February 20, 2012
The Summing Up: Time to Buck Up, Wisma Putra
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 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!
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. http://aseanmattersforamerica.org/about-the-project .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.
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.