16 November 2007

Growing bigger, but at what cost?

The Star

With the massive expansion of the foreign service, Wisma Putra is facing financial constraints and human resources pressure. Is it time for the Government to re-look its expansion plan?

THERE is a group of Malaysian diplomats waiting for their posting orders. One or two may be reluctant to go for personal reasons.

But that number is in the minority as for many diplomats, serving overseas is something they look forward to.

»There is insufficient allocation to maintain buildings and increase allowances« DATUK JOSEPH SALANG GANDUM, DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER
After all, that is what they are paid for – to guard the nation’s interests at their foreign posts.

It is a chance of a lifetime to work and live in another country since very few Malaysians will have that experience.

Secondly, there is the overseas allowance.

Ask any Wisma Putra staff – Japan tops the list of countries they want to be posted to because the allowance, said to be in the five-figure range for the ambassador, is the highest among the 104 missions and consulates that Malaysia currently has.

But Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

In cities like Moscow, Teheran and London, the cost of living has skyrocketed but the overseas allowances for these cities have not been adjusted.

Are our diplomats poorly paid? That seems to be the impression that some of our MPs have, based on their travels overseas.

Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin related in Parliament of an embarrassing experience overseas when the Malaysian embassy car that he was travelling in broke down on the way from the airport.

What he may not realise is that the car may not belong to the diplomat but is an embassy car, which means it belongs to the Government.

Official cars should be replaced every five years. That is on paper but more often than not most government cars are replaced much later.

What the MP may not be aware of is the fact that Wisma Putra, despite its big role at the international level, remains one of the smallest ministries in terms of budget allocation.

This year, the Foreign Ministry got RM683mil – RM83mil more than the year before.

Compare that with the Tourism Ministry which will get RM858mil next year.

For the Visit Malaysia Year 2007 programme, it was allocated RM149mil.

In countries where Malaysia has diplomatic presence simply to maintain relations the situation can be quite pathetic.

Even the local staff has not had a salary increment in years.

A local serving in a South Asian mission working as a clerk with three years experience earns about RM700.

Justify – that is what the Treasury insists on every time there is a request for a review in allowance or budget.

Even a request to replace an embassy car involves a study to compare what other Asean countries are using. This takes time.

The question is, with over 100 missions, does Wisma Putra need to expand further? All these years, apart from trade purposes, political reasons like promoting South-South cooperation or Organisation of Islamic Conference networking were good enough for Malaysia to establish its missions.

Sometimes it is for reciprocal purposes – when a country opens its mission in Malaysia, the Government is expected to do the same.

Massive expansion has eaten into the Foreign Ministry’s budget and is straining its resources, thus it is not uncommon to hear grouses of repair works not being undertaken simply because there aren't enough funds.

As Deputy Foreign Minister Datuk Joseph Salang Gandum told Parliament, there was insufficient allocation to maintain buildings and increase allowances.

The ministry applied for RM10mil but only got RM4mil.

It may not be practical to just shut down a mission, except in times of war like in Iraq.

So Wisma Putra needs to carefully consider before further spreading its wings.

Where regions are concerned, Central Asia, Latin America and Africa are places where Wisma Putra could have a head of mission accredited to several countries.

As for making things financially better for our diplomats, there is hope yet.

After more than three years since the last revision, the ministry is asking for new rates for overseas allowances and hoping to implement it by the first quarter of 2008.

But will the overall budget for the ministry be increased substantially?

The MPs have raised issues affecting Wisma Putra, but is the Treasury paying any heed?

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