Saifuddin tells of ups and downs in foreign ministry

ICERD drew strong opposition from Malay groups and political parties who labelled it a threat to Malaysia’s affirmative action policy.

PUTRAJAYA: In a line-up of first-time ministers following Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) shock win in last year’s general election, Saifuddin Abdullah stands out.

Although the entire Cabinet has been under pressure to perform since the coalition beat the odds at the polls, more was expected from him since he was a deputy minister under the previous Barisan Nasional administration.

But as foreign minister in the PH government now, efforts by his ministry are less apparent as much of the work takes place behind closed doors.

In a recent interview with FMT, Saifuddin spoke of the government’s foreign policy framework which maintains the objectives of the existing policy with the introduction of new approaches.

This includes remaining proactive on the world stage by co-sponsoring resolutions despite no longer being in the United Nations Security Council, and promoting the Islamic legal doctrine of Maqasid Al Shariah.

Perhaps more notably, Saifuddin has also made economic diplomacy part of the key performance index for Malaysian diplomats overseas.

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.

“In the future, those who want to be diplomats must have some business acumen,” he said, adding that his ministry wished to tackle the palm oil issue as well.

“We are not the lead ministry in this, but we take it upon ourselves to be equally responsible.”

While European countries have moved to restrict the use of palm oil, Saifuddin said inroads have been made in China while other countries are also in talks with Malaysia on the possible purchase of palm oil.

He has also cut down on the red tape for diplomats using social media to reach out to Malaysians overseas in times of emergencies.

“I told them, quickly tweet your phone numbers so that Malaysians have a point of contact.

“They should not need clearance just to tweet about something which is happening in that country,” he added.

Saifuddin said Wisma Putra’s success stories include the resolution of bilateral issues with China such as the East Coast Rail Link and Bandar Malaysia projects, as well as airspace and maritime border disputes with neighbouring Singapore.

Malaysia’s financial constraints aside, he listed the withdrawal from the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the Rome Statute as among the biggest challenges he has faced.

While plans to ratify ICERD are gone for good, he remains combative when it comes to the Rome Statute, vowing to “call the bluff” of those whom he said have misrepresented the treaty to the people.

Acknowledging that Putrajaya had bungled in terms of communication on the two treaties, Saifuddin said improvements would be made in the case of other pacts Malaysia intends to ratify such as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

But analyst Oh Ei Sun from the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said Saifuddin was in an unenviable position as Putrajaya’s main foreign policy directions would ultimately be decided by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

He said the PH government had bowed to pressure from “ultra-conservatives” who misrepresented ICERD and the Rome Statute, adding that this was a black mark for the Cabinet as a whole.

“I would like Saifuddin and the entire ruling coalition to make the hard choice of siding with the progressive elements in our society so that many socioeconomic matters can be raised to international standards,” he added.