Kamil Jaafar–The Diplomat Extraordinaire of My Generation

May 19, 2013

Kamil Jaafar–The Diplomat Extraordinaire of My Generation

COMMENT: Kamil Jaafar (he insists that I forget the “Tan Sri” 170px-Khalil_Yaakobbit when I address him) was my senior at MU and Wisma Putra (I joined the Foreign Service in 1963 when Tun Ghazalie Shafie was the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs) and housemate together with Tun Mohd Khalil Yaccob, the present Governor of Malacca (right) and a host of other foreign  service colleagues at No 272, Jalan Brickfields/Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Kuala Lumpur in the heart of Little India.

Despite his many achievements as Malaysia’s top career diplomat, the First Among Equals, Kamil remains the simple and kind man that I knew when we first met at Bukit Mertajam railway station when we took the train to MU at Kuala Lumpur. Of course, he was not really that nice on the train!

Razali IsmailHe and another Kedahan, (Tan Sri) Razali Ismail (left), who was President, United Nations General Assembly in 1996-1997, ragged me throughout the night.  But I suppose the ragging brought us together to this day.

I promised Kamil that I will review his book, Growing Up with the Nation after it is launched by our respected friend, the Governor of Malacca on May 22, 2013 at 4.30 pm at Hotel Impiana, Jalan Pinang, Kuala Lumpur. My wife Dr Kamsiah and I will be there and hope you will join us at the launch.–Din Merican.

The Tiger of Wisma Putra still has his bite

by Balan Moses@http://www.nst.com.my

RESPECTED AND REVERED: After 51 years of diplomatic service, the imposing former Secretary-General has stories to tell

Kamil JaafarTHE giant who greets me at the door of his spacious condominium unit in the upmarket Jalan U Thant suburb of Kuala Lumpur is wearing a wide smile, inimical really,  on the diplomat extraordinaire never known more than three decades in harness to smile.

He might have smirked, but that was par for the course, fitting the carefully cultivated image of the uncaring senior civil servant, who tolerated subordinates (and superiors), only as long as their actions and professional philosophy were in consonance with his.

But if anyone is looking to read about a Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, who ran roughshod over everyone, was vengeful and worked only for his glory, nothing is further from the truth as “I never harmed anyone and I never kept anything in my heart”.

“If you did well, you were promoted and gained my trust and respect. If you did not see things the way I did (in the larger interest of the nation) and fumbled, you were on your own,” he says a little past midway into the interview for this column on his memoirs — Growing Up With the Nation — to be launched on Wednesday (May 22, 2013).

“Of course, I even scolded ambassadors (and a few others in various capacities) at airports and other places, with many afraid to even talk to me after that,” the 76-year-old says, admitting that his temper sometimes got the better of him.

But again, I get the feeling that even those episodes were crafted to fuel the image of the hard-boiled bureaucraft who did not suffer fools gladly, when he was actually just a man on a personal mission to serve his country to the best of his abilities using the manpower available.

The smile for me this morning is part of a countenance reserved for friends and people that Kamil likes, a compliment for a story I wrote nine years ago in my column “Diplomatic Dealings” about him that he fancied.

The breezy welcome from the former number one diplomat at Wisma Putra, more famous for his scowls and penetrating gaze than the expansive countenance he is wearing today, is courtesy of the fact that he will be baring all about his 51 years in diplomatic service (the last 17 years or so on national service as special envoy to the Prime minister) at Hotel Impiana in three days’ time.

The 189cm-tall Kamil, a little thicker around the waist, more jowl than cheek and slightly slower in movement than in 2004, is in his element, casting a commanding eye over all he surveys at home. It is not very much unlike the towering presence he had at Wisma Putra as secretary-general, frightening lesser beings into acquiescence with a look that told you where you stood in his esteem.

Kamil is almost curt on the phone in his baritone that has lost a little of the boom it held in years past, but is still respected enough to be listened to carefully by his wife, Lena Hultgren Kamil, son, Tariq, daughter, Yuhanis, a wide range of friends and acquaintances.

