Summertime and the weather is fine

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

It was just like home, steamy and humid day when the US celebrated its 223rd independence day (whose birthday I share at age 62) from England last Sunday. As I write this article (Tuesday, July 6), the heat wave blisters New York - and as July inches towards the end, the heat may be even worse.

Last Sunday was 96'F, today it is 101'F . For Fauzah, it is a stifling sauna, for New Yorkers, it is nature's broiler and as for me it is a triple digit grilling and with oppressive humidity I feel like as if it were 110'F, like what I experienced for weeks on end in Ghulam's police lock-up when I was his guest in the seventies.

In New England, where much of the struggle against British colonialism occurred, the Fourth of July holidays have always had greater significance than any other part of the US.

In New York, Boston, and even Maine, they do everything with bigger bangs: bigger sandwiches, lobster rolls, larger hotdogs and grander fireworks, longer processions and parades.

In Coney Island, in an upset that stunned everybody in the world of competitive American gluttony, Ralf Keiner, a 144kg bearded 50-year old electrical inspector from Atlantic city, ate 20-and-a quarter hotdogs in twelve minutes to win the coveted Mustard Yellow International Belt from three-time world champion Hirofumi Nakajima.

Keiner has regained American honour from the Japanese as patriotic and partisan crowds of 500 chanted, "USA! USA!". The Japanese, as he wiped away sweat, sadly said: "It is not satisfying to go home defeated."

I had arrived home in New York an hour before from Maine, the vacation land, the northernmost state on the American eastern seaboard, where the weather is cooler and where tourism has over taken fishing (lobster etc) as the state's primary source of income.

On the way home, I stopped for three days and two nights at Harvard to fulfil several assignments and more importantly, to refresh my mind and savour the intellectual environment of Cambridge and meet old friends in this bastion of American higher education; the seat of American intellectual tradition, research and scholarship.

In the US, in particular summer, as in Europe, is a season to live well; a time to enjoy fetes, fireworks, sports (tennis, soccer, golf etc) and other outdoor festivities.

There are hundred selections of the best events to choose between now and early September. Work in the Western world in summer, like Ramadan in the Islamic World and at home, is quieter and slower. Schools and universities have closed since late May in some states and all from early June after the convocations and May Balls.

Motoring from Bar Harbour in Maine to New York - a distance of roughly 896km or approximately the same distance from Bukit Kayu Hitam in North Kedah to Johor Baru was fun and hilarious.

Fauzah, her look-alike sister (albeit shorter and older) Muhrizah and her husband Prof Alan Brunken had filled up, the boot of my sedan (Lincoln town car) and every other available space with fruits (strawberries and cherries), vegetables (Chinese cabbage, chillies), plastic and paper bags (Brooks Brothers, Ralp Polo bulging with merchandise bought at the Kitterly Outlet, just across the New Hampshire border in Maine).

We, like other American families on this long weekend holidays which ran from Friday through Monday moving along the highways, had packed our automobile to the brim with every possible articles of clothing, gear and shoes which we may or may not need (mainly not need) for the holidays.

Though Alan is an experienced driver (having driven besides USA in Europe, India, Malaysia and Cambodia), the navigator is suspect (though an excellent and fast driver) and the Lincoln sedan suddenly screeched to a stop at an intersection and a thousand strawberries spluttered on to my newly-purchased white Polo knit shirt.

As a result, with the red stained white shirt and my denim trousers, I became a walking star-spangled red, white and blue American flag! With a shriek of surprise Alan apologised; blamed the navigator, who in turn, blamed me for distracting and alarming her with stories of the philandering Clinton, his long-suffering wife Hillary and the various new things Al Gore claimed he invented.

Fauzah admonished me for talking to the driver and disturbing the mental state of the navigator. She banned me from further conversation until we reached home; a mammoth task for me to do.

But in order to maintain relative peace with the spouse I spent the next three hours doing what I did during my long years of solitary confinement in Ghulam's gaol; mentally planning what I would do following my freedom!

Summer in the West means long holidays, shows, suntan and generally good time and relaxation. Thus far, this summer has been most beautiful - sunny, warm early summer in three years I have been here.

Summer is a season to remember - not because of black flies, sports injuries or sunburns or being muzzled because Fauzah, I and our American friends had gone out of our way to take good care of ourselves and have fun.

Fauzah and I found time to do things together - sailing, strolling, having friends over for barbecue and eating well.

Whatever we do and eat both should make us healthier and therefore happier. Do remember this: healthy living is to be done on a daily basis, not just during hot season. What we do in summer or everyday will prove either helpful or hurtful as we age.

Early in the month, Malaysia took over the presidency of the powerful Security Council of the UN (one of our two opportunities to be president during the two-year membership).

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, is in town for a few days to be on hand in case something crucial crops up in international relations and politics.

Last Wednesday (July 7), Syed Hamid hosted a lunch for all the chief delegates of the 15-member Security Council, which went rather well. I mean without a food hitch!

During the Fourth of July holidays, the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, appointed veteran dove, David Levy as the new Israeli Foreign Minister, which many observers here believe completes what looks like a strongly dovish cabinet.

This is a good omen for the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab peace talks. Levy is a shepherdic Jew from Morocco; a blue-collar worker who has risen to the top of Israel's elite political leadership.

Though he only has rudimentary knowledge of English, Levy possesses instinctive diplomatic skills and is expected to push forward the stagnated Israelis-Palestinian peace effort which was caused by the stubbornness of Benjamin Netanyahu, the outgoing prime minister. Being a moderate, Levy believes and strongly favours trading land with peace and moving quickly forward to resume negotiations with the Palestinians and with Syria.

He had long before the election resigned as Netanyahu's Foreign Minister because of the stalled peace negotiations.

When I wrote in my book, Tunku Abdul Rahman's Foreign Policy more than a decade ago that the Tunku (for that matter all prime ministers) formulated our foreign policy (not as claimed by a particular government official) the official's few friends thought I was hitting at their man as a revenge.

The truth: I had Tunku on tape who said the man was merely boasting. Before, as now, make no mistake, the Prime Minister makes policy and the foreign minister carries it out through, in our case, Wisma Putra.

Whether in London or Kuala Lumpur, the Prime Minister will always be the guiding force of foreign policy, Robin Cook and Syed Hamid acknowledge it.

Only an idiot or someone who had an exaggerated importance of himself thought he made foreign policy and the Prime Minister merely carried it out!

Did Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie formulate the "Buy British Last" policy? Of course not. He merely carried it out - no matter how reluctant he was to carry out that policy. Levy said: "Barak decides the policy and I carry it out."

I am desperately trying to discard my favourite foods to remain slim. I am learning to envision my life with less or even with out ayam goreng (chicken wings in particular), udang and lobster, steak and rice in he new century.

I am resolved that from next year I will consume only fruits, vegetables and fish (no more greasy stuff for me) on he understanding that I will look and feel better than ever. Who says men have no vanity?

(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our envoy to the United Nations)