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Malaysia can take pride in its past foreign policy achievements, including a leadership role in creating a regional security architecture. Now, however, the country appears to be resting on its laurels.

THE advent of a new administration invariably provides an opportunity to take stock of past performance and assess future goals. Foreign affairs is one of those areas where such a review is both timely and necessary.

Undoubtedly, we can take pride in many of our past foreign policy achievements including a leadership role in creating a regional security architecture that has endured. We also played a sterling role at the United Nations, serving twice on the Security Council. We have established credibility in the Islamic world and have won a measure of respect among developing countries.

However, fatigue now seems to have set in. We coast on yesterday’s slogans and uncritically pursue policies that are less relevant to today’s realities.

Over the years, our approach to foreign affairs has descended to pandering to the gallery (both at home and abroad) rather than endeavouring to make real and meaningful contributions to global security and international cooperation. We have lost much ground with key economic partners because we are so often unthinkingly and unnecessarily partisan in our approach.

Our recent chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) are cases in point. We hosted some expensive conferences but what did it really gain for us? It was not even enough to win us election to the post of OIC Secretary-General! Yet, we were in the OIC driving seat at a time when relations between the Muslim world and the West fell to its lowest point following Sept 11.

With a little bit of vision and leadership, we could have easily served as the interlocutor between the two and genuinely advanced the interests of Muslim nations.

Likewise, we took over the chair of NAM at a time when the movement was in desperate need of new directions. We could have been that catalyst for change that the hour demanded but instead we chose to stand with the hardliners and deepened the divide between east and west.

It is time that we re-evaluate what our goals and aspirations are in terms of our foreign policy. We need to ask ourselves some tough questions concerning the nature of our national interests and how best it can be advanced in the rapidly changing world we now find ourselves in.

Malaysia is uniquely positioned to play an important role in world affairs, to punch above its weight. After all, we are at the confluence of different worlds – we are tied by history to the west through our British colonial heritage. We have deep religious connections and increasingly important economic ties with the Muslim world. We are part of the Non-Aligned group of nations. We are a trading nation with an impressive economic track record.

We can be the pivot to bring east and west, Islamic and Christian, developing and developed worlds together. Instead of merely criticising and condemning, we can be that nation that works quietly to achieve real breakthroughs on some of the major issues of our day – in Myanmar, in Sudan, for example. And whether it is non-proliferation, global warming or international terrorism, Malaysia can be that country that leads in finding compromises, that encourages mutual cooperation, that builds international trust. We did it once before; we can do it again!

Intrinsic to such a review is the role of Wisma Putra itself. Over the years, Wisma Putra has gradually lost its pre-eminent position as principle adviser to the Government on foreign affairs. To an extent, this is understandable as powerful economic, environmental and other specialised issues have come to the fore, and non-state actors now play an important role in foreign affairs. However, marginalising Wisma Putra and weakening its ability to coordinate and manage our voice in the world is not helpful. A strong and capable foreign ministry is a nation’s first line of defence, its eyes and ears in an often hostile environment, the guardian of its place in the world.

In this connection, there can be no doubt that Wisma Putra needs to be rejuvenated and revitalised. While we have some very talented and capable officers, morale, especially among junior and mid-level staff, is low. Critical language skills are lacking. Vital diplomatic capabilities have been allowed to deteriorate.

As well, in order to lead effectively in today’s highly specialised and multifaceted global environment, Wisma Putra must seriously endeavour to co-opt the expertise and skills of relevant NGOs and other professionals. They have much to offer us and they too are passionate about serving our country.

Many of our diplomatic posts are also adrift, without proper focus or purpose. A number of posts were opened literally on a whim, and without careful consideration of costs and benefits. A lot of what these missions do serves no real purpose; it is activity for the sake of activity. As a consequence, our resources are badly overstretched.

Much has already been said, and said publicly, about all these things but so little seems to have actually been done to reverse the decline. Nearly every new foreign minister has taken office promising to change this situation, to bring real leadership and vision to the task, but the unhappy state of affairs at Wisma Putra persists.

And so, as we welcome our new prime minister to office, and quite possibly a new foreign minister as well, let us hope that foreign affairs will quickly get the attention that they deserve and need.