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“The greatest danger is not that we aim too high and miss but that we aim too low and hit.” ~  Michelangelo

Anxious to prove himself to a sceptical public, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri has given his ministers 100 days to produce results. “I will ensure this cabinet focuses on having a high-performance work culture. Therefore, each ministry must draft its short-term and long-term plans and achieve set goals… within the first 100 days,” he announced.

Establishing a 100-day time frame for results is, of course, not a new idea. Pakatan Harapan pledged to fulfil 10 specific promises within the first 100 days. After he won the U.S. presidential elections, Joe Biden identified four national challenges – the coronavirus pandemic, economic recession, climate change and racial injustice – and outlined a series of policy measures he intended to take in his first 100 days in office. Among his promises: 100 million shots administered to Americans in his first 100 days.

Ismail Sabri’s pledge, however, was different in that it did not set any precise goals for his administration’s first 100 days. He could have pledged to pass key legislation to reform parliament or end the use of sedition laws to stifle criticism, or he could have set key pandemic management targets; he did not.  His only promise was a vague and unmeasurable one to ensure that his cabinet would be performance oriented. 

No surprise then that his 100-day speech was widely panned. Most Malaysians have near zero confidence that a cabinet made up of recycled, incompetent, failed or discredited politicians will produce anything worth bragging about in a thousand days, let alone in one hundred days. Ismail Sabri’s appointment of former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin – the man who made such a spectacular mess of things during his 18 months in office – to head the National Recovery Council only confirmed their worst fears. 

 In the wake of the prime minister’s 100-day speech, several NGOs, activists and concerned citizens have come up with their own list of 100-day targets. Suhakam, for example, has given the home minister 100 days to respond to its call to “professionalize” the police force. My friend and fellow columnist Professor Dr Tajuddin Rasdi has come up with a list of 100-day targets for the minister of religious affairs. 

Personally, I think the whole exercise is a waste of time. None of them will ever set targets that really meet the expectations of voters. If they didn’t or couldn’t do anything of any significance during their previous term, there is no reason to expect anything from them now. They are too set in their ways, too comfortable with mediocrity, too full of their own self-importance to give a damn about what voters may think. I expect that most of them will set targets that are either too vague or too low so that they can all claim to be star performers at the end of 100 days.

If you need convincing of the pointlessness of the whole 100-day exercise, look no further than the foreign ministry. 

In line with the prime minister’s 100-day mantra, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah waxed eloquent about “establishing a foreign policy framework for the new administration under Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob”. Continuing, he said that the framework “will serve as guidance for Malaysia’s direction, focus and approaches on foreign policy… in line with Ismail’s directive for a productive first 100 days in office”. 

He then went on to explain, “It is not a new foreign policy. The central theme is ‘focus in continuity’. For example, maintaining good relations with all parties; upholding Malaysia’s interests in terms of sovereignty, survival, and security; its economic interests and the people’s prosperity; and protecting as well as promoting the nation’s identity and reputation among the international community.” For good measure, he threw in terms like “cultural diplomacy” and “health diplomacy” and announced the establishment of a Foreign Policy Consultative Council.

It might sound reasonable until you realize that it was exactly the same speech he gave in 2018 when he was first appointed foreign minister. In fact, in 2019, Saifuddin’s ministry published a document entitled ‘Foreign Policy Framework of the New Malaysia; Change in Continuity’ based on then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s UN speech. In the end, Dr Mahathir himself rejected key elements of his own speech (ratification of ICERD and ICC), and Saifuddin ran for cover when Ketuanan Melayu groups vociferously protested. And now, here he is again talking about frameworks, foreign policy consultative councils and “change in continuity”. 

Beyond that, much of what he talked about in the context of the 100-day target – maintaining good relations, upholding Malaysia’s interests, etc. – is what foreign ministries do all over the world. It’s routine bread and butter issues that Wisma Putra has been doing for years. To reference them in a discussion of his 100 days -day suggests that he has nothing new to offer. 

What the nation needs from the minister is real leadership and new ideas to meet the challenges that the nation faces on a number of fronts including the South China Sea. In 100 days, can he, for example, come up with a white paper on foreign policy which defines the specific foreign policy challenges the nation faces and how he proposes to meet them? Can he also provide the vision and leadership to carry out a complete overhaul of the diplomatic service to meet current needs?

It is no secret that we have far too many diplomatic missions – 110 in 84 countries to be exact. Many of our missions do not serve any useful purpose at all; in fact, at least a third can be closed immediately without effecting the work of the foreign ministry. It is worth noting that Singapore, for example, has 50 diplomatic missions worldwide and yet, it has a far bigger footprint in the world than Malaysia. Instead of “continuity in change”, the minister should opt for a strategy of continuous change to meet the challenges of a changing world.

But such meaningful 100-day targets require real commitment and real work, something that few politicians are ready for or have the intellectual capacity to engage in. It’s far easier in our indolent political culture to just make a few bland and banal cliches and then claim credit for imaginary achievements. 

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 6th September 2021