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Reminiscing the past : Santhananban M

4th September 2020
Today, exactly 48 years ago I became a PTD officer along with some others in this very distinguished chat room – Dennis Ignatius, KJ John and Pola Singh. The PTD was a successor of the prestigious colonial FMS & Malayan Civil Service, the first recruit of which in 1896 was Sir Frank Swettenham, who set high pioneering standards of performance, efficiency and development. He also set perverse standards of conflict of interest, corruption, sex scandals and arbitrariness. Unfortunately, some of these negative qualities have endured to this day, so it cannot be said that the service is beyond recognition.

Today the PTD establishment has 10500 positions. From 1929 the Service began opening up and recruiting Malays. Up to January 1946, the service was largely dominated by Caucasians with a ratio of about ten Caucasians for every Malay.

After the failure of the Malayan Union experiment the service became more open to the Malays. In 1956 there were about 120 Malays out of a total of 320.
The first non- Malay recruits were taken in in January 1953 when the ratio of one non-Malay for every four Malays was set. The first non- Malays were:
1. Willy Fernando, of Information Service-1.1.1953
2. Yeap Kee Aik, of Road Transport Dept -1.1.1953
3. Liew Sip Hon, of Immigration Department- 1.3.1953
Some of the above information is available from an article by the late Dato Seri Mohd Khalil bin Haji Hussein, PTD Alumnus.

On February 1, 1972, Kuala Lumpur was designated a city. It was in that year too we observed the 15th anniversary of Merdeka, the 9th anniversary of Malaysia but we had only two PTD officers from Sabah and Sarawak in the Malaysian Foreign Service- John Tenewi Nuek and Dadar Singh Ledar- two friends with whom I am still in touch.
But we had a man of high stature on a contract appointment.

A most distinguished Sabahan, the late Tun Muhammad Fuad Stephens was the first, most impressive and personable Malaysian head of mission that I have ever met abroad. I met him a few days after my arrival in early May 1973 in Canberra for a Foreign Service Training programme conducted by the Australian Dept of Foreign Affairs and the Australian National University. The moment I was shown into his room by Kon Song Woon, his personal assistant, Tun Fuad overwhelmed me with the warmest welcome, kindness and a conversation laced with humour, generosity of spirit and a concern that I should be well taken care of while I was in Canberra. As he had a prior lunch engagement he apologised that he could not invite me for lunch. He introduced me to his Counsellor Syed Hussein Syed Abu Bakar and requested him to make sure that I was well taken care of. Syed Hussein later took me to his lovely home where I met his wife, Tunku Khatijah, the daughter of our first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. We had an extended lunch which was quite a feast.

Throughout my stay in Canberra, I must have been to the Stephens home six times and as Tun Fuad was leaving Canberra on completion of his tour of duty I was also invited to some of his farewells. He introduced me to other diplomats, journalists and the socialites of the diplomatic circuit. He was a big man, big-hearted and he had time for a young nondescript entry-level officer like me. I treasure this memory.

Unfortunately, I never got to meet another Head of a mission like him. Zain Azraai was another outstanding and brilliant diplomat.

But I met some status-conscious types. One chap that I served with was my boss when Tunku Abdul Rahman passed away. So we had a condolence book opened. For three days various people came to sign the book. On that third day at the eleventh hour, we were told that vice-President Dan Quayle was coming to sign the book. Our ambassador and his deputy took their positions next to the condolence book. When the vice president arrived the manager of the embassy’s third car, George Sundram was on hand to greet him. Quayle warmly shook Sundram’s hand, greeted him and conveyed his condolences to him. Later he was greeted by our security man, Guthrie who escorted the Vice President to the lift. At the lift upstairs, a staff member Pervin Ozer received the Vice President and walked him to the library. The ambassador and his deputy( both of whom were not handicapped) were delighted to be in the Vice President’s presence when he signed the book.

After Canberra, I was sent to Malta where I spent five lovely weeks as a Third Secretary in the Australian High Commission. Mr Coutts, the high commissioner was approaching retirement and he spent most mornings on water skis.

On returning to WIsmaputra I was placed in the Treaty Section of the Protocol Division. One of my duties was to prepare credentials for delegations attending conferences overseas. That entailed visits to the offices of the prime minister ( Tun Abdul Razak), deputy prime minister( then Dato’ Hussein Onn) and the minister for information and special functions( Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen).

