A Perfect Diplomat and a Picture of Affability
Syed Hamid shines at the UN

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

IT is too early to say whether diplomacy will reduce his tendency to be ruffled easily. But when he was at the United Nations early last month, Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was (almost) a perfect diplomat, a picture of affability and discretion.

When he walks, his well set body swaggers. He speaks well whether in Malay or English and his appetite, like mine, is excellent. We had three Western meals during the visit so I can irrefutably say that. We are both overweight, sad to say. We have been friends for a long time.

An American lady sitting next to me at my table at the Asia Society breakfast meeting said: "Your Minister speaks well. His explanation about events in Malaysia is clear. His impromptu answers are even better". This supports my view that our ministers (the good ones) should speak more off-the-cuff. Others, like me, should adhere closely to the text! To speak and say nothing is an art but I can attest that Syed Hamid not only speaks, but he always has something to say.

Syed Hamid's performance as a Minister has been generally good. Judging by what he achieved in New York and at the United Nations Security Council debate on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants in a peacekeeping environment, he did a good job. The Malaysian diplomats, who hitherto had had no contact with him, were generally impressed. One remarked, rather enthusiastically to me: "The Minister surprises me: he grasps his briefs quickly and presents his case well. This is some compliment coming from a diplomat not known for his generosity.

Syed Hamid told the Security Council: "While peace can be quite elusive, sustainable peace becomes harder to achieve following any peace agreement if serious efforts are not taken to address the, question of disarmament, demobilisation and the reintegration of ex-combatants in a comprehensive manner.

"One of the primary objectives of peacekeeping is to create a safe and secure environment that would allow for the resumption of peaceful activities and normal life in society. It should also create conditions that would allow for serious post-conflict peace building efforts to be carried out. Disarmament is a crucial prerequisite for the consolidation of peace and stability in countries emerging out of conflict. However, experience has shown that disarmament alone cannot guarantee the achievement of the long-term objectives of sustainable peace, stability and development. It has to be followed up with the effective demobilisation of excombatants and their timely and peaceful reintegration into society. These three elements should be part of a continuous process that stretches from the peacekeeping phase to that of post-conflict peace-building.

"Malaysia has gained some experience in demobilisation and reintegration programmes as a result of an internal insurgency problem that lasted almost fifty years, ending only a decade ago. During those years, the Government had to spend vast sums on defence, mainly for counter insurgency operations, while at the same time having to focus on development. Over time, soldiers and policemen had to be demobilised and reintegrated into civilian society as the security situation improved. This continuous demobilisation and reintegration programme has been incorporated in the country's development plans. Ex-servicemen are given the opportunity to learn skills and participate in useful economic activity upon retirement from active duty.

"We recognise that Malaysia's experience may be unique to the situation which we faced. However, we have learned some very important lessons from this experience. We have been able to share some of this experience with other countries. I am grateful to the representative of Namibia for mentioning in his statement the contribution that Malaysia made in the training of Namibian ex-combatants to prepare them for reintegration into society following Namibia's independence.

"Malaysia believes that efforts to share experiences in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes should be encouraged. We look forward to the participation of member states which have had some direct experience in such programmes, in the Council's present discussion on this subject.

"Malaysia strongly believes that the United Nations, should be given a greater role in peacemaking, peacekeeping and post conflict peace-building, including in the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of ex- combatants in a peacekeeping environment. Given the nature of present day conflicts, the demands on the United Nations would be enormous. But with the necessary political will, resources and support from member states and the international community, we believe the United Nations can succeed.

"Malaysia would very much welcome a willingness on the part of the Security Council to address the issue under discussion today on a regular basis. We propose a further discussion of this issue by the Council on the basis of a report which we hope the Secretary General could submit within six months". Let's see if our suggestion is taken up.

Although the New York assignment is only a part, a small part of what the Foreign Minister does, it is an important part, because the United Nations is a subject on which contemporary diplomacy is built.

