THIS “new” Malaysia holds much promise, not least on domestic issues but also in the potential to get our foreign policy back on track.
It is time for us to review the foreign policy direction of Malaysia that has slackened in this past decade or so.
Our problem was that we relied too heavily on friends in the West, when our base of support since Malaysia stepped into the limelight in the 1980s has always been those small and even smaller countries of the South.
These are the friends that we have since neglected; friends that we now need to win back.
Failing to win a seat in the human rights council was unfathomable a decade and a half ago.
In 2003, we used to think in terms of how many votes we would fall short of unanimity to secure our place.
Last year, when we again bid for a seat in the human rights body, we were reduced to thinking of how many more votes we needed just for a simple majority.
How low the bar has fallen for Malaysia.
This past month, the new foreign minister, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, advocated for a Consultative Committee on foreign affairs. The committee that is envisaged is a mix of Wisma Putra officers and civil society.
I believe that this is a good start. However, the committee itself need not be institutionalised. Look at the Malaysian team for the Earth Summit in Rio 1992.
The team managed to make words such as “environment”, “sustainability”, “biodiversity”, and “climate change” household words through the workshops, seminars and their engagement with everyone.
Within that Malaysian delegation that went to Rio, there were officials, technical and legal experts, and, for the first time ever — activists — who came together in pursuit of Malaysia’s interests.
The frank exchange of ideas ensured that the team that went to Rio was well-versed, informed, and inherently understood what their red lines were.
This was a team who knew exactly where they stood. Because of this, Malaysia was able to lead the charge on many issues central to us at Rio, so much so that we were elected resoundingly as the first ever Chair of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).
Our unwavering stand on these issues earned us the respect of the international community, something which we have since tried to duplicate. This proves that we already have the formula. We know exactly how we did it once; we need only to do it again.
On the bilateral front, we must not be too choosy about who our bedfellows are. Malaysia’s policy of reaching out to all friendly nations means exactly that — we need to reach out to those friends that we have forgotten in the past decade; those in the Pacific Islands, the African continent and Latin America.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s trend in the 1990s was to lead trade delegations to these regions. Businessmen who followed him actually put their money where their mouth was, and invested in those countries they visited. This was how we opened up market access to Vietnam, South Africa and the Fiji Islands.
Malaysia’s falling-out with North Korea meant that we lost a golden opportunity recently. The original reason why both the North and South Korean embassies are in Kuala Lumpur was because of our open policy of making friends with all nations. We used to be an intermediator in bringing these two neighbouring countries together. Kuala Lumpur would have been the likely venue for the Trump-Jong Un Summit, but instead the world watched in rapt fascination as Trump and the reclusive North Korean leader met on that tiny island across the Causeway.
Malaysia’s foreign policy direction since independence has always been dictated by the prime minister. This does not mean, however, that all the thinking for Malaysia’s foreign policy has to be heaped on the shoulders of the current prime minister. If we follow the lessons of Rio, inclusiveness brings with it strength. This is the model we need to emulate and recreate.
A decade of lost friendship means that we now have to regain the trust of those friends whom we had so laboriously befriended in the 1980s and 1990s. It is up to this new administration to get Malaysia’s foreign policy back on track.
The writer is a former ambassador to the Netherlands and the Fiji Islands. She is reading law in the United Kingdom
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