"I Say What I Think"

Honorable Mention for "Best Interview or Profile" of the 2012 Magnum Opus Awards.

In a wide-ranging interview, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan likens diplomats to potters, calls the study of international relations a “fraud discipline” and says every public officer has a duty to speak up - like he does.
Bilahari Kausikan

Mr Bilahari Kausikan says he did not choose to join the elite Administrative Service and he wants to put this on record.

“Let us be very clear,” said the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The Administrative Service imposed itself on me and several others in the Foreign Service. We were shanghai-ed in against our will.”

Then a Foreign Service Officer aged 29, Mr Kausikan and some of his colleagues were marshalled into their boss’s office and told this handful of non-scholars would be absorbed into the Administrative Service the following Monday.

“We thought it was extremely divisive, to suddenly separate the sheep from the goats. I said no, but it was not a matter of choice.”

Now 57, Mr Kausikan has spent three decades in the MFA where he was ambassador to Russia, and Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

In public memory, he is better known as someone unafraid to speak his mind, from writing a personal letter to a blogger who criticised a speech he had made at her school in 2006, to a speech in 2004 which is still making ripples in the Public Service, that the PS21 ExCEL movement had “lost its way”. “I say what I think. I am me, I can’t be anything but me,” he said.

Getting to the MFA

Mr Kausikan is a voracious reader – “even of the telephone directory in the extreme” – who was once on the road to academia. While writing his dissertation for his international relations PhD at New York’s Columbia University, he had a “satori” – a moment of enlightenment: “I realised I’d be a damn rotten teacher. And why would I want a PhD when it’s just a trade union card for teaching?”

He chose to serve out his eight-year bond in the Foreign Service as his father had been an ambassador, and the MFA was “the only place I knew something about.”

“I ended up struggling to forget everything I had learnt,” he said. “International relations is a fraud discipline and is the worst possible training for a career in the foreign service. As a PhD student, we spent an inordinate amount of time debating what the fundamental basis of a country’s foreign policy was: if it was economic, financial or domestic. I thought the world was a logical place.

“I have now concluded that foreign policy is really a series of improvisations towards a goal that should be agreed on.”

Working In An Unpredictable World

What really distinguishes MFA from the rest of the Public Service is that it operates in a global environment.

Bilahari Kausikan

“The world is fundamentally illogical and therefore unpredictable,” he said. “If in diplomacy, you try five things and two work, you are actually doing quite well.”

Adding to the turbulence is the world’s profound, uncertain state of transformation. “There are new centres of power emerging in China, India, and while the US used to be at the top of the hierarchy, it has found it increasingly difficult to act alone. The result is a less governable world where many things will be sub-optimally dealt with, if at all.”

What this calls for is a tad less bureaucracy at the MFA and diplomats who can empathise – “I don’t mean warm and fuzzy feelings but being able to understand where another person is coming from in order to get your own way”, who can keep their eye on the goal amidst a confusing swirl of events and who have acquired instincts to know which way the wind is blowing.

He tells his officers:

A diplomat is a potter who forges a beautiful relationship. But one day I might order you to smash the pot because it’s in the national interest.

“Being nice or having friendly relations is a means. The end must be national interest.”

A Scholar-Blind Culture

Work at the MFA is very different from other ministries, stressed Mr Kausikan. The risk of failure is high due to the intrinsically uncertain environment, and officers who formulate policies are also expected to carry them out directly, hence requiring “a different frame of mind”.

The need to be empathetic, to adapt to breaking world events, and that special instinct to analyse and understand situations are qualities needed in a good Foreign Service officer. Intelligence, he added, is therefore overrated as it is not the only necessary quality.

Hence, the ministry has evolved what Mr Kausikan calls a “scholar-blind” culture.

A scholarship is just a point of entry.  It would be a grave mistake to think that it is an escalator. I don’t care if people are scholars or not. I discriminate between people who can do their work and people who can’t.

He acknowledges that the scholarship system has “worked fairly well” in reeling talent into the Public Service.

However, he notes that there are some scholars who have admitted to him that they were reluctant to join the MFA because it is scholar-blind.

Bilahari Kausikan

“I’m told some Management Associates don’t like to come here because they think they get no special privileges here, which is true, and they have to compete with a lot of clever people. They felt they would have less chance of shining and therefore transiting to AO (Administrative Service Officer) scheme if they came to the Foreign Ministry because we treat everybody equal.

“In my personal opinion, those scholars who have a huge sense of entitlement are the ones who are probably not going to make it.”

Scholars aside, what matters more is who can contribute best where. For instance, while the MFA has become larger and more professional over the years, an internal challenge he is now grappling with is manpower demographics.

MFA, which went on a recruitment drive in the 90s after a decade-long stagnation, is now peopled with young directors ready to go out and replace ambassadors for whom suitable jobs will have to be found back home.

“(MFA) is an animal with a huge head, huge bottom with a rather thin waist,” described Mr Kausikan. “We have a larger proportion of super-scale and senior positions than any other ministry. Some senior people will have to come back and take advisory positions in other agencies that are discerning that they need to be able to act internationally and regionally.”

No Regrets

Looking back over his own career, he has no regrets, never over anything he has said, and certainly not over the incident when unflattering statements he had made of the Malaysian leadership were published on whistleblower website Wikileaks. “Diplomacy is about being frank with each other. Sometimes leaks happen. Everybody takes it in their stride.”

If public officers are cautious about what they say, this is what he would tell them: “Then [you] are not doing [your] job because the job of a public officer is to give advice... If you get reprimanded, so what? Are you such a shrinking violet that you’d wither away and die?”

Bilahari Kausikan

To him, a good public officer is not afraid to speak up and will vigorously defend his view, but once the decision is made, sticks with it even if it may not be what he agrees with.

“You are complicit,” he stressed. “You carry out the decision and don’t complain after the event. This is the value of the Public Service. If you had really felt so strongly about it at the time, you should have resigned.”

Has he ever thought of resigning?

“Yes, I have,” he said. “Then I think, is it such a big deal? It wasn’t. On the whole, am I content? Happy? Doing something useful? Yes. I came here intending to serve out my bond but I forgot to leave.”

What’s usually in your cuppa?

Coffee in the mornings; green tea in the afternoons. In the evenings, more often than not, Jack Daniels

What’s your favourite drink?

Bourbon — Jack Daniels or Maker’s Mark

Where do you normally go for your favourite drink?

I refuse to reveal my favourite bar - those who need to know already know and those who do not already know obviously do not need to know (-:

    Jul 18, 2011
    Wong Sher Maine
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