IS Malaysia facing a dearth of talent in some critical areas?
Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, back in the portfolio after 20 years, looked dead serious when he spoke at a press luncheon on Wednesday about the quality and stature of his staff. He said this would be one of his priorities. He is contemplating asking his officers to comb the universities to seek potential officers from among the students, who could be roped in the moment they graduate.
Sounds desperate. But, so is every other employer. And this doesn't speak well of our education system at all.
"We can no longer pick and choose the right personalities through the normal rigmarole of civil service recruitment," said the minister, who also mentioned that his other priorities would be to revamp the ministry's external information division and present a "friendlier image" of Malaysian missions abroad.
In April last year, Rais' predecessor, Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, said the ministry was embarking on a massive recruitment drive and was cutting all red tape in its effort to fill about 300 vacancies. The targets, it was then said, were youngish, articulate professionals who could hold their own against the best diplomats from around the world.
It is, therefore, clear the search has not been successful and the problem remains. It is still as difficult to find good diplomats as it is to hire efficient managers or competent journalists.
In his luncheon speech, Rais said foreign service officers in this era of globalisation must not only be skilful in political and strategic issues, but must also have an adequate arsenal of knowledge on international economic matters.
"Their proficiency in the use of international languages is important, as effective communication is a key tool in international diplomacy. They must be given the necessary training for the challenging task of protecting Malaysia's multifaceted national interests.
"We want our officers to have the ability to communicate at the highest level and have knowledge of international law," he added.
For the sake of the country and its image abroad, Wisma Putra's lingering problem has to be overcome fast -- perhaps by offering higher salaries to attract the right talent.
It is most discomfiting to learn that some officers in the foreign service are out of their depth when tasked with holding high-level diplomatic negotiations or drawing up treaties and diplomatic notes.
That, perhaps, was why Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had to raise a reminder not too long ago that the country needed diplomats who could develop excellent networking relationships so that national interests could be easily promoted.
We need diplomats with the temperament and skills to achieve "insider status" within the most influential circles of the host countries, he said.
I blame this predicament largely on the national education system, which breeds mediocrity.