In a race for national safety

A digital signboard near Saloma Bridge in Kuala Lumpur informing motorists of the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine. — ART CHEN/The Star

PETALING JAYA: “Vaccine diplomacy” played a vital role in Malaysia being able to secure a supply of Covid-19 vaccines, says Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

He said he had been constantly on the phone with his counterparts from China, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States to keep tabs on the development of these vaccines.

He also described the race to find a Covid-19 vaccine as having been a difficult challenge, for Malaysia and other countries.

“Again, this is where 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’, ” he said in an interview.

Hishammuddin said he had kept in close contact with Sergey Lavrov on Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, Wang Yi on China’s vaccines, Dominic Raab on the UK’s vaccines, and also the previous US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on vaccines manufactured there.

“Surely, this highlights why it is critical that Malaysia continues to maintain strong diplomatic ties with our friends globally – ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’.

“Malaysia has been blessed to have been able to count on so many of our allies around the world who stepped up and offered us help, ” he added.

While virtual discussions and phone calls were the primary means of communications for diplomacy as travel lockdowns were enforced across the world, they paled in comparison to the advantages of holding meetings physically, he said.

“This is why many heads of state or governments and their foreign ministers have started flying, some as early as in 2020 itself, to strengthen post-pandemic cooperation.

“And this is why Malaysia cannot be left behind.

“Maintaining relations with our partners around the world is crucial for Malaysia’s vaccination programme as well as to acquire best practices in the use of Covid-19 vaccines from countries that have purchased similar vaccines and begun their national rollout plans, ” he said.

Citing another example, he said Wisma Putra had stepped in and repaired ties with China and Saudi Arabia, resulting in the two countries gifting millions of units of medical equipment such as face masks, face shields, gloves, test kits and ventilators to Malaysia.

Saudi Arabia donated over six million face masks and 200,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE), while China donated over 100,000 Covid-19 test kits as well as several hundred ventilators.

“These equipment arrive on our shores every month, which was a strong display of our mended relationships, ” he said.

Hishammuddin also said that China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit last year brought tremendous benefits to both countries – but especially to Malaysia.

“Our negotiations came to fruition with the 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 China-produced Covid-19 vaccine once successfully developed.

“To be honest, many more of my counterparts expressed their wish to visit Malaysia officially but I was reluctant due to the worry that I would not be able to return the visit.

“Diplomacy is all about reciprocity, so I have had to make decisions based on Malaysia’s best interests and outcomes from such visits, ” Hishammuddin said.

For now, he said he has 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.

In terms of Asean matters, the Sultan of Brunei has consented to grant Hishammuddin an audience and he will be making a trip there soon.

“This is crucial to further discuss the announcement made by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesia’s President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo recently, for foreign ministers to call a special meeting to discuss developments on Myanmar as expectations mount on Asean as a regional grouping on this matter, ” he said.

Hishammuddin also stressed that his recent visits to Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had complied with the Covid-19 standard operating procedure (SOP) within a “travel bubble”.

Asked for his views on the government’s latest ruling, which allows ministers returning from an official visit to undergo merely three days of compulsory quarantine that has caused uneasiness among Malaysians, Hishammuddin said the ruling does not automatically apply to all and assured the rakyat that “no one is above the law”.

“I myself was instructed by the Health Ministry to undergo a compulsory quarantine for seven days after returning from the UAE, instead of three days.

“As the Health director-general has explained, there is a risk assessment that the Health 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 was continuously negative three days before my arrival in Malaysia, ” he added.

On the proposed discussion between Muhyiddin and Jokowi on implementing a Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) between Malaysia and Indonesia, he said the talk was made known to the public two days before the visit with the aim of intensifying negotiations on both sides regarding the RGL scheme.

“Negotiations on the SOP must be agreed upon by both countries and involve cross-ministerial collaborations especially at the agency level, and this takes time – sometimes weeks if not months, ” he said.

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