Foreign policy needs more fiscal bite

IT is always easy to point fingers at the media. Journalists are blamed when they don’t ask questions pertaining only to the event that is being graced by a VIP. And it is even worse for the organisers, since the event itself hardly gets the coverage they think it deserves.

For the launch of the Pakatan Harapan government’s Foreign Policy Framework by the Prime Minister at his office in Putrajaya on Wednesday, the media came early when they were informed that the Foreign Minister would be briefing them on what was supposed to commemorate another milestone in the history of Wisma Putra.

It was not meant to be. The event was held just after the weekly Cabinet meeting, perhaps the only slot available in the busy daily schedule of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.An aide from the Foreign Minister’s office said his boss was meeting the “bigger boss” and there was no time to brief the media. He promised to organise a briefing later.When Dr Mahathir unexpectedly decided to answer questions from the media, there were hardly any questions on the framework and most concentrated on the haze – the current hot issue engulfing the country.

It was really a missed opportunity for Wisma Putra to engage the media that had turned up in full force.

Foreign affairs, sadly, does not rank high on the list of must-cover events for the Malaysian media.

The issues really are foreign to some. Unless there are bilateral spats or crises like the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, foreign affairs often takes a back seat.

During Dr Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister, it was a well known fact that while the country may have had a foreign minister, it was the “Old Man” himself who was the driving force in foreign issues.

It was a glorious time to cover Dr Mahathir news-wise, to see him in his element, especially at international events. He was labelled a “recalcitrant” and yet, love or despise him, the media would hound him whenever they had an opportunity to do so.

Dr Mahathir was the source of news for some of these foreign media outlets and very much sought after for his wit, sarcasm and defending the rights of the downtrodden.

Let’s get back to Pakatan’s foreign policy framework. The Prime Minister said the framework captures the essence of the foreign policy direction of the current administration, and also captures the salient issues raised in his speech at the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly last year.

No surprise there. It was a joke among diplomats back then when it comes to Dr Mahathir conducting bilateral relations in the 1980s and 1990s, it was “I, Me, Myself”.

But foreign policy under the Barisan Nasional government as a whole was quite coherent, based on pragmatic non-alignment.

As Dr Mahathir said at the launch ceremony on Wednesday, the basic elements of Malaysia’s foreign policy remain unchanged. Malaysia continues to pursue an independent, principled and pragmatic foreign policy, founded on the values of peace, humanity, justice, and equality.

“Malaysia also believes in maintaining friendly relations with all countries, (and the) peaceful resolution of disputes based on international law and norms. Despite that, Malaysia reserves the right to express its opinion and if necessary, its protestations against injustices, oppressions and other crimes against humanity committed by any nation. Malaysia has never shied away from what it believes to be a responsibility and commitment to mankind”.

What has changed is the way Malaysia approaches certain issues affecting its interest. Hence, the overarching theme of this framework is “Change in Continuity”, Dr Mahathir stressed.

So Malaysia will now seek to explore new approaches that include participating actively in discussions at various international fora where Malaysia is already a member, and to influence decision-making processes at various international fora where Malaysia is not a member.

It’s interesting that Dr Mahathir should mention this. Let’s be honest here: if the Prime Minister is talking about Wisma Putra playing that role, he is probably not aware that the ministry, as lead agency, has been working on a tight budget for many years.

The result of this is that the ministry has had to cut the number of its officials who attend meetings, even within the region. The previous government did a budget revision as recently as 2016 due to the economic climate, and tightened spending that covered overtime claims, utility bills, and of course, official travel.

Until today, not much has changed when it comes to recognising Wisma Putra’s work (read that as not getting a bigger budget allocation).“I think we should ask the government: do we have the money if we want to play a leading role?

“How are we to play a leading role and speak for the marginalised or downtrodden when we struggle to pay for rental and maintenance?” said a diplomat.

Another senior official said Pakatan can dream of being a “middle power” country but it must focus on the basics first.

“What is our real national interest, why don’t we prioritise that? Is it the economy and security? What are the threats?

“Then why don’t we concentrate and focus our foreign policy resources or other inter-agency cooperation to protect and pursue our interests where they matter?

“If it is security along the Sabah eastern borders, do something about it; or if the South China Sea spat is a real threat, spend money where it matters most.”

Foreign Ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Shahrul Ikram Yaakob hinted about this in his message in the framework document, saying Wisma Putra needs to be strengthened, not just in terms of human resource but also all kinds of resources that the ministry needs to carry out its functions effectively.

The framework also stated that the “New Malaysia” under Pakatan will prioritise issues of inequality, fairness and justice as well as democracy, freedom, human rights and rule of law.

Malaysia will also assess its participation in international treaties and ensure that thorough and comprehensive internal processes will take place before concluding any new international agreement or ratifying any treaty.

Perhaps this administration has learnt from the “mistake” of ratifying the Rome Statute, where many quarters blamed the government for its failure to go to the ground and explain the issue.

Unfortunately, in the end it was the Prime Minister alone who had to bear the brunt of the public outcry in that it was allegedly against the Federal Constitution and the Rulers were not properly consulted.

The Foreign Ministry, which had earlier announced Malaysia had ratified the treaty, issued a press statement to show its support for the Prime Minister, but it was too late as all fingers were already pointing at Dr Mahathir then. Malaysia later withdrew as a signatory.

For those interested in Malaysia’s foreign affairs, do read the 80-page document and judge for yourself if this is a revised foreign policy and new way of doing things.

It is supposed to be a general framework while the specifics are being worked out to make Pakatan’s foreign policy flexible and relevant for a long time.

Or is it a lip service document?

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