BY JENNIFER GOMEZ | The Malaysian Insider
Published: 9 February 2016 7:00 AM
Putrajaya and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak are facing an unprecedented onslaught amid the negative reporting globally about Malaysia’s financial scandals, says a former envoy.
Dennis Ignatius, who was with the Malaysian foreign service for more than three decades, said there was increasing dismay and disappointment internationally over the direction Malaysia had taken.
He added that the negative press was bad for the country’s economy and Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate, stable and progressive nation was in tatters, squandered by leaders who were only concerned with personal power and personal gain.
“Today, we are viewed as corrupt, undemocratic, unstable and retrogressive, a nation heading towards extremism and intolerance,” the former ambassador to Canada told The Malaysian Insider through email.
Commenting on certain ministers and the Malaysian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Datuk Ahmad Rasidi Hazizi’s defence of Putrajaya in the wake of the bad press over debt-ridden state investor 1Malaysia Development Bhd and the RM2.6 billion donation received by Najib, Ignatius said even a single report by the likes of Bloomberg or the Financial Times had an impact more than “a hundred ambassadors peddling government propaganda”.
Ignatius, who also served as ambassador to Chile and Argentina, said Malaysia’s high commissioner to UK could push the government line in letters to British newspapers all he wanted, but this would only go down well with the Umno crowd at home and not with anyone else.
He added that politicians these days said things to burnish their own credentials within the party to score cheap points at home rather than try to win arguments abroad.
Below are excerpts from the email interview.
TMI: The international spotlight Malaysia is experiencing now, is it unprecedented?
Ignatius: In all my decades as a diplomat, ambassador and political commentator, I have never seen such an unprecedented level of scrutiny not just by the international media but by other governments as well. Never before has Malaysia received such sustained bad press, such negative reviews, such pointed criticism. This even goes beyond the criticisms that were forthcoming when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was jailed and that was awfully bad.
I think there is now increasing dismay and disappointment internationally over the direction Malaysia has taken. For many years, the international community was willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt despite so many questionable policies because it viewed Malaysia as a valuable partner or perhaps it was hoping that somehow the government would come to its senses and correct itself. Now, there is frustration and increasing impatience over the unwillingness of the government to get its act together. We are becoming a liability to our friends, and neighbours, an embarrassment.
TMI: In the past, how did the Malaysian government respond to such things? Was it done through the Malaysian ambassadors or other channels? What we have now are ministers issuing statements against certain foreign reports, such as Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak (pic) and in the case of the report in Financial Times (FT), the Malaysian ambassador to UK wrote to FT in protest.
Ignatius: Ambassadors are, of course, expected to press the government’s case with their host countries and to engage the foreign press. It is never an easy task, even at the best of times. Ambassadors can try to spin the truth (didn’t Lord Acton once say that an ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie on behalf of his country?), but there’s only so much they can do especially when the news from home is so devastating, when the facts on the ground are so compelling and when the government itself is being evasive and unconvincing.
In any case, a single report by a newspaper like Bloomberg or the Financial Times carries more weight and has more impact than a hundred ambassadors peddling government propaganda.
The strategy of buying their way out of bad press by hiring slick PR firms to plant feel good stories in the foreign media has undoubtedly backfired on them. Most western media are now wary of such PR people though there may still be unscrupulous journalists willing to obfuscate the truth for money.
And don’t forget that it is now much harder for governments to spin the facts because of the Internet and things like Facebook and Twitter. Local news goes global in an instant; opinions are formed and conclusions are made based on group connections that are extremely difficult to change. Undemocratic governments are rightly fearful of the Internet and seek to control it.
Our high commissioner in London can, therefore, push the government line all he wants in letters to the Financial Times and other British newspapers, but it is clear that the series of scandals that have rocked the government have gone well past anyone’s ability to spin. His letter might go down well the Umno crowd at home but it will be dismissed by almost everyone else.
Of course, it doesn’t help when our ministers also shoot their mouths off and talk nonsense. But you must understand that these ministers are not thinking about foreign reaction; they are fighting to convince their own supporters and their domestic constituency. They know they cannot hope to convince other governments or the international press; all they can do is to try to hold the line where it matters most to them – domestically.
