AS Malaysia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Tan Sri Hasmy Agam prepared to leave for home recently after his posting of six-and-a-half years, he could not help but feel disappointed.
Not that he was unhappy about going home after being away for so long but it was at a critical time for the UN: its relevance was being challenged by the United States and the Security Council was split over the question of disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
“These are uncertain times; it reminds me of the time I was leaving New York for my posting in Paris (1989-90),” said Hasmy, who was retiring after 38 years as a career diplomat.
“We were in the Security Council then and I was about to leave when (then) ambassador Tan Sri Razali (Ismail) asked me to stay on and help him. We had the second presidency of the council in July.
“I made arrangements to leave later on Aug 3. On the morning of Aug 2, my wife said we might not be able to leave because Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait.”
But Razali did not hold Hasmy back.
Months later, with Security Council sanction, the allies counter invaded. Hasmy watched events unfold on French television in Paris.
“My French wasn’t good at that time and as I watched TV, I listened to the BBC for the commentary. I felt like a bystander.
“In the four months (August to November) Malaysia was in the Security Council, all the things that could happen did happen – emergency meetings, consultations, resolution upon resolution – and there I was in Paris.
“This is the second time I’m leaving New York, and again war is looming (in the Gulf),” he said.
Hasmy may be retiring from the diplomatic service at the end of this month but he will not be idle. He has been “enlisted” to serve at the newly set-up section in Wisma Putra handling matters related to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of which Malaysia is chairman for the next three years.
Hasmy joined the foreign service in 1968 after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. He went on to obtain an MA in International Relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
It is his wide experience in international diplomacy and network of contacts around the world that sees him still working for the government when people his age want to take things easy.
“My career has taken me all over the world – even to Antarctica – yet I haven’t seen much of my own country,” said the former Malacca High School student.
Hasmy served in diplomatic missions in Saigon, Washington, Hanoi, and London, among others.
He was Under-Secretary for South-East Asia and then for Policy Planning, Head of the Centre for International Relations and Diplomacy at the National Institute of Public Administration; director-general of the ministry’s Asean Division and deputy secretary-general for International Organization Affairs.
He served as Ambassador to Libya with concurrent accreditation to Malta (1986-89) and Ambassador to France (1990-93) with concurrent accreditation to Portugal.
In New York, he served as Alternate Permanent Representative at the Malaysian Mission (1989-90) and again in the same capacity from 1996 to 1998. He was appointed Permanent Representative in April of 1998.
Hasmy served twice as President of the UN Security Council in July 2000 and August 2001.
Two issues that Hasmy feels passionately about, and which the international community has not been successful in dealing with, are the plight of the Palestinians and the sanctions on the Iraqi people.
The pressing Palestinian issue appears to be on the back-burner now as Iraq grabs the limelight.
Hasmy tells of the council's inability to remove sanctions against Iraq.
“Our efforts were stratified and we could not move. The best we could come up with was the oil-for-food programme, the easing of some restrictions on haj flights and the import of goods.
“After 14 years of sanctions against Iraq, the issue is not resolved. The Iraqis continue to suffer.”
Hasmy said the case of the coalition forces taking Kuwait was easy to understand because it was in response to the blatant invasion of a sovereign state and a member of the UN. At that time it was easy for the US to build up the coalition. Almost everyone was on board.
“This time there is no invasion. The countries in the region don’t feel threatened and Iraq is closely monitored. If the region does not see Iraq as a threat, they find it strange that the US thinks so.
“It won’t be easy trying to put an end quickly to this whole episode. Iraq is a difficult and complex country and we don’t know which way it will go.
“That is why Malaysia is pushing for diplomacy – not war,” he said.
Hasmy said Malaysia had always articulated its stand in New York.
“I think we are fortunate to have a strong and assertive leadership that is not subjected to the kind of pressure other countries face, especially when we were in the council.
“If any power wants to get us to agree with their position they talk to us, and if we don’t vote their way they respect our position. They might not be happy but they know there are limits to where they can go with Malaysia.”
He said that with the chairmanship of NAM and the OIC, Malaysia had a better platform to maintain high visibility.
“The NAM of today is not the NAM of before. It continues to be relevant, more so now in the context of one global superpower.
“There is no way that one superpower, no matter how well meaning, can claim to represent the views of all countries, particularly developing nations. These countries need a platform so that their views are taken into consideration before the big powers make decisions that will affect them.
“We should provide input in the decision-making process. NAM should not be seen as an antagonistic movement.
“On size alone, we represent two-thirds of the general membership of the UN. We want to orientate ourselves to this kind of partnership to engage the north.”
Hasmy regards his appointment as Permanent Representative to the UN as the high point of his career.
“The main reason I joined Wisma Putra was to travel. At one of our morning “prayer” sessions, then Permanent Secretary to the ministry Tan Sri Ghazalli Shafie (King Ghaz) asked me why I joined the service and I told him I wanted to see the world.
“You are in the wrong outfit,” he said. “You should join the Navy – and everyone laughed.”
Hasmy was grateful for the four years of grounding at Wisma Putra before his first overseas posting.
As assistant secretary for Singapore and Brunei, he had the chance to serve and learn under King Ghaz.
“He was a skilled negotiator and I learned a lot from him. He even made me assistant secretary of the Malaysian Amateur Athletics Union because he saw that I could write and he liked the way I worked. I write better than I talk.”
One of the few regrets Hasmy had about serving overseas was not spending enough time with his family.
“The life of a diplomat is not all glamour. There are lots of sacrifices and hard work.
“In 1972 when I was on assignment in Saigon, my mother wanted to visit and stay with me. She said she missed staying with her eldest son. I felt very sad but there was a war on and I could not take her in.
“I could only spend less than a year with her before she died at the age of 63,” he added.
For the next three years at least, Hasmy will have to put any future plans on hold while being involved in the NAM secretariat.
“I have been collecting lots of books and I would like to read them. I hope to do some writing, perhaps about my time in the UN. I would also like to travel and get to know Malaysia better. I am interested in astronomy and have invested in a computerised telescope.”
While his services are still needed by the country, it will be some time before Hasmy gets to do what he wants to do.