AT the start of his second stint as foreign minister, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah spoke about the push for a more open and consultative approach in how Wisma Putra engages its stakeholders. Part of the new approach includes the proposal toestablish a parliamentary select committee on international affairs, which the minister said he will raise with the cabinet. This proposal is a step in the right direction for foreign policymaking in Malaysia.
The rules and status quos underpinning much of the international architectures that are important to Malaysia have been under tremendous flux. The pandemic then exacerbated these stress points. Long-held mantras like wanting to be “friends with everyone” or blanket neutrality might make for soothing soundbites but are impractical to execute as a matter of policy in an international environment where Malaysia’s interests are increasingly caught up in broader currents.
Yet it is also a time of opportunity for Malaysia, if we are able to recognise the emerging trends and manoeuvre ourselves accordingly. Malaysia can and must leverage on its competitive strengths to not just have a say on the new norms being shaped, but to position ourselves as partner of choice in this region.
A more consultative, all-of-nation approach on how we prioritise our identities, advantages, weaknesses – discussed and debated by the legislature – is an important part of formulating more sustainable and relevant foreign policy strategies. At the least, it will help expose more Malaysians, including most of our MPs, to the nuances of how foreign policy is developed and executed.
Another important reason for a select committee on foreign policy is that it is beyond high time for MPs to ponder on the fact that the Foreign Ministry remains one of the most underfunded ministries. In 2021, it received RM778 million, a drop from the RM817 million allocated in 2020. With this, Wisma Putra has to manage not only its domestic costs but that of 111 foreign missions in 85 countries.
This is a full-time, global duty that is compounded by the ministry’s role as one of the leading players in guiding Malaysia through a changing, disruptive international order. Existing capabilities need to be retained and new ones developed. These don’t come cheap.
Our diplomats work hard and are resourceful in making the most of what they have. But the fact remains that how much resources we allocate will determine how much can be achieved.
Should it be approved by cabinet, this will not be the first parliamentary select committee to focus on Malaysia’s diplomacy and international engagements. Under the Pakatan Harapan cabinet, a bipartisan International Relations and Trade Select Committee was announced in October 2019. It may have been dissolved in December 2020, apparently due in part to the inability of politicians from across the divide to work with each other.
In considering the prospect of a new select committee on international affairs, the cabinet and political stakeholder across the divide must be clear on the importance of institutionalising such committees within the framework of Parliament. It will mean little if such committees are formed only to crumble again when political alliances shift, or new coalitions call the shots. Repeating the mistakes of the past, especially in crafting national policies, is another costly affair. But one we can thankfully avoid, if we are serious about it.
A common refrain among practitioners and observers of Malaysia’s foreign policy is that it remains the preserve of the elite. This is unlikely to change much in the foreseeable future, perhaps for the better.
But a more consultative process is the start to what might hopefully be a more democratic environment for foreign policymaking in Malaysia. A Malaysia where more people feel that they have stake in how our home is represented abroad.