First year at the helm of Wisma Putra

Recounting his journey: Hishammuddin speaking to ‘The Star’ on various issues related to his ministry including the procurement of vaccines for Covid-19. — AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

FROM repatriating Malaysians stranded overseas to keeping tabs on the development of Covid-19 vaccines and mending strained relations with long-standing partners, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has had a busy year, although much of the work was behind the scenes amid a pandemic.

Q: In less than a month, you would have led Wisma Putra for a full year. How would you summarise your journey?

A: On my very first day in office,

I was on the phone with my foreign counterparts and had meetings until late in the night with Wisma Putra’s senior leadership. At this point in time, tens of thousands of Malaysians were stuck abroad as the pandemic shut borders and restricted air travel. Our priority back then was simple: bring Malaysians home.

A special Wisma Putra Covid-19 task force was established to allow us to monitor the situation of Malaysians around the world, 24/7, and for us to have real-time information on who wanted to come back, when, and from where.

This was crucial as we had to plan special aircraft, find the funds to pay for these flights, and negotiate diplomatic landing clearances with other nations to allow our repatriation flights to come in. Thanks to the diligence and dedication of our “diplomatic frontliners”, we have so far facilitated the return of 25,000 Malaysians who were stranded abroad due to lockdowns.

Our second priority was to mend ties with our long-standing partners China, India and the Middle East, which were strained by the previous administration.

The KLSummit 2019, in my opinion, was misguided because instead of aiming to strengthen relations with Muslim countries, it alienated our traditional ally in the Middle East, namely Saudi Arabia. As a nation that values strong brotherly ties with Saudi Arabia, this could have hindered our efforts at securing quotas for our pilgrims to conduct the haj.

Discriminatory statements against India, amid heightened tensions, led to a boycott of palm oil products by Indian importers.

Restoring these ties is crucial to maintain Malaysia’s diplomatic standing with our allies around the world.

Q: How did you work on maintaining Malaysia’s bilateral ties, especially when the lockdown came just days after a new government had been established?

A: A notable challenge we faced was the situation with the Malaysian tabligh members (Jemaah Tabligh) who were held up in India, due to border and airspace closure. The issue was rapidly becoming a “viral” matter online, further pressuring the government to act quickly.

My first point of call was the Foreign Minister of India Dr S. Jaishankar. The subtlety of diplomatic work was difficult to portray in a virtual arrangement as honest and frank discussions are hard to replicate online. It is not as simple as making a request and hoping the other side would agree.

I am in awe of the sacrifices that Wisma Putra staff have had to make at embassies and missions, many if not all of whom willingly stayed behind and continued to monitor and facilitate the journey home for Malaysians stranded abroad.

At the height of the pandemic, governments around the world scrambled to secure medical equipment to shore up their healthcare systems and ensure adequate supplies for their frontliners. There were concerns that we did not have enough medical equipment for our frontliners.

This is where Wisma Putra stepped in and we benefited from our repaired ties with China and Saudi Arabia in securing millions of medical equipment for our fight against Covid-19. These batches of equipment arrived on our shores every month, which was a strong display of our mended relationships.

The race to find a vaccine also proved to be a difficult challenge. Wisma Putra was able to leverage our strong diplomatic ties with our partners to work hand-in-hand in securing vaccine supplies, a term aptly coined as “vaccine diplomacy”. I was constantly on the phone with my counterparts to keep tabs on the development of vaccines.

Q: In August last year, you received your Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Why was the official visit necessary when you could have utilised virtual mediums?

A: Just before Wang Yi came, China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechie visited Singapore and South Korea and was supposed to visit Malaysia but we were not ready then to receive a foreign visit. Positive deliverables for the benefit of the host countries were announced by Yang Jiechie and I knew at this point Malaysia could not be left behind.

This is why I personally took it upon myself to push for the official visit, with a strict standard operating procedure (SOP). The visit benefitted both countries, especially Malaysia. Our negotiations came to fruition with an agreement for China to purchase 1.7 million tonnes of palm oil until 2023, which will benefit 600,000 palm oil smallholders, and its agreement to prioritise Malaysia for the Chinese-produced Covid-19 vaccine once successfully developed.

Q: Does being a “familiar face” of Malaysia help ease your dealings with foreign nations in an environment setting of phone calls and video meets?

A: In my previous positions in the government, I was blessed to have had the opportunity to meet a lot of my foreign counterparts, some of whom are still members of their respective governments.

