Glad to be back in the old saddle – The Star

Twenty-two years after leaving Wisma Putra, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim has returned to be Malaysia’s face to the world. The country’s cultured chief diplomat has already embarked on a blistering pace, representing the country internationally. The Foreign Minister spoke to The Star’s PAUL GABRIEL on his efforts to create better relations with the world, how Malaysia can present a better image of itself, and the golden rule of diplomacy.

Dr Rais working at his desk in his office at Wisma Putra.

Q: May I start by asking if you are pleased to return to Wisma Putra?

A: Yes, I am very happy. Coming back to a ministry, which I used to be in 22 years ago, is nostalgically satisfying. The only lamentation is that I don’t see those officers whom I used to work with … almost all of them have changed places.

It’s a good reunion for me, and I have to brush up my aptitude on international relations again. It is not really a difficult task for me, but I have to update myself with world affairs and on the state of our diplomatic missions abroad, and how Wisma Putra could actually play the role of safeguarding the interest and sovereignty of Malaysia overseas. For example, our priorities where thousands of our students are and the dictates of the rule of law.

Q: What are the pressing foreign policy issues on your table now?

A: There is certainly the food crisis that we are facing which some parties have called the silent tsunami coming forth. I think Malaysia should grip itself with the reality of escalating food prices in future, with the World Bank estimating that food prices have risen by an average of 83% over the past three years. About 100 million people could be tipped into the poverty cauldron very soon.

Now this is very alarming. The Food and Agriculture Organisation is the entity responsible but no way can we only rely on them.

I was in Pakistan and Egypt recently, where there are food problems. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are considering rationing their rice exports. So we have to rely on our own. It cannot be too diplomatic when the stomach is affected.

Other than food, it is the historical problem areas like Palestine, Iraq. We also have outstanding issues to deal with our neighbours – Brunei, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. We share common problems with them and we have to assimilate some of these problems into full understanding. I will be going to Indonesia tomorrow to meet with the president and we would like to find a more amicable way for both countries to work out problems.

Q: Malaysia has used softer diplomacy in dealing with the United States, Singapore and Australia on tough issues. Some quarters have criticised the present administration for this. What is your view?

A: Let’s put it this way, there is no one stereotype approach that we should adopt. The style of being brisk and rigid, perhaps at certain moments that worked. But we should also regularise ourselves, if by being diplomatic, by using the softer approach, as clearly envisaged by the leadership of Datuk Seri Abdullah (Ahmad Badawi), if it works, why not.

I am not denying that there would be times when Malaysia has to be assertive. For example, on the question of Iraq, we never agreed that the resolution should be through war, through the catapulting of superpower role in the way that it has emerged there. We have been certain about it.

But when it comes to dealing with our interest in trade, or the assertion of our view on the reorganisation of the United Nations, we must be diplomatic in our approach. So the compartmentalisation of approach should not be there.

Q: You were recently in Singapore to meet with the top brass, just as the International Court of Justice in The Hague is preparing to deliver its judgment on the Pulau Batu Putih case. Will Malaysia and Singapore be ready to move forward, irrespective of the decision?

A: We have told Singapore, that in the event Malaysia gets the judgment, that Singapore should readily accept the fact. And if Singapore gets the decision, Malaysia would also do likewise. So there is very good elbow room for us to manoeuvre. The only thing is that the people of Johor will have to be informed of the possibilities either way.

I have told my Singapore counterpart George Yeo that we must be in regular contact, via phone calls and SMS – telephone and SMS diplomacy. Not so rigid and frigid where every move has to be noted, send by courier, etc.

A lot can be done by friendly interaction first, then followed by the substance.

Q: Wisma Putra has not had a change of minister for about a decade. Recently, you said that the Foreign Ministry has lost the gleam and cutting edge in certain aspects of its work, overtaken by Singapore and Thailand. How do you plan to restore the shine?

A: Perhaps I was a bit prejudicial in my statement, after leaving Wisma Putra 22 years ago and coming back. At the back of my mind, I still thought that certain postures are there when they are not. Having said that, we truly need a new gallop in terms of approach, services that we give overseas and the total image of what Malaysians regard us when they go overseas, or when they see us perform our role during big meetings and conventions.

I have somehow tried to put the summation that foreign policy is actually understanding world politics. If you don’t have that understanding, firstly we would be inadequate in our approach. Secondly, foreign policy must be with the birth of services. That is where we would like to augment the relationship between the ambassador and Malaysians overseas, to the level of feeling at ease and appreciative of what we do.

For example, if a (Malaysian) girl is being detained in Sao Paolo, do you send a junior officer or must the ambassador himself go and find out? It would make a big difference if the ambassador himself goes. So that kind of message has been relayed, to take the interest of our citizens first-hand, and give the best service that we could. The other thing is the ability to communicate, to bargain for what is best for Malaysia, must be ongoing.

For this we need to have lingual perception, lingual ability. We have to train people again. There was a time when our counterparts from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos used to come to us for training. But now many of them have surpassed us in bargaining diplomacy through the WTO, through cold and hard analysis of legal documents … we don’t seem to have much of the ability left.

Perhaps this knowledge went off with that segment of officers. It is my fervent hope that we could catch up in these areas. We will be setting up the necessary training for our officers. I’d like to see a good mix of Malaysians in this ministry who can have Malaysia at heart.

Q: Datuk Seri, you have said that the present political scenario in the country is not ideal for Wisma Putra to conduct its international work. Can you elaborate?

A: That stems from my belief that many of our ambassadors may not be able to understand the full context and extent of what has taken place recently, to the point that the Government has been reduced to a simple majority in Parliament.

