Getting the right candidate

THE murmur started after the fall of the Pakatan Harapan government led by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in late February 2020.

Wisma Putra began buzzing with possible political nominees for ambassadorships under the new government. The buzz picked up steam when Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob took over as Prime Minister last August.

When Pakatan came into power after the 14th General Election in 2018, Dr Mahathir made it clear that politicians would no longer be allowed to be appointed as ambassadors, and that the ministry itself requested that there should not be any political nominees for overseas postings.

But as is the practice, the ministry does not publicise any nomination for an ambassadorship, even if it involves one of their career diplomats.There is a simple reason for this. The receiving state would have to agree first to Malaysia’s nominee and then only can the official announcement be made.

The process is pretty straight forward. It is usually Wisma Putra that will submit the name of the person nominated to be the ambassador, with the Prime Minister’s approval, to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong. It is the prerogative of the King to give his consent to the proposed name.

After consent is given, the Malaysian mission will be directed to send a Third Persons Note to the foreign ministry of the receiving state, which will then communicate to Malaysia whether the nomination is accepted.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, perhaps for career diplomats but it may not be so straightforward for political nominees selected by the government.

This week a blogger wrote that Padang Rengas Member of Parliament Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has been “rejected” by the Swiss government as Malaysia’s representative to Bern. Nazri, in his immediate response to a news portal, said he was offered the post of ambassador in 2019 but did not take it up as he would have needed to resign as MP, as per the requirement in Europe.

The former minister’s name was submitted by Wisma Putra to Istana Negara last year and the King gave his consent.

The Malaysian government was recently informed by Switzerland of its decision not to accept Nazri’s nomination.

“In diplomatic terms, there is no such word as reject. The receiving state can choose to keep quiet or indicate to Wisma discreetly.

“This is not the first time. There is precedent for such a situation,” said a diplomat in an apparent reference to a politician who was nominated by the Barisan Nasional government to be an ambassador to a West Asian country. After several months of waiting, Putrajaya got the hint when no reply came from the host government.

Article 4 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961 states:

> The sending state must make certain that the “agrement” of the receiving state has been given for the person it proposes to accredit as head of the mission to that state. (Agrement refers to the approval of a diplomatic representative by the state to which he or she is to be accredited.)

> The receiving state is not obliged to give reasons for a refusal of agrement.

Whether we like it or not, the Swiss decision is a diplomatic snub to the Malaysian government. However, as the Vienna Convention states, the receiving state does not have to give any reason to Malaysia why it made that decision. The onus is on the Malaysian government to review the situation and figure out why it happened.

To put it simply, ambassadors are emissaries of the state. An ambassador carries with him credentials from the King as the Malaysian head of state to present to the host country’s head of state.

It is a job requiring dignity. It is about sending a representative to a country whose bilateral relations we treasure and one that takes care of Malaysia’s interests abroad. It is not just out of respect to the receiving country but also out of respect to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the institution of the monarchy.

The person that the Malaysian government nominates to be an ambassador must be a suitable candidate with the right background. The choice should also reflect the kind of bilateral relations that Putrajaya has with the receiving state.

Any host government would naturally conduct a background check on an ambassador nominee, just as we do in Malaysia – the Royal Malaysia Police is given that task before we accept any foreign ambassador.

Just put yourself in the shoes of the foreign government if the sending state’s nominee is a non-diplomat and a high profile person.

“Any government will look at the CV, do a background check. Their own intel will have all the information, especially what’s put out there on social media.

“If the nominee is a politician, the receiving state will question if the move is a political expedient. Naturally they will question how Malaysia views bilateral relations with the host country,” said a diplomat.

When a receiving country says no, whether explicitly or through silence, it is an embarrassment to the Malaysian government. A huge one.

Consider too what the foreign government must have felt. They must have considered it very carefully before taking this course of action. No government wants to be put on the spot.

This is not just about the image of this country, this is about being respectful of another country.

Well, the Malaysian government should have known better. It reflects poor judgment on our part. We should have known not to put the receiving state in such a difficult position that it actually – gently – refused our nomination.

We should not treat ambassadorships like “jobs for the boys”, and that applies to appointing special advisors to some office.

It’s time we sensitised ourselves again to this age old tradition.

Mergawati Zulfakar is a deputy executive editor at The Star.

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