Razali completes term

21 September 1997

A week ago my colleague outspoken diplomat extraordinare, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, 53, handed over the presidency of the United Nations General Assembly to Mr Hennadiy Udovenko, the Foreign Minister of Ukraine. Razali's farewell reception at the UN Delegates' Dining Hall was well attended, which demonstrated the esteem in which he was held by his colleagues and contemporaries at the United Nations.

He returned to being an active Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Razali is also our Ambassador to Cuba.

I can say without fear of contradiction that Razali handed over to Udovenko, the president of the 52nd General Assembly, an organisation which is in much better shape than when the Malaysian diplomat took the leadership a year ago; certainly it is a leaner and more efficient UN.

Razali was a formidable president, the fourth from Southeast Asia in 52 years since the UN was founded in 1945. I asked Razali during a dinner for Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi at his apartment what would his personal ambitions post-UN be. I had the impression that becoming rich and more famous and useful was what he was aiming for. He may well achieve his desire.

Razali is by no means a stereotype diplomat, definitely an untypical Malaysian, even more so a Malay. He is suave, articulate, speaks and writes better English than he does Malay. At meetings and conferences, Razali never reads like most diplomats do their government approved statements dead pan, never looking up (some do not even pretend to look up a bit) from the text before them.

Razali, on the contrary speaks from notes; and occasionally impromptu. Razali the public man and the private person are indistinguishable.

He is a savvy operator with considerable diplomatic clout. His good friend Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, took note of his advice on several matters. Razali worked hard for Annan's appointment. Their friendship began some 10 years ago.

Until the appointment of a Malaysian to head the United Nations Personnel Department, the UN was like the Commonwealth Secretariat in London where no seniors Malaysians diplomat or official holds a senior appointment in spite of our strong helping hand, always, to the Nigerian Secretary-General.

I am glad to report that Razali personally arranged for a Malaysian to get this senior job, an Assistant Secretary-General level appointment; the highest job ever for a Malaysian at the UN Secretariat.

The Tunku Kurshiah-educated woman, Rafiah Salim, the present Assistant Governor of Bank Negara, will take over her new job at the UN headquarters on Oct 15.

I know Rafiah as does my wife. Rafiah hails from Machang, my one-time parliamentary constituency. After Tunku Kurshiah, she went to study law at Queen's University, Belfast, and was, until she moved to Bank Negara, a senior general manager at Malayan Banking Berhad. Before that Rafiah was the Dean of the Law Faculty, Universiti Malaya.

I was made to understand that, once, Malaysia was asked to nominate a candidate for the Secretary-General's Special Envoy to a European country but the "suitable candidate" declined the job.

Rafiah will be the second lady to lead the personnel department at the UN. Egypt's Leila Doss briefly held the job. Rafiah succeeds Denis Halliday who has been appointed co-ordinator for the oil-for-food programme in Iraq.

I know pleasant and hard-working Rafiah will perform her task well. Kofi Annan would not have agreed to her appointment if he did not think Rafiah were well-qualified; after all it is the same job he himself once held.

It will be a great challenge for this Kelantanese woman, given the American Congress' penchant for reform and pressure for further cuts in the size of the UN staff, and the staff's disquiet about the on-going exercise which does appear to be going more radically than was expected.

Annan's "honeymoon" with the staff and with some countries - so claim several experienced diplomats - is in serious danger of coming to an involuntary end, only eight months into his office.

The Secretary-General is also under attack for not bringing in more women - his declared intention - into upper levels of his administration: two women among 18 senior appointments is nothing to sing about. Rafiah is the third woman. I gather she takes a huge pay cut and loses lots of perks by taking the United Nations job.

Inspite of Annan's accessibility to the White House (unlike Boutros Boutros Ghali), Washington has yet to pay its obligatory debt of US$1.3 billion (RM 3.9 billion). Obviously, even Annan - Washington's hand-picked man - has failed to change American skepticism, if not hostility towards the UN.

The United States not only wants reform at the secretariat, it also wants changes all over the UN from top to bottom, the Security Council, in particular, and according to its mould and fashion. The US has proposed that the Security Council be restructured, which involved taking Washington's two favourites - Japan and Germany - and three from the developing world, meaning one each from Asia, Africa and Latin America as new permanent members of the enlarged Security Council.

There is one big snag for the American proposal as indeed also for the alternative proposal. Membership of the Security Council is regulated by the UN Charter and to amend the charter it requires a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. You guessed it right - most of the two-thirds majority are from the Third World.