Syed Hamid is, as stated, adept at presenting his case and he answers questions deftly, especially during the Asia Society breakfast. He dealt lucidly with issues raised relating to human rights, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's arrest, jailing and alleged beatings, trials and the independence of the Malaysian judiciary, legal service and Malaysian lawyers.

Syed Hamid will be at the United Nations again come September in the company of the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who has not attended the General Assembly since Tan Sri Razali Ismail became President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1996. Malaysian foreign policy has always reflected the personality of the Prime Minister. He formulates the policy, decides its orientation and can veto all decisions, which has indeed happened several times in the 42 years of our involvement in international relations.

A Malaysian Foreign Minister, like all his counterparts, has never had much influence over policy decisions (let alone a permanent secretary or secretary-general) indeed, not even when the respected and redoubtable Tun Ismail Abdul Rahman was Foreign Minister. He clashed with Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, the Prime Minister, over the "two-China policy". He resigned (was not accepted), and after he had cooled down and was no longer sulking, Tunku made him the Minister of Home Affairs where he distinguished himself and became the greatest Home Minister we ever had.

Syed Hamid, like his immediate predecessor, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is a good team-player. I asked his colleagues and all had trouble recalling highlights of Syed Hamid's performance either in the Cabinet or at the Umno Supreme Council. There were several occasions I gathered when he did engage the former Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anuar Ibrahim. Otherwise Syed Hamid is essentially an off-the-centre- stage- persona, though a dependable backup.

Syed Hamid is a son of the mercurial Tan Sri Syed Ja'afar Albar, a sometime Deputy Minister of Information (in the early sixties) and Secretary General of Umno (in the mid-sixties) and Umno Youth Chief (in the mid-seventies). Though called "Singa Umno - the Lion of Umno", Ja'afar Albar never made it big compared with his more successful contemporaries like Tun Ghaffar Baba, Tun Sardon Zubir, Tan Sri Khir Johari, Tan Sri Senu Abdul Rahman and Tan Sri Ghazali Jawi. I am glad Syed Hamid has accomplished more in politics, government and private sector than his father ever did.

I am often asked whether Syed Hamid has a bright political future. In 1986 Hamid Albar tried and failed to lead the Umno Youth. He was beaten by the incumbent (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim), nor did he succeed in his attempt to be an Umno vice president; his effort was badly (and violently) thwarted by Anwar and his "Wawasan Team". There is speculation that he may try again. Anyone who wants to be considered a serious contender for future Umno leadership must first become one of the three vice presidents.

I heard Syed Hamid's intention has made two Johore prospective candidates, one better rated than him, nervous. A top Johore politician, speaking not for attribution, said bluntly to me: "I hope Syed Hamid does not entertain such an idea. If he did, neither he nor the stronger of the two prospective candidates from Johore would win". The politician fears his candidate who has been touted for higher office will miss the opportunity in 2000 if Syed Hamid insists on joining the fray.

Hamid Albar is not a scion of a political dynasty as we know it but he comes from an Umno super state where money is not necessary (though it helps) to build and maintain a power base. In Johore, there is no need for immense wealth (Hamid is not poor by any means) to be a successful politician. Good education (which Albar has) is helpful but a keen desire to serve the nation and people seems all what is required to win elections and to keep one's job in Johor.

After schooling in Melbourne, thence to London to study Law, not without some encouragement from his mentor, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Syed Hamid plunged into the world of banking followed by a lucrative law practice where reputedly he made a lot of money. When Tengku Razaleigh left Umno, he did not follow him, which was smart and not altogether surprising,

Syed Hamid is already miles ahead of his father, but he still has many miles to go to reclaim the political mantle left by his dad. The older Albar did not achieve much but he had a mind of his own, even if he was wrong. That was his political legacy. There are no "young" Albars or "young" Mahathirs in Umno now. Albar and Mahathir were on opposite sides of the Umno political spectrum, but they were always civil to each other.

Syed Hamid has proved that he is more than just a son of a well-known name. He has demonstrated, up to now, that he is his own man. Still, he will have to show Umno members, especially in Johore, that he is ready to move from Business Class to the First Class cabin politically speaking.