BEFORE venturing into the substance of major shifts in Malaysia's foreign policy, the change in the thrust of its diplomacy and conduct of international relations that marked a watershed, it would be necessary to correct a couple of pertinent misconceptions on the subject.
Most accounts by historians, political commentators, writers and even officials ascribe the shifts to after Tun Abdul Razak (Hussein) succeeded Tunku Abdul Rahman as prime minister in 1970.
The chronology of historical facts, events and developments, however, does not support such a neat dichotomy.
Based on my personal insight into this significant chapter of our country's history, it was clear that Tunku was very much the czar of foreign policy formulation and implementation. Further, the dramatic shifts took place very much during his helm of the country's affairs.
Indeed, most of the shifts were initiated by Tunku himself, albeit after weighing inputs that he often culled from amongst his senior cabinet ministers. Prominent amongst them in this regard were Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, Tun V.T. Sambanthan and Tun Tan Siew Sin.
Not much has been articulated on the valuable contributions of Siew Sin in regard to Malaysian foreign policy, diplomacy and external relations.
I had the privilege to learn from Siew Sin himself about his abiding interests in international relations and security matters.
I first made my acquaintance with Siew Sin in 1969. I was then assistant high commissioner in Madras. Little known to most Malaysians, he was a voracious reader and a keen observer of not only international trade, business and monetary developments and trends but also of contemporary world political and security affairs.
He had probably the largest personal library amongst Malaysians of books on defence, security and international military affairs such as those authored by contemporary military journalist, Drew Middleton.
Also, rather interestingly, one of his favourite references on European affairs was the very heavy treatises by the German philosopher and historian, Oswald Spengler titled, Decline of the West.
Tunku recognised Siew Sin's expertise and often picked his brain on critical foreign policy matters, diplomatic strategies and key challenges encountered in a wide range of foreign affairs issues.
Tunku was open-minded and was receptive to fresh ideas and suggestions from close associates. They included politicians from the opposite side of the political divide as well, such as Tan Sri Dr Tan Chee Koon, who like Siew Sin was an avid observer of international security matters.
Other prominent personages whose views and ideas Tunku often entertained included his affable friend and journalist, Manicasothy Savaranamuttu of Penang's Straits Echo fame, Ramani Radakrishnan, whom he appointed as Malaysia's permanent representative to the United Nations and Sir Malcolm MacDonald, Britain's commissioner-general for Southeast Asia.
Tunku might be justifiably likened to a dyed in the wool, staunchly pro-Western advocate and even critiqued for being an Anglophile and a rabid anti-Communist.
For sure, he made no bones about his political bias towards parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, human dignity and human rights.
Likewise, his ardent belief in the free enterprise economic system was secret to none to the extent that he he would regard socialism and socialist concepts as highly suspect and dismissed them with almost similar disdain that he had towards communism and communist states.
These deep-seated inner beliefs formed the core of Tunku's personal ethos.
However, as prime minister, he consistently held the nation's larger interests close to his heart.
His mind was firmly rooted in safeguarding and promoting the country's national interests and not on serving any narrow self-interest or personal preference to the exclusion of other policy options.
Thus, he proved very much a realist and a pragmatist when it came down to hard-nosed policy formulation and in fulfilling his responsibility of steering the nation's future course for the benefit of generations who were yet to come.
Tunku's streak of pragmatism and real politic, in fact, was evident even before he became prime minister.
A classic case in point was his readiness, despite his fierce anti-communist sentiments, to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement with Chin Peng and other key leaders of the outlawed Malayan Communist Party in 1955 that came to be dubbed as the Baling Peace Talks.
A peek into our nation's history would provide a storehouse of insights into Tunku's streak of pragmatism and real-politic that made possible the major shifts in Malaysia's diplomacy and foreign affairs since the 1966 watershed year.
Credit is thus due to Tunku for the shifts in the substance and direction in Malaysia's diplomacy and international relations without dilution.
Tunku Abdul Rahman sitting at the table before the start of the Baling Peace Talks on 28 Dec ember 1955.
Credit is due to the Tunku for the shifts in the substance and direction in Malaysia’s diplomacy. NST file pic
Datuk Dr Ananda Kumaraseri The New Straits Times Learning Curve 08 March 2013