For example, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne, with whom I have a strong personal relationship due to us being defence ministers before. I worked closely with Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, back when we both held the defence portfolio. These relationships, which have already been built before, undeniably helped greatly in our bilateral meetings.

Q: It was mentioned that the official visit to Indonesia used the travel bubble method. As a member of the delegation, can you elaborate?

A: The travel bubble refers to the strict SOP that applies to the official visit and the limitations placed on the delegations in terms of our movements in the host country. During the visit, the Prime Minister and his delegation used special aircraft, preventing exposure from commercial arrangements. We also landed at a separate airport to prevent contact with the public. Our movements were from the plane, swab test on arrival, directly into our cars and straight to the hotel. Only those with a negative result 24 hours before departure and on arrival were allowed to move from the airport to the hotel.

These were strict requirements agreed upon by the health authorities of both countries. Even in our meetings, no form of physical contact was allowed, be it handshakes or hugs. We were required to wear a face mask and observe social distancing at all times.

The banquet hosted by President Joko Widodo was entirely self-service. No waiters or attendants were present. Everyone had to serve themselves from separated food warmers. We were also divided by a sheet of transparent plexiglass. Back in Malaysia, we once again took the Covid-19 swab test and subsequently underwent mandatory quarantine.

Q: The announcement that ministers returning from an official visit undergo three days of quarantine has caused uneasiness among Malaysians. Some consider this double standards between ministers and the ordinary people.

A: It is to my understanding that the three-day quarantine does not automatically apply to everyone. It depends on the SOP of the visit itself, which must be held to the strictest standards as I explained earlier.

I was instructed to undergo quarantine for seven days after returning from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) instead of three days. As the Health director-general explained, there is a risk-assessment that the ministry will conduct for each visit, on a case-by-case basis. In my case, I was given a seven-day quarantine because I could prove that I had been continuously negative three days before my arrival to Malaysia.

Q: Despite the controversy that came following the Prime Minister’s visit to Indonesia and your visit to the UAE, did visits to these two countries achieve their goals?

A: The public had online front-row seats and witnessed for themselves the grand reception accorded to the Prime Minister. The pomp and pageantry that come with an official visit signifies a vote of confidence in our leadership’s inaugural visit to the country.

For observers of international diplomacy, warm relations are often relayed through gestures and body language, rather than verbally. The close and sincere relationship was clear in that four hours both leaders were together, from the “Verandah Talk” and Friday prayers to the official banquet.

Both leaders elevated relations to a strategic and comprehensive level, a clear endorsement of the newfound stature in the personal relations between the Prime and President Jokowi. A lot was agreed upon such as greater economic and investment opportunities, strengthening cooperation in regional environmental protection especially transboundary haze, and sharing best practices in terms of our national vaccine rollout plans.

For the UAE, we agreed to increase cooperation in four key areas between both countries in the post-pandemic era.

Q: Should we be expecting the Prime Minister or even yourself to be travelling abroad more frequently?

A: For now, I have decided to cautiously embark on a mission to begin negotiations with Saudi Arabia on some strong deliverables for Malaysia, specifically on the haj and umrah quotas for Malaysian pilgrims. I have received a formal invitation from Saudi’s Foreign Minister.

The Prime Minister himself must personally meet with the Saudi Royal family to reach a deeper understanding and finalise this matter as it remains the prerogative of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Once the pandemic recedes, we must ensure Malaysia secures a substantial and satisfactory quota for our pilgrims.

The Sultan of Brunei has granted me an audience and I will be making a trip soon. This is crucial to further discuss the announcement made by the Prime Minister and President Jokowi recently for the Foreign Ministers to call a special meeting to discuss developments on Myanmar as expectations mount on Asean as a regional grouping over this matter.

Q: There seems to be more interest in your political situation. Time and again, your name crops up as one of the candidates for deputy prime minister.

A: The Prime Minister’s Office has denied any appointments for the deputy prime ministership, so let’s just focus on the task at hand, which is to fight Covid-19.

The heightened political debate has resulted in a landscape of toxicity and this is unhealthy, exacerbated further now with the onset of the pandemic. To me, we have a much bigger agenda at hand. There is a lot of work.

We have to focus on ensuring our healthcare system can cope with the rising numbers, make sure our national vaccination rollout goes smoothly, ensure our economy recovers, and weather this storm.

The nation is at a crossroads – we can either lower the political temperature and emerge stronger together, or we can allow the politics of hate and divide to prevail. My choice is the former.

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