Later I had postings in Lagos(at my own request), Hongkong( as I was suspected as a Soviet plant and had to be assigned to a place which did not have Soviet representation) , Vientiane, Washington DC, Port Moresby, Buenos Aires and finally soulless Seoul. I finally said farewell to the service on July 4, 2008.

One Productive Assignment
My most productive posting was Hongkong was in defiance of the advice, harsh intonement and instruction of my superiors in both Hongkong and Kuala Lumpur I proceeded to negotiate the purchase of a 25-storey building. The jokers in BMF said the building was available for HK$264 million and wanted me to provide a letter authorising them to purchase the building on behalf of the Malaysian Government. I refused and waited for an opportunity to show them up. Six weeks later I managed through intermediaries to meet the vendor of the building. I made an offer of HK$200 million. The MD of the seller, John Chuang, of Lap Heng Company, did not throw me out. He wanted HK$232 million. I asked him if he had a valuation. He had one which had been done by Jones, Lang Wooten three months earlier. It was valued at HK$223 million. After more talk Chuang said, as a compromise, can we agree on HK$212, the midpoint between my offer and the valuation. I informed Chuang I will take this up.

I then called Tan Sri Thong Yaw Hong, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Finance(KSP). This was on February 4, 1980.

Thong said ‘ Santha, I cannot authorise you. ‘ I said we had agreed to HK$250 million in early December 1979.’ He said ‘Yes, that was last year. For this year I do not have the budget.’ I was not flustered. I said that then I will call the Minister. He then said that I should send him a telex and copy it to the Minister. It should not be copied to anyone else.
I said protocol prevented that as I was not the head of mission, not acting either. The next morning I had to go to see my boss with the draft telex message. He refused to sign it if I did not copy it to WIsmaputra. This is the bureaucracy. I had to agree to have him sign it and sent it on. I followed up with several telephone calls. Eight days later KC Vohrah, Collin Marbeck came with Salleh Ahmad and others with letters authorising my boss to sign the S&P Agreement. It was signed on February 14 1980. The chancery moved into the 24th floor of Lap Heng House on June 1, 1980. For this stupidly extraordinary initiative in the next promotion exercise, I fell below everyone in my batch and remained there till the end of my Foreign Service career. This is meritocracy at Malaysia’s mysterious best.!!!

I still have a letter dated May 1980 from the KSP to my KSU congratulating the latter on the big savings that had been realised and for producing officers like me and my boss.
After the completion of the purchase, the brilliant BMF bankers proceeded to lose US$ 1 billion by giving dubious loans to George Tan, Kevin Hsu and others.Teh Yik Koon and Ian Robinson have covered this case well in their books.

In December 2017 I had a chance meeting with the then KSP Irwan Siregar. I committed an egregious blunder by informing him that the government-owned Hongkong building should be pulled down and a green environment-friendly replacement be built as it was in bad need of maintenance. The building had a prominent location. I had been informed by friends in Hongkong that we could not get high rentals for the 22 floors that were rented out as there were far superior buildings in the vicinity. I believe Irwan reported this conversation to a famous frump who spent sensational amounts on fashion-wear and accessories. Soon I heard that someone had offered to buy the building for RM1.1 billion. That sale was scuttled but eventually, the building was sold, according to Tengku Razaleigh for RM1.6 billion.

Precious Memories
Protocol and airport greeting work as a diplomat, although tedious, repetitive, tiresome and enervating can be rewarding also. I got to meet some Malaysian luminaries such as the Tunku with whom I had perhaps eighty hours of one-to-one conversations, Tun Tan Siew Sin, Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Yusof, Tun Suffian, Sultan Azlan Shah, Tengku Razaleigh, Robert Kuok, Tun Ismail Ali, Tun Lim Chong Eu, Anandakrishnan, Tiang Hiew King, Dr Mahathir, Tun Ghafar Baba, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Tan Sri Hamzah Abu Samah, Tun Ling Liong Sik, Tun Abdullah Salleh, Tun Abdul Rahman Yaacob, Dato Seri Shafie Apdal , Tan Sri Harris Salleh, Dato Sri Anwar Ibrahim, Dato Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Tun Lim Keng Yaik and others, including some Rulers. Mahathir certainly is a cold fish from this group although I have known him since 1979. When I was in Argentina where Malaysians made the most inane investments he spent a total of almost 40 days in my company.

Some Malaysians really thought they could build a bridge linking Argentina to Uruguay and make a profit, a name and be of enduring fame in Latin America. Similar investments were made in Durban and in Papua New Guinea. This was where some of our surpluses went.

Just sharing. Hope you enjoyed reading this.

September 4, 2020

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