A Path To Politics

I have been asked to speak about diplomacy, which is a paradigm of international relations that has interested me for much of my life. It is the main instrument of foreign policy, a tool – some say an art – for negotiating and managing relations between countries both bilaterally and multilaterally. A diplomat’s main responsibility is of course to further the interests of the country he or she serves, typically by non-violent means. I use the word non-violent as opposed to peaceful, because like politics, diplomatic machinations are not always peaceful.

One of my earliest exposures to diplomatic intrigue was Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. While the story revolves mainly on the exploits of Arthos, Porthos, Aramis and the main protagonist d’Artagnan, there was a salient back story about the constant threat of war between France and England, spurred on by the string-pulling of powerful political characters, namely Cardinal de Richelieu, Chief Minister of France and the Duke of Buckingham, who was the Prime Minister of England.

I also have a personal interest in the diplomatic world. Most remember my father as independent Malaya’s first Minister of Education, but many do not realise that he actually spent the autumn of his political career as a diplomat, serving first as Malaysia’s Ambassador to the United States of America and then as our Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

Unfortunately, my father’s stint in the States happened before I was born so I never got to see him in action. My own visit to Washington DC and New York had to wait until my second cousin, Tan Sri Razali Ismail, who not only became Permanent Representative to the United Nations but during his tenure was also elected president of both the Security Council and the General Assembly. This has never been repeated by any Malaysian.

I was around 15 years old when I visited the United Nations in New York and being the cousin of the president was given the rare opportunity to stand at the famous speakers’ rostrum on the podium of the General Assembly Hall. It was a giddying moment and definitely a highlight of my life – to stand where so many great and some not so great leaders of the world have stood. I do not know if I will ever be given that opportunity again, but one can hope.

A calling

When I finished school in 1999, it was the height of the dotcom boom. Influenced by the trend at the time, I decided to study software engineering. Four years later I graduated and had a job offer from the largest company in the world by market capitalisation, but I felt unfulfilled. I could programme well enough, but it was not something I felt passionate about.

Deep in the back of my mind, there was a calling that I had to fulfil. I had always been interested in politics, be it local or international. Through research, I came across a post-graduate degree that taught both and that was how I ended up making a jump from software engineering to studying international studies and diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The core subjects I took up were international relations, government and politics of Southeast Asia, and general diplomatic studies. The course had both practical and academic elements, including media training and a lot of role-playing involving diplomatic situations. I had arrived in London a month after the 7 July 2005 suicide bombings in the city, so the War on Terror was very much a salient topic then.

Upon completing my studies in the United Kingdom, I returned home to find Malaysia in a mood of disquiet. It was 2007 and there was a palpable tension in the air. The embers of Reformasi had been reignited and mounting public frustration finally culminated in two critical events – the HINDRAF Rally and the first Bersih demonstration.

By the time the 12th General Election took place in 2008, the writing was on the wall. Historic gains were made by the opposition which won in five out of 13 state legislative assemblies, namely Penang, Selangor, Perak, Kedah and Kelantan. Invigorated by the excitement of change, I found myself getting more and more involved in political activism. I attended rallies, took part in workshops and began writing on a blog. My writing soon attracted the attention of Lim Kit Siang, and the rest as they say is history.

Putting my training to work

Today in my career as a politician and government administrator, I am thankful for the training that I received in my younger days. As a software engineer, I developed logical and analytical skills which have helped shape my problem-solving approach. I learned to work backwards from the desired outcome in order to build a solution, as opposed to doing something with the blind hope that it works out. As a programmer you are also taught to organise solutions in a modular fashion, which is not only easier to manage but more importantly allows the flexibility of future expansion. I find these skills serve me well in what I do today.

I also credit my training in politics and diplomacy as having given me a solid foundation for public service. Political theory helps give meaning to what is happening around us, framing the behaviour of political actors in paradigms that have some semblance of sense. I am sure many of you wonder sometimes why politicians are so crazy. Well, political theory helps you to understand that craziness, though it does not actually make it any better.

Meanwhile, the practical elements of my diplomacy course actually helped me develop many useful skills in communications, including public speaking, shaping an argument and negotiation. These are all qualities that will serve you well in life no matter what you choose to do.

Skills for life

Being participants of the Model United Nations, I believe most if not all of you share similar interests. My advice to you would be to enhance yourselves by developing universally useful skills no matter what you want to do in life. Many of these life skills are and will remain relevant for time eternal.

Open-mindedness, being a good listener and communicating with clarity are three good skills to hone. Being here today is already a step in the right direction. As part of the Model United Nations, you would have to listen to and try to understand the points of view expressed by your colleagues representing different interests and countries. At the same time, as a diplomat you may also have to communicate views that may not necessarily align to your own personal beliefs. Being open-minded also means being able to compromise – but how much exactly to compromise, that would be what distinguishes between a leader and a minion.

The last general election saw a paradigm shift as Malaysia experienced regime change for the first time in our history. Yet it would not have happened but for the political conciliations made by the four coalition partners. Past adversaries have become allies and historical conflicts have become present-day compromises. This could not have been achieved if our leaders were not open-minded.

Being a good listener is a quality that is severely underrated. A great leader is not merely one who is able to instruct authoritatively, but actually one who can also listen attentively. A Polonius narrates in Act 1 Scene 3 of Hamlet: “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment”. This is William Shakespeare’s way of telling us that leaders should be open to opinions and criticism by others. They should not retaliate and be defensive, but instead prove their worth. Anyone can listen to bad criticism but a good listener, and by extension a good leader, would be constructive about it.

Lastly, communicating with clarity is perhaps the most important skill that one could have. There is a scene in the 1987 Bernardo Bertolucci masterpiece The Last Emperor, when Sir Reginald Johnston said to his pupil, the young Emperor of China: “Words are important. If you cannot say what you mean, Your Majesty, you will never mean what you say; and, a gentleman should always mean what he says.”

Communication is thus extremely important for us to convey our messages, and in my experience many misunderstandings and conflicts arise by the failure to communicate clearly and properly. Thus, I cannot stress the importance of doing so.

Communication comes in many forms, from speech to writing to eye contact and body language. According to a study by Albert Mehabrian, emeritus professor of psychology at UCLA, emotion is communicated based on three elements: word choice accounts for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38% and the rest, making up 55%, is accountable to your body language, such as facial expressions, hand gestures and posture.

Whatever field you are in, effective communication will add great value to you and your work. And how do you communicate effectively? Well, the short answer is practice makes perfect. Many politicians today sound seasoned when they speak in public, but in most cases they did not quite start out that way, myself included. Speak more and write more. By doing this, you will inevitably improve your ability to structure your thoughts and communicate them better.

Before I end my speech, I would like to commend all of you delegates here for spending your weekend at this IMUN conference. Whatever you choose to do in life, there will be a lot to be gained from this experience.

Thank you and good luck.

NB: Keynote speech at the International Model United Nations on 23 November 2019.

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