PETALING JAYA: Foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah is coming under increasing pressure over the poor handling of Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last month.
The Malaysian ambassador to the UAE, Tarid Sufian, and the consul-general in Dubai, Hasril Abdul Hamid, have been recalled, but many observers believe the two senior diplomats have been unfairly treated.
The saga has been one filled with drama involving, among others, a leaked audio clip, a police report and a three-page statement from Wisma Putra – yet it seems far from over.
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FMT takes a look at the debacle over Ismail’s recent visit to the UAE.
On Sunday, a source told FMT that Malaysia’s two senior diplomats in the UAE had been reassigned to a civil service pool in Putrajaya, where officers falling out of favour are sent pending their next move.
This was because Ismail was greeted on arrival in Dubai by only Tarid and Hasril, without any top UAE officials present, unlike the usual protocol for a senior minister of the host country to be officially assigned to receive foreign dignitaries.
Another source said the ambassador had informed Wisma Putra about the UAE government’s reservation about the timing of Ismail’s visit, but it was not heeded.
Ismail visited the UAE from March 29-31 in conjunction with the Dubai World Expo.
The UAE government had apparently told the Malaysian embassy that it was not a suitable time for an official visit given the hundreds of VIPs arriving from all over the world daily for the expo.
On April 1, Wisma Putra released an official statement confirming the two diplomats had been recalled. The ministry said Tarid and Hasril had failed to coordinate administrative and logistics for the prime minister, resulting in him having to wait a long time for passport and immigration clearance at the airport.
It also said the move to recall the two officials was “nothing out of the ordinary”, adding that it was taken to protect interests in bilateral relations between Malaysia and other countries.
A few days later, Public Service Department (JPA) director-general Shafiq Abdullah said the two recalled diplomats will be placed at Wisma Putra.
He added that they have not been assigned to the JPA’s pool system of civil servants as claimed in some reports.
Subsequently, an audio recording went viral claiming, among others, that Ismail was not on good terms with Saifuddin.
In the two-minute 15-second clip, a man was heard complaining to a “Datin” about the problems the ministry faced and alluded to the growing number of vacancies at Malaysian missions abroad.
Wisma Putra has since lodged a police report and is conducting an internal investigation into the matter.
Several figures have also voiced their dissatisfaction with the way the two diplomats were treated.
Former foreign minister Anifah Aman said their hasty recall was a “major embarrassment” for the country and that an internal investigation should have been conducted first.
“I have my doubts that such senior and experienced diplomats would overlook important details especially when it involves our prime minister,” he said in a statement.
Umno vice-president Khaled Nordin criticised Wisma Putra for failing to ensure that Ismail was given an “honourable” welcome, adding that it was “very unprofessional” to blame the diplomats.
Noor Farida Mohd Ariffin, who once served as an ambassador to the Netherlands, told FMT that many of her former colleagues were “outraged” over how the matter was handled, and dismayed by the recall of Tarid and Hasril.
She said that many of her former colleagues know Tarid personally, describing him as a “competent diplomatic officer”.
Pressure on Saifuddin
Anifah said his successor Saifuddin, who had accompanied Ismail to the UAE, should have taken full responsibility for the debacle.
He said Saifuddin could have prevented the fiasco by visiting the site earlier to ensure that preparations had been made “as per standard practice”.
Khaled also called on the foreign minister to take responsibility for what had happened.
“Malaysia clearly needs a new and more competent leader in the foreign ministry. The performance of our current foreign minister does not suit Malaysia’s experience, position and global interests,” he said.
Noor Farida told FMT a group of former ambassadors were planning to write a letter of protest to Wisma Putra, and that many had taken to Twitter to call out Saifuddin for not defending the diplomats and not taking responsibility.
She also said if she were Saifuddin, she would have lodged a strong protest to the prime minister at the weekly Cabinet meeting over the way the ambassador to the UAE was treated.