Marrying the demands of international diplomacy with the political realities of home is a tough ask for most countries and their foreign ministries. The two can be a difficult fit, as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has found out all too well.
Some back home seem determined to provide an unwanted backdrop for his whistle-stop European tour designed to shore-up his country’s vastly improving relations with the West and bring in some much needed foreign investment.
However, echoes of the Bersih movement and their demands for electoral reform have dogged Najib and his entourage from London to Rome, while the prime minister’s own supporters have provided the nastiest thorn in his political side with wild and unsubstantiated claims of unwanted foreign meddling in domestic affairs.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Much of the initial fault lies with Najib. He declared the July 9 Bersih rallies in Kuala Lumpur and across the country illegal and failed to muzzle his own party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and fringe elements threatening what should have been a simple and peaceful march.
The police moved in with a heavy hand. Protesters were baton charged, tear gassed and beaten. People wearing yellow, the colour synonymous with the Bersih movement were arrested.
Najib defended the police action, deeming it necessary to keep the peace while attempting to demonize what was as much a mums and dads rally calling for clean elections as an opposition attempt to topple the government.
Playing to a home audience, his government quickly blamed prejudices in the international media for the negative portrayal that made headlines around the world, and Najib was probably hoping the mess would be quietly forgotten as he packed his bags for England.
No such luck.
Supporters of Bersih, which means clean in Malay, in London booed Najib as he went to Downing Street for lunch with his British counterpart David Cameron. He and First Lady Rosmah Mansor later met with the Queen, who surprised all by wearing yellow against a backdrop of yellow flowers.
The choice of outfit from such an astute and experienced head of state was widely interpreted as a sympathetic sign of support for Bersih, although the Queen’s dress sense seemed to escape the attention of fashionistas on state-linked newspapers in Malaysia.
Next stop Rome, and a truly historic moment with Kuala Lumpur and the Holy See agreeing to establish diplomatic ties. It was signed off with Pope Benedict XVI at his Papal summer palace in the small Italian village of Castel Gandolfo.
Similar ties have also been established by other Muslim-majority nations like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan, the Arab League and most members of the Organization of Islamic Conference.
Moves to establish diplomatic ties with the Vatican began more than two decades ago, and given the global push to improve relations between the West, Christianity and the Muslim world, Najib was entitled to stand on ceremony and push his doctrine of Islamic moderation.
But there was no respite from the head banging over Bersih back home, with government-linked TV stations initially claiming the movement was receiving funds from the United States and this was a threat to national security because Bersih was in league with foreign interests.
What made even less sense were further claims from the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia daily, which is owned by UMNO, suggesting that foreign Jewish groups might use Bersih to interfere with the country and Malaysians ‘cannot allow anyone, especially the Jews, to interfere secretly in this country's business.’
‘When the drums are pounded hard in the name of human rights, the pro-Jewish people will have their best opportunity to interfere in any Islamic country,’ the newspaper said. ‘We might not realize that the enthusiasm to support actions such as demonstrations will cause us to help foreign groups succeed in their mission of controlling this country.’
No evidence was offered and no specific groups named. Najib no doubt hardly appreciated such silly allegations of a Jewish conspiracy when meeting the Pope, amid high hopes of improving relations between the world’s religions.
Frustrated, Najib's office issued a statement saying Utusan's claim did ‘not reflect the views of the government.’ It added: ‘Regardless of their political views, it is unacceptable for anyone to stir up hatred and suspicion against any religious group in the way we have seen today.’
Such wise words would have also been welcomed in the lead-up to the July 9 Bersih rally, and would have no doubt improved the toxic atmosphere of the march. If heeded, the election reform movement would have made its point and gone home quietly, and Najib’s historic trip to Europe would have been allowed to strike the right chord.