ATOP the highest point in Putrajaya sits Wisma Putra, surrounded by verdant oil palm and rubber trees.
The building has been unusually deserted since the final weeks of the past year.
Most of the staff, including the foreign minister, are taking a breather – it has been a long and busy year for the Foreign Ministry.
The year started with the hosting of one of the largest conferences, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in February, and culminated with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in October.
In between there were high-profile visitors, among them several who’s who in the Group of Eight, such as French president Jacques Chirac, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian president Vladimir Putin, who came twice.
NAM was held in the shadow of the impending war in Iraq and by the time the OIC summit got under way, the Americans and their allies had occupied Iraq and were struggling to find weapons of mass destruction – the reason the Americans used to justify going to war.
They still haven’t found any.
Their continued presence is raising the death count, especially among innocents.
Malaysia, under the then leadership of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, continued to point out what it saw as injustices, particularly those by the US.
The then prime minister ruffled the feathers of the Bush administration when he described victims of the Sept 11 attack as collateral damage.
Kuala Lumpur incurred Washington's wrath again when Dr Mahathir branded Jews as arrogant and accused them of controlling the world by proxy in his speech – interpreted by Western interests as anti-Semitic – at the OIC summit.
But it was the war in Iraq that dominated the news much of the year and Malaysia, from the outset, had voiced its opposition.
Said one diplomat: “It was made based on a false assumption. It was modern colonisation to show off the sheer military might of the Americans.
“When some other countries admitted having weapons of mass destruction, nothing was done. It shows they have an agenda.”
The situation was further aggravated when Israel was made the exception, the rationalisation being the Tel Aviv regime needed to protect itself.
“How come only Israel is allowed to protect itself while countries like Syria, Libya and Iran can’t do the same?” asked the diplomat.
He said with the arrest of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the process of electing a new government should be accelerated.
“For Myanmar, they imposed many things like having a road map for their reconciliation process and sanctions but this is not the case with Iraq,” he added.
One strong element in Malaysia’s foreign relations stand is that it is critical of policies which it sees as victimising the Third World.
A veteran diplomat said: “I think we should be proud of the independence of Malaysia’s foreign policy. We are not afraid to express our views – our stands are based on principles.
“Under Dr Mahathir, we have not only protected our interests but those of developing countries as well.
“Twenty-two years of his leadership saw Malaysia extending South-South co-operation. People know we are capable of helping. Developing countries look up to us.”
Dr Mahathir had articulated a “prosper thy neighbour” outlook wherever he went.
The diplomat cited Petronas as an example.
The national oil corporation has operations in nearly 40 countries.
“The fact we had a visionary Prime Minister who saw the benefits of co-operating with other countries paved the way for Petronas to venture overseas.
“Dr Mahathir’s name helped open the door for Petronas in some of these countries, there is no doubt about it. But then again nobody is willing to do business if you are incapable, incompetent and unable to deliver results,” he added.
Up to March 2002, Petronas’ international activities in crude production, refining and marketing contributed 30.3% of its RM67bil consolidated revenue.
While this may bolster the country’s earnings, critics saw the hosting of the NAM and OIC summits as a waste of money and a mere public relations exercise.
The cost of organising the NAM summit alone is said to have been staggering but government officials and foreigners have a different perspective.
“I really think Malaysia did NAM a favour and ‘saved’ it from becoming irrelevant, for the time being anyway.
“Malaysia’s reception of us all was absolutely exceptional. I felt really proud to be from the region as you guys went into ‘over-drive’ and put on an incredible summit,” said a Papua New Guinea diplomat.
A government official said that overall, the Government was satisfied with the outcome of the summits.
“We were able to come out with concrete plans of action and provide the basis for Malaysia to pursue a series of endeavours to benefit member countries.
“Malaysia is chairing the two organisations for the next three years and we must be able to proceed with the projects that we have adopted,” he said.
Where bilateral relations are concerned, uppermost in the minds of Malaysians would be the ties with Singapore.
At the beginning of last year, relations hit a low with unresolved prickly issues, including on water, suddenly rearing up.
Things came to a head when the two foreign ministers traded barbs immediately after signing a special agreement to bring the ownership dispute over Pulau Batu Puteh to the International Court of Justice.
While Dr Mahathir and his Singapore counterpart Goh Chok Tong did not seem able to strike the right chord in their dealings, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Goh have apparently hit it off rather well.
The two got together for a round of golf on the sidelines of the NAM summit.
A diplomat noted that the Singapore media, very much echoing the government’s stand, seemed to have become more Malaysia-friendly lately.
“There is a dramatic change in their reporting. Communication between the two leaders has been friendly,” he said.
After Dr Mahathir, who put his stamp on the conduct of Malaysia’s foreign relations for two decades, whither Malaysian foreign policy?
For one thing, where issues with neighbours are concerned, it is understood that Abdullah would prefer legal redress as the last resort.
Unlike Dr Mahathir who wanted “fast results,” his successor would rather go the lengthy negotiation way.
Diplomacy would be the buzzword.
Since taking office on Oct 31, Abdullah has been concentrating on domestic issues.
As the new year begins, the prime minister will be making his Asean tour and attending various summits elsewhere.
Well-schooled in the art of diplomacy during his years as foreign minister, he is set to make his mark in his own style.