Now, shall I say the gusto to have universal values in Malaysia is very real. For example, the sudden feel that we must revamp our judiciary for the rule of law, (for) the environment to be more conducive to our well-being, this is all rather sudden again.

And then the desire to achieve the democratic process that we don’t mind if we are being labelled otherwise, this is also part of the scenario. Our ambassadors must be equipped, that is why the Information Division of Wisma Putra must be revamped quickly.

Q: Will you let your officers speak to the press? There are criticisms that it is impossible to get information from Wisma Putra, other than from the minister himself.

A: There are of course certain topics that they won’t be able to analyse, or disseminate. But by and large, our Information Division will be allowed to disseminate facts and figures, as well as standpoints, from time to time. I do not think that the minister alone should be speaking on all matters. But at the same time, we must be cautious as to the adequateness of the explanation on policy. I have already put the Information Division to be in charge of giving the answers. Any complaint against our ambassadors, or any of our officials overseas, must come to us quickly.

Q: Malaysia has 104 missions worldwide. Are we going to cut down or expand?

A: I believe the 104, excluding the one we used to have in Baghdad, which is now being overseen by our mission in Jordan, is more than we can chew actually. I would like to see that every mission has, shall I say, a report card attached to it. They have to achieve certain things within the year, for example, what kind of interaction have they done with our students, this is relevant in Britain, Australia, Egypt, Japan.

Then what kind of assistance has been rendered to Malaysians in distress, they must answer that positively. Have you equipped yourself with the new techniques of negotiation, have you moved into the inner circle of each country, into the leadership circle, then you would be considered a friend of that country. I have given all the topics when I was in Cairo three weeks ago and they are following up on this.

Q: In our efforts to build bridges with the world, would Malaysia consider breaking new ground and establishing relations with the Vatican, for example, which is playing an important role in world affairs?

A: It is very pertinent, because Islam and the West is now a permanent topic that we entertain and we have to play a role there so that the jagged view vis-à-vis Islam is not always through one keyhole, it has to be through various keyholes.

Likewise, the universal understanding of multi-religious facets is very important. Whilst we may not be able to have direct relations with the Vatican, it would help us in the long run if we could have among us ambassadors-at-large who could be designated to be in touch with the Vatican and certain entities of the world pertaining to inter-religious understanding. We are looking into that and I hope a good, firm view would materialise.

Q: There are complaints from foreign diplomatic missions based here of poor treatment from Wisma Putra. One senior British diplomat who wanted to meet an official to discuss the Myanmar issue was kept waiting for weeks, and then told to read the newspapers to find out what was going on. How do you expect your officers to deal with the foreign missions?

A: I would like to say categorically that instances of such nature should be history to Wisma Putra. I would like the whole system in our country to know that if at any time they cannot get through to any officer in Wisma Putra, then I must know immediately. No small stone or big boulder will be left unturned in that respect.

Wisma Putra is here to help, no one should be so aloof as to say, “Go and read the newspapers.” If that is true, I’d like to see the face of that officer myself, and I’d like to deal with him. We’ll have to be very sensitive about this. I have said that anyone who hears of a Malaysian in distress overseas, the ambassador must be the first to react to it. Likewise here, if anyone is in need of help, then Wisma Putra should be ready.

I have given out my direct telephone numbers including my hand phone number and I want to get feedback.

Q: The then head of the European Commission (EC) delegation to Malaysia was ticked off when he spoke out against the New Economic Policy. He was said to be interfering in our internal affairs. Will you condone any sort of feedback from heads of foreign missions based here?

A: You must be referring to Mr (Thierry) Rommel. I think in my entire government service, which has been considerably long, I have not come across someone who is an ambassador here to be openly criticising the policy of the host government.

However unacceptable a policy is, an ambassador should not opine on it publicly. He should confine himself to his diplomatic work and good relations with us. But if he finds that certain things are so obnoxious, then we have the desk, we have the normal meetings with the Foreign Minister, there we can patch it up. We have told all our ambassadors overseas never to fall into the Rommel tendency.

Q: As the former Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister, could we expect you to pursue cultural diplomacy?

A: Certainly. As you recall under the Asean Charter, there are three main pillars – political and security, economic approach, and social and cultural. So naturally, diplomacy will be that much more effective if we understand the culture of each country. With China, for example, we have good cultural exchange, and with Singapore and all other Asean countries. With the creation of the Asean Community, we will be putting culture at the forefront.

Therefore, you are right that as I have been the Culture Minister before, it is a plus point for me. The fact that the Asean leaders have themselves put culture in the forefront speaks volumes. In Europe, London is our window, and Paris. We have not gone far with the US yet, we hope to do that next year.

Q: Lastly, Datuk Seri, the former foreign minister was known to have complained that his globe-trotting put him at a disadvantage when it came to his Umno ambitions. Would you have any such qualms, now that you have filled his shoes?

A: It is true that we live off the suitcase (laughs). Well, it may have been so for my colleague, Datuk Seri Syed Hamid (Albar), but I don’t think that this ministry is proven to be a hindrance to one’s political ambitions. A case in point is Pak Lah himself, he was here for almost nine years, and he made it (as Prime Minister).

To me, Wisma Putra is a very congenial and constructive ministry for the nation. Having served the Government for almost three decades, that summation does not apply to me if I decide to imagine myself in other political capacities. In fact I think Wisma Putra is a very constructive ministry to go on to the other realms.

Of course, I could not accept (to be nominated to contest) the Commonwealth secretary-general’s post, but thank God, I am now back in the old saddle.

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