In search of a new, competent Foreign Minister

Source: National Audit Department.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak should take the opportunity of the leaving-but-staying long good bye of Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil to revamp his tired and underperforming cabinet.

A new line-up should include a new Foreign Minister.

I have put these questions to Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Haji Aman in a recent parliamentary sitting session. He has been Foreign Minister from 2009 to 2012, and so I asked him to clarify the following:

a) The number of days he spent at Wisma Putra, Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur;

b) The number of days he spent at Kota Kinabalu and Kimanis; and

c) The number of days he spent overseas on official visits.

These questions were posed in light of claims made by former diplomat Dennis Ignatius in his column “Wisma Putra adrift in foreign affairs”1 that “Wisma Putra no longer has the capacity to provide sound strategic advice to the Government”.

With the lacklustre performance of Wisma Putra and the Foreign Ministry’s lack of “concrete” direction with regards to its foreign policy, it is time for Najib to appoint a new Foreign Minister.

The foreign ministry portfolio is one of the most important positions in any government, as the interest of a nation often lies in the handling of its neighbours and the world’s affairs.

Australia and South Korea have relatively small populations yet have increasingly punched above their weight in the international arena. Malaysia, which used to have one of the developing world’s most professional and active foreign ministries, no longer commands such respect. It is sad to see Malaysia at this juncture.

Wisma Putra has mainly focused on administrative issues and consular services and failed in providing clear policies to fulfil our foreign agenda. As a result, the government has opted for “global strategic communications” managed by foreign firms and advisors as its main foreign agenda.

This was seen when the Malaysian government paid public relation company FactBased Communications (FBC) Media to make a series of eight documentaries for the BBC about Malaysia. It was clearly a breach of ethics.

In terms of diplomatic visits, those undertaken were mostly out of formality and had no clear objective. Generally, Anifah appears to spend more time in Kota Kinabalu or Kimanis, playing politics, rather than in foreign countries promoting a more constructive relationship with Malaysia.

It is embarrassing that only in Malaysia do we see a Tourism Minister, who is supposed to promote the local tourism, spending more time overseas than the Foreign Minister does. In the years to come, Malaysia must become more “aware” of changing regional dynamics especially with regards to Myanmar. The country is moving fast and Malaysia is in danger of being left behind almost as if we are oblivious to major events.

When dealing with our largest neighbour – Indonesia – Wisma Putra also acts with alarming insensitivity. It is estimated that in the last three years, over 30,000 foreigners have been subject to judicial caning for immigration offences, and of this number a high proportion are Indonesian citizens. Neither is our reputation in Indonesia helped by regular media reports on the mistreatment of Indonesian maids by their Malaysian employers.

One of the most effective ways to boost Malaysia’s standing internationally (in the absence of any real policy direction from Wisma Putra) would be to focus on principles, especially human rights issues; and to treat others humanely, the way we would like to be treated.Anifah does not provide the proper leadership that the ministry needs in order to bring Malaysia to the forefront of international affairs.

At present, the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam) and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which we are a part of, play less relevant roles in world affairs than they used to. All of this can be attributed to Malaysia focusing more on a reactive foreign policy rather than a proactive one.

Liew Chin Tong is Member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera.

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