If there is an occasional observation of a seemingly lack of steel in his overt personality, I feel it is just another side to the multi-facetted life of the man touted as the most famous non-conventional diplomat that Malaysia has ever produced.

The cloak-and-dagger stuff of the spy (he refuses to be buttonholed in this genre) is still very much evident to me in the almost whispered requests to steer clear of issues “better less spoken about”.

This is vintage Kamil at its best, always putting the nation first as he had since he began serving the nation under founding Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1962 and continuing under five Prime Ministers, including Dato’ Seri Najib Razak (son of second Prime Minister Tun Razak Hussein, for whom he probably had the most personal affection for…”he was a very kind man”).

“This is my first and last book, Balan. Don’t expect to interview me on another book,” the tiger that roamed the corridors of Wisma Putra says in an almost threatening growl, sans a few of the proverbial “teeth” that gave him his bite in office.

Kamil beams as I ask him who will launch his book as the honour goes to old friend and bosom buddy of 56 years, Tun Mohd Khalil Yaacob, the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Malacca, one of four classmates (also prefects) at Malay College Kuala Kangsar, who wrote new chapters in the schools annals with their mischief.

“We did a lot of havoc like going to the prefects’ room and sneaking a few cigarettes. At night, we used to leave the school and go for packets of char kuey teow in town and come back before dawn. We also used to take laundry money from students under our charge, use it for a taxi to town to live it up before giving what was left to the dobi and telling him he will get the rest the next month,” he says, chuckling at the incident that occurred in the 1950s.

His four partners-in-crime rose to high office in different areas of calling; Khalil became the head of a state; Tan Sri Razali Ismail became Malaysian special envoy to the United Nations; Sallehuddin Alang joined the French Foreign Legion; while the late Dalil Awin became a senior executive here.

All these episodes find print in his memoirs, written in a style that could be termed “diplomatese”, in the sense that the memories are strong in their profundity, but are often played out in a style that lacks the colour and character of a true-blue novelist. But then, Kamil has never claimed to be a writer, admitting in his low-key manner that “I speak better than I write”.

I am convinced that the veracity of his stories, told in a frank, guileless and breathtaking manner, will embrace and captivate the reader to a great extent.

The man who has worked with Kings, Prime Ministers and Statesmen has vignettes for some of them in his book, that traces his genesis from a gangling kampung boy in Kedah to a respected and towering figure in international diplomacy.

“Tunku Abdul Rahman was almost like a father to me. He used to tell his wife, Sharifah Rodziah, that I looked like my father because of our height. I remember one night in Bangkok, when I had to physically dig up the remains of his younger brother as he wanted them to be reburied in Kedah.

“It was a terrible night, with heavy rain and thunder, almost like out of a ghost movie, and there I was, a middle-ranking diplomat in a Muslim cemetery in a Buddhist country, up to my arms and knees in mud.”

Tun Abdul Razak was also almost like a father to Kamil, constantly wanting him to take up a diplomatic position in London, which the latter gently demurred as he wanted to be at home to do national service here. On Tun Hussein Onn, he says the old soldier was made of the stuff of legends, with his razor-sharp ethics that were premised on the fact that “one must not do to others what you do not want others to do to you”.

Dr Mahathir.Kamil reminisces that Hussein (he always had a ruler and pen with him) took his own time with decisions, which sometimes did not work in consonance with the demands of a Foreign Ministry that worked around the clock. But his career truly took off under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, with whom he had a special chemistry based on a shared belief that Malaysians were no lesser beings than others, “especially whites, who sometimes thought we were second-class people”.

On Dr Mahathir, he says they worked extremely well in “unconventional diplomacy”, which fitted the former Prime Minister’s bill as both had the force of will, commitment and character to help the downtrodden in places like Bosnia and Kosovo.

“I became an arms runner of sorts when I helped arrange for delivery of weaponry to the Bosnians, who were at the mercy of Serbs around them. Dr Mahathir and I shared a personal commitment to the Bosnians that went beyond the pale of our jobs.”

Kamil may be getting on in age, but the sharpness that sometimes riled others at senior levels in government is still there.

