©New Sunday Times
(Used by permission)
by Tunku Abdul Aziz
AS you read this, the biennial Commonwealth circus, otherwise dignified by the acronym CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting), is ending its three–day performance in Kampala, Uganda.
Every two years, a gaggle of some of the most disagreeably disreputable Third World presidents and prime ministers, ours naturally excluded, gather in some member country or other to talk shop about nothing in particular –– because there is nothing in particular to talk about that would make the slightest bit of difference to the state of the world.
CHOGM is long on pious hopes, high aspirations and grandiose plans, but, as
always, woefully short on delivery. The lack of any sense of realism has to be
seen to be believed.
As a former director of administration, and co–conference secretary responsible for overseeing the CHOGM arrangements during my time in the Bahamas, Vancouver, Harare and Kuala Lumpur, I write from personal experience.
A new Secretary–General of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London has been elected in Kampala ––Kamalesh Sharma, India's high commissioner to Britain –– to replace Don McKinnon, a former New Zealand foreign minister, who has completed his lacklustre tour of duty (two five–year terms).
The post is often erroneously described as "Commonwealth
Secretary–General", but the official designation is that of "Secretary–General
of the Commonwealth Secretariat", a non–job as international jobs go.
Both Tun Musa Hitam, some years ago, and, more recently, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, had the good sense not to allow their names to be put forward for election. It would have been the kiss of death to their reputation and standing.
The position has always been much coveted by Indians, Bangladeshis and other assorted nationals, shades of the United Nations and its agencies. The lobbying can be quite undiplomatic and vicious.
Since 1965, there have been four secretaries–general ensconced in the faded glory of Marlborough House. The most outstanding, without a shadow of a doubt, was Sir Shridath S. Ramphal, a former foreign minister of tiny Guyana.
His 15 years of stewardship was a period marked by remarkable Commonwealth achievements in the economic and social fields. He was a great thinker, a man of ideas and an intellectual giant who was also a man of action. He had no peer. The others were intellectual pygmies by comparison.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela had this to say of him in Abuja, Nigeria, in 1990: "Some men have become famous because of the service they have given to their countries, others have become well known because of the manner in which they have taken up issues affecting their regions, and others have become famous because in their fight for human justice they have chosen the entire world as their theatre. Shridath Ramphal is one of those men."
The Commonwealth, like the Empire it succeeded, is an anachronism in this day and age. It exists for all the wrong reasons and is driven largely by imperial nostalgia.
The historical ties that are supposed to bind us are nothing more than our shared miserable experience of colonial exploitation. This, then, raises the question about the future of this poorly funded and led fringe international organisation that exists only because of the generosity of the governments of the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.
The history of the Commonwealth Secretariat has shown all too clearly that it has never really attempted to define its role seriously and to question the validity or relevance of its policy thrusts in its chosen areas or fields. It does not understand why it exists, and all that the occupants of Marlborough House can be bothered with is protecting their jobs, which come with their many perquisites.
In this respect, of course, they are merely behaving like all good international civil servants –– looking busy and doing as little as they can get away with. Marlborough House has not lost its special flair for reinventing the wheel.
At the time of my service in London, there were 50 members. Today there are 53. While we have a handful of developed economies, the overwhelming majority are desperately poor underdeveloped countries that exist from hand to mouth, relying heavily on foreign aid.
Many cannot even pay the annual agreed assessed contributions, and my job each month as director of administration was to go round to High Commissions that were in arrears, many running into unbelievably large sums of money.
It was, for me, an excruciatingly embarrassing experience because many a time their Excellencies, like the accomplished diplomats they were, would lie through their teeth without a hiss of escaping air.
"We have been in touch with our ministry of finance, and a cheque should be on its way to you soon" was a kind of "you know as well as I do" secret code that I should not entertain the thought of ever seeing the colour of their money.
For all its shortcomings, it must be said that the Commonwealth was at its united best (the British opposition and foot–dragging to economic sanctions notwithstanding) when fighting the Pretoria regime over apartheid.
This one issue, the importance of which I have no wish to deride, gave the Commonwealth Secretariat its only moment of glory in decades. The apartheid regime of the ruling South African National Party was brought to its knees and subsequently saw the release of the world's most famous prisoner of conscience, Mandela, from his years of incarceration.
Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, at one point in the late 1980s, commissioned a study to determine whether or not Malaysia should remain in the Commonwealth. He always thought that it was a bit of a waste of time, but decided in the end that there were advantages in remaining, although it was very much touch and go.
He had, to the consternation of the secretary–general and the Malaysian high commissioner, said he would not be attending the Bahamas CHOGM after all.
I happened to be sitting in front of the high commissioner in his office when the communication arrived, and he said that he and I should write to Dr Mahathir, independently, urging him to attend because it would not look good for him as prime minister to be misconstrued as "boycotting" the meeting.
Ramphal asked me what we needed to do to get Dr Mahathir to attend. I said: "Give him centre stage, a key role to play, a keynote address on economic development, and he will be there."
So I wrote to our prime minister on Sept 17, 1985, in part, as follows, from Marlborough House:
"I understand perfectly your views on the Commonwealth and the Secretariat as a whole, but I feel nevertheless that your presence (in Nassau) will do enormous good for both Malaysia and the Commonwealth. There is a great deal that can be done ... for the poorer developing countries about which you have shown the greatest concern ... in the field of economic development in particular...."
I felt that if we wanted to reform the Commonwealth, we should do it from inside rather than shouting invectives from outside the castle ramparts.
I do not claim credit, but the great man came to his first CHOGM.
Now, however, is perhaps an opportune time to reassess our Commonwealth membership. It is nothing more than a little British nostalgic hangover from an overdose of the great delusion of the "Empire on which the sun never sets" and of such other sentimental nonsense immortalised in "Rule Britannia, Britannia Rules the Waves".
With more than 100 Malaysian missions overseas, surely it is cheaper and more effective to go bilateral on aid and technical co–operation with other countries rather than through Marlborough House. Let the dreamers dream on while we move into the real world.
The writer is a former director of administration at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. He can be contacted at email@example.com