumstances for our nation.

I am humbled and more than just a bit embarrassed in their presence. Unlike Dr. Salleh or Khairy, these Malays are not married or related to top UMNO operatives. Many would consider that plain unlucky, but those smart dedicated Malays feel otherwise. They consider themselves lucky to be spared the corrupting influences around them.

In my forthcoming book, Liberating the Malay Mind, I profiled a few of these admirable individuals. One in particular, Professor Badri Muhammad, deserves special mention. Like Dr. Salleh, Badri was also from a village in Kelantan and obtained his PhD (Dalhousie, in Cchemistry) a few years earlier than Dr. Salleh.

Badri’s legacies, however, are not luxury condominiums or multimillion-ringgit companies, but his children, biological as well as academic, the many undergraduates and doctoral candidates he inspired and guided. Yes, his biological children too have done well, sporting degrees from top universities, including one, Adam, a Carnegie Mellon PhD in engineering.

Here is another significant difference; despite Badri’s modest academic income, he was able to give his children a superior education sans JPA, MARA, or other Ketuanan Melayu crutches. Contrast that to one Rafidah Aziz, also of my vintage. Like other UMNO officials, she too had her share of scandals. On a visit to America many years ago she bragged about her daughter getting a MARA “scholarship.” Tiada maruah! (No sense of shame.)

With characters like Dr. Salleh, Tajuddin Ramli, Rafidah Aziz and Khir Toyo, it is tempting to indict Malays of my generation. However, I am certain that Malays like Badri are not the exceptions. There are, for example, Syed Mokthar Albukhary and Zaid Ibrahim; both were named as Asia’s philanthropic heroes by Forbes magazine a few years ago. Syed Mokthar gave generously to causes like education while Zaid has dedicated a home for the disabled in Kota Baru.

You do not realize how slothful you look until you are in the company of the well-groomed. Thus we need more Malays like Syed Mokthar, Zaid Ibrahim and my recently-departed dear friend Dr. Badri Muhammad to shame and bring to the ground these high-flying former kampong boys and girls, as Ambassador Locke is now doing to Chinese officials.

A Question of Morality

February 20, 2012

Morality and Accountability: Message to Minister Shahrizat

A Question of Morality


“When a man’s power of tolerance runs out, then whoever is in front of you, if a slap is given, then the brain is put back in place. That is the only road open now.“– India’s anti-graft campaigner Anna Hazare on how to bring corrupt politicians to their senses.

It is only in Malaysia that ministers will not quit willingly when they hit a stinking patch in their political career. They will cling to their seat like a leech for fear of losing a life of privileges and power. So it is with one minister who is clinging on for dear life to her office despite the scandal that has brought shame to the country.

Shahrizat may not be a direct participant in the failed multi-million ringgit venture but by mere association with the project, she is certainly a party to the unsavoury business. She may plead her innocence, but it will not change the grim fact about her family members allegedly siphoning off public money for their personal use. She cannot wriggle her way out by arguing that she is an “outsider”. A family is not made of outsiders.

When the call came for her to go and meet the graft-busters, she gave the impression that she is blameless and guiltless by virtue of her eagerness to be quizzed. She even thanked the corruption-fighters for giving her the opportunity to tell her side of the story. Was she invited to a “barbecue party”? Were they all having a good time laughing off a serious matter?

When a person who holds a public office is pulled up by the authorities to answer serious allegations of wrongdoing, he or she goes in under a cloud as a suspect. Your name is not cleared just because you cooperated willingly with your interrogators. Your name is not cleared until and unless the whole “mess” is cleaned up to the complete satisfaction of the law enforcers – and the public.

The authorities may not pursue the “dung” trail after listening to all the explanations laid out on the table. They may be satisfied with the minister’s “defence” and close the case but it is not going to convince the public one iota. In the face of damning “data”, any attempt to throw the file into the dustbin will smack of a cover-up. The case is of public interest and cannot be dismissed out of hand. More so when a minister is linked to the debacle. Shahrizat may not be at the centre of the storm, but she herself cannot escape from the massive fallout. This is a high-profile case and her ministerial status has been severely compromised. A public figure must take the rap when his or her family members are mired in a scandal. It is what is called collateral damage.

Clean government

Ultimately, it all comes down to promoting a clean government. An unblemished government is one where the hands of every Cabinet minister must be clean. It means the number one boss himself must not have a single spot on his record. If the head of government is himself not above suspicion, he cannot expect his ministers to toe the moral line.

If the supreme leader has skeletons in his cupboard, he will not have the moral authority to lead the country. Then a situation will arise when all the ministers will be protecting each other’s back because all have in one way or another been complicit in some dark act. The Cabinet becomes a cabal where like minded crooks are only interested in acquiring more power and wealth. As a result, if one falls, all fall.

The fate of a minister is not solely determined by the Prime Minister. The latter may choose his ministers but it does not mean that he also decides when they can stay or go. A minister does not need the permission of the Prime Minister to resign over a matter of impropriety. He or she can quit on moral grounds.

If a bridge collapses, the minister responsible for infrastructure should take moral responsibility and step down. Do not put the blame on God (that is the Samy Velu way). Do not wait for the big boss to pronounce for or against you. By giving up your position in the Cabinet, you will spare the country the pang of anger, shame and resentment. It will be a supreme act of courage if the Prime Minister himself takes the blame upon himself for the misdeeds of his minister and call it a day.

Malaysia has yet to witness a day when the Prime minister and his Cabinet resign en masse on allegations of abuse of power or corruption. One country in the Middle East and another one in Eastern Europe saw just such dramatic event unfold in recent times. The governments there did not wait for investigation to be completed into complaints of corruption levelled against them by the opposition. They quit on their own accord. Nearer to home a vast sub-continent is experiencing a “crisis of credibility” in the face of endemic corruption, which may well lead to the downfall of the ruling government.

In Malaysia, political power is a trophy that is fought for and must be defended at all costs even if it means walking “over dead bodies”. For with power comes untold riches – and invariably abuses. A one-term ministership is enough to turn a pauper into a fabulous fat cat. When a rotten Cabinet will not bow down to the will of the people, and “public tolerance has run out”, it is left to the citizens to administer a slap or two on the faces of politicians to “bring them to their senses”.