“Wisma Putra committed a faux pas a little while ago in the case of Bahrain, where there was a disconnect between the reality and the advice given to the leader of the land (Najib). This would never had happened back then.”

There is more new ground touched upon as Kamil meanders into Malaysian politics, which he has always studiously steered clear off, but here again, his comments are in relation to foreign policy.

“The ground under our feet is shifting after what Malaysians collectively did at the recent general election.Our foreign policy is shaped on a multiracial, multilingual and multireligious character at home and represents the sociopolitical make-up of the nation.”

Kamil wants the powers-that-be to address the problem fast,  “with special attention paid to communitarian and normative values as these are important and at the core of our social fabric”. The former diplomatic craftsman also remembers people like Farah Aidid, the Somali strongman, who  gave him a walking stick which “he said had kept him alive for years, but you know that he died the month after giving me the souvenir”.

Kamil tries to laugh the deep laugh that rang through his office and that of his friends  (he has great memories of his late friend, historian and author, Dr Chandran Jeshurun)  years ago,  but is unable to do so, no thanks to a 50 per cent lung capacity,  courtesy of scores of Camel cigarettes for a major part of his life.

Dr Chandran Mohandas JeshurunIn Memory of Chandran“I never cry when giving speeches,  but I cried when delivering his eulogy,” says the characteristically unemotional  diplomat,  never known for asking for a quarter  and certainly giving none to no one of his childhood friends, fellow Malaysian visionary and noted historian.

Today, Kamil says the days of unconventional diplomacy are over and that he never bothered to pass on the tricks of the trade that he wrote the book on in his heydays between 1962 and 1989,  when he ruled the heap at Wisma Putra. The world at large, however, should never forget that the slightly bent (crouching) tiger still has much fire in his belly, a phenomenon  that Malaysians may witness (if he so decides to) at the launching of his book.

After all, he is still the Special Envoy to the Prime Minister and who knows what demands the nation may still make of the man who managed more delicate scenarios in foreign service than a hoard of diplomats across the board will ever handle in their lifetime.

6 thoughts on “Kamil Jaafar–The Diplomat Extraordinaire of My Generation

  1. Dato Din, very good read and thanks.Wisma Putra seems like a good place to career. The foreign svc is a mystery to college kids even; M16, matahari, JB stuff. Don’t think there were any renown lady diplomat at W.Putra else you would have share some stories here or are they X-files?
    Wisma Putra had good lady Ambassadors like Tan Sri PG Lim, Dato Zabedah Ahmad, Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, Dr. Rajmah and Tengku Najiha. –Din Merican

  2. Another diplomat career alternative is through UN. Many young grads with great results have had their stint with UN agencies till they feel like coming home. Not many stayed throughout their lives esp. some who thought that kids need continuity in same school and wives want their own spaces too. Recent UN increased mandatory retirement to 62; most by that time would have been at either D1 or D2 level.

  3. I too remember Dr Chandran Jeshurun (from Kulim, Kedah) with fondness. He was Secretary-General of UMSU (University of Malaya Students Union) when I was undergraduate, a year his junior. Because of small size,we called him Mosquito. Chandran (whose middle name is Mohandas after the great Mahatma Gandhi) was a man of strong convictions and a brilliant historian.

    He and I were going to be involved in a research project for Sime Darby Chairman Tun Tan Siew Sin’s memoirs, but that did not materialise. We remained good friends and spoke to each other from time to time until his death. He authored a book on Wisma Putra and The Making of Malaysian Foreign Policy, which is regarded as a classic on the subject today.–Din Merican

  4. We used to read in The Straits Times those days about our foreign diplomats successes the likes of PG Lim, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, Tan Sri Zain Azraai, Tun Ghazali Shafie etc but nowadays we don’t have such outstanding diplomats anymore… we have someone from Sabah as foreign minister who spends more time in KK than in Wisma Putra….

  5. Pingback: My First MUN Experience | Theory About A Theory

  6. Pingback: My First MUN Experience – Theory about a Theory

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