JUNE 13 — Upon Malaya’s independence in 1957, and again upon the creation of Malaysia in 1963, countries around the world sent jubilant congratulations, but also expressed hope that we would succeed according to the principles our founders had themselves stated in the Federal Constitution.
Our foreign policy unashamedly expounded the shared promotion of democratic values: whether during Lyndon Johnson’s state visit, Tunku Abdul Rahman’s speeches in West Germany, or at Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conferences.
Geopolitics has changed tremendously since then, and our foreign policy has undoubtedly shifted under successive prime ministers, from the establishment of ties with China, greater emphasis on South-South cooperation and Non-Alignment, Looking East (and Buying British Last), focusing on issues concerning the Muslim world, as well as participating in the development of Asean.
However, since our general election two months ago the friendly messages of optimism from around the world are reminiscent of those we received in our formative years. Heads of state and government have lined up not only to congratulate the prime minister, but also to speak hopefully of democratic reforms.
Of course, one must allow for some excessive ingratiation, particularly from countries worried about losing out — as well as a degree of hypocrisy from countries that have not exactly been paragons of virtue themselves.
Undoubtedly, leaders around the world weigh the personal benefits to their political careers in their dealings with foreign counterparts.
Still, foreign policy isn’t all about grandstanding, and I was glad that the participants from Japan, India and Asean present at a symposium on Asian democracy in Tokyo last week recognised the significance of Malaysia’s recent political change.
These civil society actors, academics and media practitioners are natural proponents of Track II diplomacy and the idea that non-governmental interactions can help promote the reform agenda.
Indeed, my participation at that symposium was facilitated by the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Embassy in KL, and this is quite a common arrangement with various diplomatic missions.
Many Malaysians have benefited from programmes organised by embassies to foreign countries, such as scholarships, exchange programmes and visiting fellowships. Some of these explicitly aim to strengthen civil society efforts in pursuit of institutional reform or human rights issues.
In some cases, diplomatic missions have worked to support civil society in highly significant ways: for example in securing the meetings by David Cameron and Barack Obama with Malaysian civil society activists that were met with objections from the Malaysian government.
Support for civil society has also come in the form of collaborations in diverse areas: for example, IDEAS has worked with numerous high commissions and embassies in support of open government, anti-corruption, rebuilding checks and balances and education for refugee children.
Not too long ago, such initiatives were condemned as being a threat to national sovereignty on the basis that foreigners should not “interfere” in our domestic affairs — despite the many occasions that the Malaysian government received foreign money (and much more of it).
But what is important is transparency in terms of the sources of funding and what it is being used for.
Since the creation of the new government, many diplomats have asked what Malaysia’s foreign policy will look like: will the combative approaches of the 80s and 90s return, or will there be a recognition that new geopolitical challenges require a more nuanced approach?
Apparently, ministers seem to have taken a greater interest in attending national day celebrations, but other evidence is mixed: while cooperation on investigating cross-border financial criminality has understandably increased, statements on trade (coupled with economically protectionist jargon) point in a more ill-informed direction.
While the removal of appointed ambassadors has been welcomed by career diplomats who have long complained that prestigious postings are no longer attainable, the appointment of Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has been welcomed by foreign diplomats, particularly those who recall his journey as a reformist member of the government, to being CEO of the Global Movement of Moderates Foundation, and then to the Opposition.
While he was still deputy minister for education in 2013, he wrote a foreword in my book in which he agreed with my urgings for policy— rather than personality-based politics, and approved when I wrote “disobeying the whip occurs routinely in advanced democracies where MPs think of themselves primarily as servants of their constituents rather than lackeys of their party leaders”.
This is a useful reminder when US congressmen or Commonwealth parliamentarians come to help strengthen the independence and effectiveness of the Malaysian parliament, but also when diplomats fear that foreign policy will be dictated on the whim of the principal occupant of Putrajaya, rather than the minister in Wisma Putra.
* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of IDEAS.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.