by Dennis Ignatius
Anyone who is serious about safeguarding our image and protecting our nation’s standing in the world would be well advised to first consider how developments at home are affecting our image abroad.
According to a Bernama report, Deputy Foreign Minister A. Kohilan Pillay recently indicated in Parliament that Wisma Putra monitors Malaysians who travel abroad as well as those who reside overseas “to ensure that they safeguard the good name of the country and government leaders.”
He went on to add that “irresponsible” Malaysians are tarnishing our good name abroad and suggested that such people are “traitors.”
It is an odd admission that only serves to underline much of what is wrong with our country today and our misplaced priorities.
As someone who has spent over 36 years in the foreign service, much of that time living abroad, I can attest to the fact that Malaysia’s image is rarely tarnished by what Malaysians residing abroad do or do not do.
Of far greater significance is what goes on in the country itself.
More than anything else, it is the long and seemingly unending list of scandals involving corruption, mismanagement and the abuse of power that has done great damage to our international standing in recent years.
It has also caused international respect for our judiciary and law enforcement agencies to plummet.
There are the racial and religious incidents as well — church burnings, the cow-head incident, conversion issues, vitriolic racist rhetoric, etc, all of which have badly dented Malaysia’s reputation as a peaceful and tolerant multiracial nation.
It is no secret that these developments have had the cumulative effect of undermining foreign direct investment, worsening our standing on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and weakening our competitiveness as measured by the World Economic Forum.
Our diplomatic missions are, of course, expected to promptly respond to negative reports about the country. It can, however, be a daunting task at times.
In these days of the Internet, when news travels around the world at the speed of light, even the response of an ambassador is often not enough to undo the damage that is done by events at home.
Anyone who is therefore serious about safeguarding our image and protecting our nation’s standing in the world would be well advised to first consider how developments at home are affecting our image abroad.
While Malaysians abroad ought to do whatever they can to safeguard the image of our nation, they have no obligation to defend politicians or political parties.
Politicians and other leaders will have to nurture their own reputations, like everybody else, by the way they behave, carry out their responsibilities and respect the trust that has been given to them. If they fail to live up to the expectations of the people who elected them, they should expect criticism.
Indeed, it is the politicians, of whatever stripe, who need to convince Malaysians, both at home and abroad, that they are deserving of our support and respect. In democracies, it is the citizens who monitor their government, not the other way around.
Only in countries like North Korea are all citizens expected to uncritically sing the praises of their dear leaders.
Malaysians living abroad have generally been loyal and supportive of their country. Indeed in many respects they are even more patriotic that those who never leave home at all — perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder!
During my time as High Commissioner to Canada, for example, the Malaysian community worked enthusiastically with the High Commission to put on an amazing display of culture and cuisine to commemorate the 50th anniversary of our independence.
As High Commissioner, it gave me much pride and joy to see my fellow Malaysians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds working together as a
That is the spirit that largely infuses Malaysians living abroad.
Of course, Malaysians travelling or living abroad have sometimes been critical of the government, and for that matter, of the opposition as well. However, they are merely exercising their fundamental right as citizens of a free and democratic nation to express their opinion. Hardly the stuff of treachery.
Kohilan also does our diplomats a disservice by suggesting that they have been mandated to spy on their fellow Malaysians. It certainly does nothing to engender the kind of trust and goodwill that is so needed to foster closer cooperation between our missions and Malaysians living abroad.
What is it with us Malaysians that more than 50 years after independence we are still questioning the patriotism and loyalty of our fellow citizens and condemning as traitors those we don’t agree with?
And why do we seem to make a big thing about the mundane in distant lands and miss the monstrous right in front of us?
Kohilan might want to give some thought to these questions, unless, of course, it is treachery to ask.
Datuk Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service. He served in London, Beijing and Washington and was ambassador to Chile and Argentina. He retired as High Commissioner to Canada in July 2008.