Growing Up With A Nation That Isn’t
Book review of Ahmad Kamil Jaafar’s Growing Up With The Nation. Marshall Cavendish, Singapore, 2013.
256 pp. RM135
The life of a diplomat, as the laity sees it, is one of glittering
cocktail parties, spacious residences in leafy exclusive neighborhoods, and being
pampered in MAS first-class cabins, all paid for by taxpayers.
So it was a
surprise to read this opening line in Growing
Up With The Nation, the memoir of Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, Malaysia’s former top
diplomat, “The life of a diplomat and foreign policy maker can be pretty much
routine and humdrum during the best of times.”
Then as if
to underscore this point, midway through the book, in the chapter “China – A
Transformational Journey,” he writes, “Finding myself with ample free time I
tried my hand at learning Chinese … and Chinese brush painting.”
the mid-1980s when China was undergoing, as per the chapter title,
transformational changes under Deng Xiaoping. To be bored or have ample free
time at such a period reflected more on the caliber of our diplomats generally
rather than on Kamil Jaafar’s talent, ability, or diligence.
commendable for Kamil to learn Mandarin. It would have been even more impressive
had he done it before being posted
there. There was (and is) no lack of opportunities for learning that language
in Malaysia. Granted, the Malaysian Chinese accent may be way off the Beijing
variety, nonetheless the basics remain the same.
is privileged to have been given the great opportunity and responsibility to
guide the young nation. There are many others, but most are content to spend
their retirement collecting lucrative GLC directorship fees and hitting golf
balls. Malaysians owe Kamil a huge debt of gratitude for having taken time and effort
to recollect his experiences so others could benefit.
Kamil’s memoir, competently written, spans a career of over
three decades. He retired in 1996 as the top civil servant in the Foreign
Ministry, and then continued on as Special Envoy. He covers vast expanse of water.
However, as any scuba diver would tell you, the world underneath is even more
rich, challenging and fascinating. Skimming the surface may get you far but at
the price of missing this wonderful universe below. Stating it diplomatically, Kamil’s
memoir has maximal recollection but at the expense of thoughtful reflection.
On the rare
occasions when he does pause, Kamil is astute and penetrating, revealing much.
Recalling a meeting between Prime Minister Mahathir and Chairman Deng, Kamil
noted the large spittoon which Deng used only three times during the entire
encounter. Kamil congratulated Mahathir, deeming the meeting a success, at
least by that criterion. Deng may be a transformational leader of the biggest
country, but in mannerisms he was just another coolie. Diplomatically spun,
Deng remained faithful to his plebian origin.
Abdullah Badawi’s tenure as Foreign Minister, Kamil felt like his ministry was
under the Prime Minister’s Department. That reveals volumes as to Abdullah’s capability
and contribution. Apparently Abdullah was satisfied if not reveled in being
was a special guest at the book’s launching. He obviously had not read the
book, or if he did, missed that subtle but devastating jab. Or I could be over
reading that passage.
post-publication interview Kamil related how tough he was with his
subordinates. I wish he had been equally frank and tough on his political
superiors. Did he see any parallel between Abdullah’s performances as Foreign
Minister and Prime Minister? As for the other dozen or so foreign ministers Kamil
served under, none merited more than just a few bland lines penned in passing. Most
were skipped entirely. Perhaps that said it all.
Of all the
prime ministers, only Mahathir did not serve concurrently as foreign minister. Yet
Kamil devotes more ink to him than to anyone else. His adoration for Mahathir is
unbridled, and evident throughout the book. Yet when Kamil lamented on the poor
English of our young diplomats and how that handicaps them professionally, he fails
to make the connection. Mahathir is most responsible for this sorry state,
first as Minister of Education and later as Prime Minister.
appointed Kamil Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry; I reckon that has
much to do with this uncritical appraisal.
As for that
promotion, Kamil recalled his colleagues urging him to decline it, in deference
to the incumbent who had been at it for only six months. That reveals the
destructive culture of the civil service, this tunggu geleran (patiently waiting your turn), like landing planes
at a busy airport. That, more than anything else, is responsible for the anti-meritocratic
norms of the civil service. There is no such thing as “fast tracking.”
rationalized his acceptance thus: “I
dare not go against the Prime Minister’s decision.” I would have preferred had
he asserted that he could do a better job. False modesty is hard to conceal
while the genuine form is overrated. Besides, a senior civil servant should
never fear of going against his political superior if that is the wise thing to
Kamil had a
brief and less-than-laudatory paragraph on Prime Minister Hussein Onn, recalling
a meeting involving a sensitive issue related to a neighboring country. Kamil
and his counterparts in the Home Ministry including its minister, Ghazali
Shafie, had concocted a nefarious scheme the nature of which was not revealed. When
they finished briefing Hussein, he became visibly angry and reprimanded them.
are doing is a bottomless pit. You cannot do to others what you do not want
others to do to you,” Kamil quoted Hussein, who ordered an immediate halt.
Kamil did not describe his or Ghazali’s reaction to this dressing down.
not known to be a decisive leader but on that occasion when he most needed to
be, he was. That brief anecdote epitomized Hussein’s integrity and
fair-mindedness. I remind readers that the odious phrase “cronyism, corruption
and nepotism” entered the popular Malaysian lexicon only after Hussein left
office. As an aside, he was not cited
in the index, perhaps an honest slip.
Galbraith, Kennedy’s political-appointee Ambassador to India, wrote in his Ambassador’s Journal that Kennedy read
his (Galbraith’s) dispatches because they were a joy. I assume that most diplomatic
communications are not, consumed as they are with being detached and laced with
bureaucratese as well as bewildering acronyms. They are also written so as not
to offend anyone.
Kamil no longer
needs to be deferential to his former superiors. He should be critical of their
performances. He should go beyond lamenting the current sorry state of Malaysia
and analyze the “who, what, where, when, why and how.” Which leaders were most
culpable for our nation not growing up? If luminaries like Kamil shy away from
this crucial responsibility, then by default it would fall on the tin kosong jaguh kampong (empty tin-can
village champions). And the nation would be the poorer for that.
Kamil recalled how as a young diplomat he was clueless as
there was no one to guide him. Now having reached the pinnacle of his career,
he put forth few ideas to guide his young successors, except for them to
improve their English. That in itself reveals volumes on the state of our
this void, I share with our diplomats, young and old, this advice, the one my
late father gave me before I left for Canada back in 1963. Observe the country
and its people, he counseled me, be perceptive of and receptive to your new
environment. Heed the wisdom of our culture, Alam terkembang di jadikan guru (Let the expanding universe be your
teacher), echoing Wordsworth’s “Let nature be your teacher.”
particular my father asked me to ponder this question: Why was it that Canada was offering those
generous scholarships to young Malaysians and not Malaysia to Canadians?
it to our diplomats, I would advise them thus. Study one feature of your host
country that is worthy of our emulation, or conversely, the one to avoid
falling into. Our Third Secretary in Venezuela could learn how that country successfully
used music to empower poor children and produce superb youth orchestras as well
as many accomplished young conductors. Our High Commissioner to Nigeria would warn
us of the fate that awaits Malaysia if it does not get a handle on corruption,
while that to Pakistan, the dangers if religious extremists were to get the
assignment tagged onto their regular duties our diplomats, novice and seasoned,
would never again complain of their posting “being routine and humdrum,” or having
“ample free time.” Thus occupied, they would not likely get themselves into
mischief or otherwise embarrass the nation.
Bakri Musa’s memoir, Cast
From The Herd. Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia, is due out in 2015.