Besides, so much of what is said these days by some of these politicians is simply designed to burnish their own credentials within the party, shameless and unprincipled apple polishers, rather than to seriously win over the international media. It’s about scoring cheap points at home rather than trying to win the argument abroad.
TMI: In your opinion, are Putrajaya and the prime minister facing an unprecedented onslaught?
Ignatius: I think that’s clear enough. And about time too. For too long the international community has been largely silent in the face of so much abuse of power – the jailing of Anwar, the use of draconian laws to stifle dissent, the harassment of the opposition, and the slow death of our once proud democracy. While human rights NGOs rightfully took the government to task, Western democracies stayed largely silent or just confined themselves to issuing pro forma protests so as not to jeopardise lucrative business deals or stay on side with a so-called “moderate” Islamic nation. US President Barack Obama, for example, shamefully coddled one of the most undemocratic leaders we’ve ever had instead of upholding the great democratic traditions of his own country. It simply encouraged the government into thinking that they could get away with anything, that they were too important to be criticised.
Malaysians, frustrated at not being able to find justice at home, subsequently went global with their concerns – the globalisation of our discontent as I called in a recent article. People like Khairuddin Abu Hassan appealed to foreign jurisdictions to take action and it has forced the international community to sit up and take notice, particularly when these scandals also violate the laws of a number of foreign jurisdictions.
With foreign authorities investigating high level corruption and money-laundering in Malaysia, we may at last see some justice done.
TMI: In your opinion, how damaging are these international reports to Malaysia?
Ignatius: There is no doubt that the many exposés about corruption and malfeasance as well as the crackdown on the opposition, the stifling of the media and Internet, the restrictions on civil liberties and the whole hudud debate have been extremely damaging to Malaysia’s reputation.
Malaysia’s reputation as a moderate, stable and progressive nation, a reputation that has taken us many decades to cultivate, is now in absolute tatters, squandered by leaders who are only concerned with personal power and personal gain. Today, we are viewed as corrupt, undemocratic, unstable and retrogressive, a nation heading towards extremism and intolerance.
The economic consequences have been devastating as well. Respected financial commentators like Bloomberg are reporting an erosion of investor confidence. There’s too much political uncertainty, too many reports of corruption, mismanagement and sleaze and that always makes investors nervous. It is not for no reason that last year, foreign investors sold a net US$7.4 billion of Malaysia stocks and bonds and the ringgit fell 19%.
TMI: What can or should Putrajaya do, should ministers continue with their knee jerk reactions to reject the international reports or should there be more diplomacy?
Ignatius: Diplomacy? I don’t know that there’s a role for diplomacy in all this. Diplomacy can’t cover over scandal and corruption and neither is it designed to do that. The government must put its house in order, get real and undertake meaningful reform. It has to convince both Malaysians and the world that it can change for the better. Regretfully, there is no sign of that. Their strategy is to deny everything, keep insisting that everything is fine, vilify their critics and hope that it will all blow over. It’s the Mugabe method, I suppose.
TMI: What do you think about the Swiss attorney-general (A-G) making a public statement about the 1MDB probe. Minister Salleh Keruak said it was wrong of him to issue a public statement. Do you agree?
Ignatius: Of course the minister would want things done on a government to government basis, away from the glare of publicity. They want to try to control the message, put their own spin on the issue. By going public the way he did, the Swiss A-G, who by the way is free of political interference, brought the international spotlight back on the issue. It was nothing short of a slap in the face of our own A-G who conveniently dismissed the case against his boss.
It was a sign that the international community has lost confidence in the ability of Malaysian law enforcement to properly and fairly investigate the matter. I’m sure most Malaysians consider the Swiss A-G a hero, an example of what a real A-G should be like. More power to him!
And the latest reports that the Saudi foreign minister is now distancing his country from the so-called donation speaks, I think, of Saudi unhappiness and impatience that they are being dragged into the scandal. I wonder what our A-G will now have to say after so smugly dismissing the case. – February 9, 2016.