WHEN I covered Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's visit to the United Nations in 1993, I was surprised that New York taxi drivers knew his name or were aware that a country called Malaysia existed.
|Tun Omar Ong Yoke Lin|
|Datuk Albert Talalla|
Much of that came about because of the former prime minister's international profile as the leader of the South -- asking for no quarter and giving none.
Even as Dr Mahathir took a tough stance on most issues, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had his softer style as foreign minister which worked in tandem with his boss' ways.
Their styles constituted an unbeatable combination that took Malaysia places, taking the nation to the apex of international opinion and influence.
While the two leaders were working their magic on the global arena, there was a corp of dedicated and astute diplomatic officials working behind the scene to deliver the goods.
They were Malaysian ambassadors, a group of people hand-picked to bring glory and honour to the nation.
There were the likes of the jocular Tan Sri Khir Johari, a charmer who could have people eating out of his hands in minutes, the quick-witted Datuk Abdul Majid Mohamed (Malaysian ambassador to Washington in the early 1990s), and quieter but no less interesting Tan Sri Razali Ismail, who was the Malaysian Permanent Representative to the UN.
Together, they had the ears of the people who mattered in Washington and New York, their sophistication in matters of diplomacy added to natural congeniality resulting in a potent mix that few could resist.
They were plenipotentiaries of Malaysia, the likes of whom, I am told, may not be seen for sometime to come.
It, therefore, comes as a shock to know that Malaysia has not had an ambassador in Washington for 10 months and that little headway has been made in bringing Malaysia in touch with the Obama administration (Barack Obama has been in office for 100 days).
Former Malaysian ambassador, Datuk Deva Mohd Ridzam, had call to lament this sad state of affairs recently, calling for the situation to be put right post-haste.
His observation that foreign relations have been little short of lacklustre over the last decade ties in with opinion among several retired diplomats and former civil servants who have decried the loss of a strong foreign policy.
Some of this had to do with the quality of men and women selected to head our missions, what with complaints from some that Malaysian diplomats sometimes preferred to take a backseat at public discussions.
There have also been observations that some diplomats cringed at the thought of interacting with foreigners due to a lack of confidence brought about by a paucity in social skills and lack of fluency in English.
Centre for Public Policy Studies chairman at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, felt that there was a crying need for better people to get into foreign service.
The former Transport Ministry secretary-general said diplomats needed to be fluent in English, have excellent social skills and be on the ball where knowledge of international relations was required.
Former member of the Malaysian diplomatic corp, Datuk Nelson Arputham, said he was among several recruited into the diplomatic service from other departments in the 1960s.
Arputham said the diplomatic service should recruit only the best minds as was the case after independence.
"We had the likes of Tun Ong Yoke Lin, who was one of the best ambassadors to the US (concurrently United Nations), who is known to have had excellent ties with the US media and administration."
There were others like Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, Datuk Albert Talalla (former ambassador to the US), and Tan Sri Mohamed Khatib Abdul Hamid who headed the mission in Tokyo .
All this leaves new Foreign Minister, Datuk Anifah Aman, with a lot on his plate.
He has to sit down with his officers and review foreign policy initiatives with a view towards making it consistent, effective and helpful to the nation. In the worst of economic times like this, our men and women in missions abroad must shine in identifying opportunities for the nation to exploit.
They can also play an effective role in helping Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Anifah come up with policies that meet the needs of foreign nations in the economic, social and political spheres.
In a nutshell, isn't this, after all, why they are abroad representing the nation?
Anifah has also got to look into Najib's call to Wisma Putra to look outside the diplomatic service for the best minds. The prime minister was crystal clear when he said that the civil service should hire the "best of the best".
Anifah should take the cue to cast his net far and wide. He should then set about raising the stature of the diplomatic service to be on par with the best in the world -- like we were before. He needs to relook things with a critical eye aimed at taking Wisma Putra back to where it was before ennui took over.
It is imperative that the Wisma Putra team (it has to be a joint effort) puts its best foot forward to reclaim lost territory abroad in terms of image and esteem. And what better time than now with a new minister in office?