By M Santhananaban
As a civil servant, I was certainly not naive, neutral or polite about attempts to cheat the government through corrupt, illegal, misleading or wasteful activities.
However, I could not make too much noise about corruption while in the Foreign Service because that would have been dangerous and inimical to my survival.
Whistleblowers would customarily be criticised, sidelined and stigmatised, if not sacked. Or they would be put in cold storage as if there was a cloud over their conduct. This is generally how the public service works.
I worked in the public sector of Malaysia for 45 years. I must confess I had lived dangerously because of that uncompromising attitude to corruption and abuse of power. I sincerely think I can speak somewhat authoritatively on this issue. Very few of my peers and superiors who were with me on overseas postings measured up in terms of honesty and integrity.
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At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kuala Lumpur, I had some superb superiors who were men of exceptional integrity. It was a pleasure to work with them. I recall with much affection men like Zakaria Mohd Ali, Zain Azraai, Zainal Abidin Sulong, Razali Ismail, Abdul Halim Ali, Ajit Singh, Hashim Sultan, Renji Sathiah, V Yoogalingam, Abdul Malek Mohamad, ambassador John Ng and ambassador Walter Ayathury.
But overseas, working in a fairly isolated mission, especially in non-core or peripheral posts, we were inclined to believe we were far from any prying or watchful eyes. That remoteness could turn some often silent, smooth and seemingly straight diplomats into wispy weasels, wicked warlords, or wheelers and dealers.
There were a few virtuous people like Zainal Abidin Ibrahim, Anaitullah EA Karim and Abdul Majid Mohamed with whom it was a pleasure to serve while overseas. They maintained integrity in financial matters and were not unduly susceptible to fawning and flattery, two great evils in our office and social environment.
With my rather self-righteous, strict attitude and suspicion of corruption and abuse of office, I would have been perceived as a pesky and problematic fellow by some of my superiors overseas.
There is no room for enmity or any ill-feeling from either side now, but where a preference has to be made, I probably became a lifelong irritant to at least two of my superiors overseas. Being human, they naturally would have given me mediocre confidential reports.
All this became clear to me when, after two overseas postings, I was ensconced most delightfully in Vientiane, Laos – the most bucolic and laidback township in Southeast Asia from the 1970s.
While there, I found out that five people of my batch had been promoted over me. In the next few promotion exercises, those five officers and many, many more of my juniors in service were also promoted above me.
I was posted to Vientiane in August 1981, after a tour of just 31 months in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was by far the most memorable, grandest and most rewarding posting for me. It was, as I remember it, a meet-and-greet place, frequented by all kinds of important personalities from Malaysia.
The more fascinating and larger part of my job was China-watching. After the launch of the “Four Modernisations” programme [of agriculture, industry, national defence, and science and technology] by its then leader Deng Xiaoping, China entered a robust phase of reform and development
This phase was well covered by journalists in Hong Kong. Some of these journalists, including Derek Davies, Nayan Chanda, VG Kulkarni, Rodney Tasker, David Chen, Bing Wong and Cheah Cheng Hye, became good friends.
I was acting Malaysian commissioner (as the consul-general was designated then) there for eight months. During that time, I had the opportunity to meet prominent Hong Kong banking and business leaders, including Robert Kuok, Run Run Shaw, Micheal Sandberg and SK Lee.
While stationed in Hong Kong, I met almost all the personalities of gravitas from Malaysia, including our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, the then Prime Minister Hussein Onn and several other leaders, especially of the central government, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak.
These encounters gave me a rare insight into Malaysia. I remember the long hours I had with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Siew Sin, Hamzah Abu Samah, Syed Ahmad Shahabuddin, Ismail Ali, Dr Ling Liong Sik, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Khoo Siak Chiew and the many conversations about Malaysia.
I also made some great friendships with people like Fr Lancelot Rodrigues, Saw Hock Siew, Tim Chan See-meng, the Leitao family of Macao, Abdul Rahman Jalal, Syed Hussein Abu Bakar and others.
My attitude towards corruption, abuse of office and the widespread use of the currency of fawning and flattery remains unchanged. Some very senior officers were so blatantly corrupt that I had to actually cut myself off from them, being unable to acknowledge even their passing.
In 2023, some 50 years after I had first joined the public service, it is a matter of deep disquiet that there is this kind of talk that all officers of the Foreign Service are equally capable, of high calibre and of high integrity.
No doubt, some of the officers in the service had these qualities combined with cerebral acumen. But to talk of all of them as well equipped to handle every important ambassadorship or assignment is wrong.
The Foreign Service has, in the past decade, experienced a phase of more than one head of mission in important posts being suddenly recalled at brief notice and then disappearing from the public service radar.
There may be good, bad or arbitrary reasons for these unusual happenings. There have been instances where the prime minister himself was allegedly involved in the abrupt recall of these ambassadors. These oafish prime ministers had no business interfering in the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is there to serve the country’s larger interests and not their personal agenda.
Tomorrow: The nation’s best investment overseas
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired Malaysian ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience