Sunday, April 10, 2016

Malaysia's pragmatic patriot: friends with benefits


The South China Sea dispute. The global terrorism threat. Malaysia’s foreign policy is back in the world’s spotlight and it is exciting times for ISIS Malaysia’s Foreign Policy and Security Studies chief.


IN an article titled “Think tanks aren’t going extinct. But they have to evolve”, American scholar James Jay Carafano wrote that the capacity to do rigorous, credible research is “no longer sufficient” for think tanks to manoeuvre their ideas prominently into the policy debate. Instead, think tanks must learn to communicate “in ways that will allow their ideas to break through to decision-makers who are bombarded with information from all sides”.

In that regard, Elina Noor has proven to be a real asset to Malaysia’s premier think tank, the Institute of Strategic and Interna­tional Studies, or ISIS Malaysia. Her ability to articulate on complex and dynamic global affairs – such as major power relations, cyber warfare, terrorism and conflicts – in succinct yet jargon-free language has also made her a highly sought-after interviewee by the international media.

As a child, Elina wanted to be “everything”, from prime minister to fashion designer. Her parents, who ran a management consultancy firm, however, might have subconsciously put her on her career path by leaving the world news on television all the time when she was growing up.

“My parents would engage in lively debates about international affairs between themselves. As I grew older, I wanted to do law with an eye towards international law, specifically how war and conflict affect people.”

After graduating from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, she specialised in public international law at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This was followed by an internship at the Centre for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington DC, specialising in issues of weapons of mass destruction terrorism.

Essentially, she helped compile a database of terrorist groups with chemical or bioweapons capabilities by combing through secondary sources and obtaining intelligence from experts who had gone into the field.

Her days in the United States were cut short, however, by visa limitations. So, after nine months, she returned to Malaysia in 2001.

Her appetite whetted by her Washington experience, Elina joined ISIS Malaysia as a researcher.

Though formally positioned as a research organisation for nation-building initiatives, ISIS Malaysia was set up by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1983 to serve as a crucial sounding board for the government on foreign policy and security issues.

In addition to research, ISIS Malaysia engages actively in non-governmental meetings between states, known as Track Two diplomacy, and fosters closer regional integration and international cooperation through forums such as the Asia-Pacific Roundtable.

Now, having risen through the ranks, Elina heads a team of eight in the Foreign Policy and Security Studies division.

As a claimant state in the ongoing South China Sea dispute, chair of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 2015, and currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Malaysia’s foreign policy direction has drawn renewed interest at home and abroad.

Invariably, Elina is asked questions on Malaysia’s relations with China. Her answer is perhaps best laid out in an article she wrote, titled “Friends with Benefits: Why Malaysia can and will maintain good ties with both the United States and China.”

On the topic, Elina had explained: “Malaysia should or will be subservient to an awakening dragon, but the cost-benefit calculus militates against provoking it. Equally, Malaysia’s location and posture make it a strategic partner for China in South-East Asia.

“It is the mark of a mature and solid friendship when overall relations are not held hostage to single-issue disagreements.”

Elina had added that such overlapping claims in the South China Sea, “should not, if managed well, stultify cooperation between Malaysia and China in other areas of the relationship. For a developing country with high-income and knowledge-economy ambitions like Malaysia, the show must go on”.

Or to put it simply, Malaysia wants to be everybody’s friend. That’s always been the country’s foreign policy from the start, she points out.

On the other hand, this pragmatic approach has also enabled the country to punch above its weight in places where even superpowers fear to tread.

Elina’s other portfolio, cyber warfare and security, is expected to come further into the spotlight with recent headlines claiming that the so-called Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria intended to abduct top Malaysian leaders, including the PM.

“Malaysia up to this point has handled terrorism very well,” Elina says.

Many attempts have been foiled in the past, she adds, and the police have kept it low-key.

“If you follow the issues closely, you’ll notice the police only started publicising their efforts in the run-up to Pota (The Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015), an anti-terrorism law passed by the Malaysian government on April 7, 2015 enabling the Malaysian authorities to detain terror suspects without trial for a period of two years.”

Part of this publicising had to do with the political selling of Pota, but there was a more legitimate, pressing reason: People were taking security for granted in Malaysia.

“Malaysians treat security like it’s not a problem. We often criticise the police but the military and Special Branch in charge of counterterrorism really know what they’re doing. The police have been very vigilant and I think they do good work but haven’t been given enough credit.”

After 14 years, she still enjoys her job because of the intellectual robustness but admits some world-weariness has set in.

Nevertheless, Elina remains motivated by the knowledge that a lot of good Malaysians on both sides of the political divide are doing good work for the country.

Pointing to a faded wristband she has been wearing for “donkey’s years”, the inscription reads: “Malaysia tanahairku (Malaysia, my homeland)”.

“Call me cheesy,” she says, “but I’ve never thought of removing it. Love for country might, but does not always, equate to love for government. I’m a sentimental patriot.”

By Alexandra Wong, China Daily/Asia News Network

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