The diplomat who came in from the cold

S Thayaparan

Modified 16 May 2018, 12:37 am

“And I became the envoy of a lost kingdom, ambassador of the best country we never had.”

– Dennis Ignatius

(Full disclosure. Dennis Ignatius and I are friends. Although we may disagree on a range of issues, we understand that Malaysia needs to change. Our last protest against the Umno hegemon found us walking together with other like-minded individuals for the Bersih march in Parliament protesting the redelineation exercise carried out by the former regime.)

BOOK REVIEW | I wrote the following as a blurb for Dennis’s book ‘Diplomatically Speaking’ – “Mr Ignatius dissects the Malaysian political landscape with a skeptical if emphatic gaze, borne of years of experience in the Malaysian Foreign Service. More than just a collection of essays, this book is a historical document by a professional whose clarity of purpose is evident from the very first chapter.”

The chapter that best exemplifies my blurb is the chapter dealing with the vigilantism of Papagomo who assaulted a migrant worker because he claimed that the worker sexually harassed a family member of the controversial blogger. In this chapter, Dennis stitches together disparate narratives, our apathy, the nonchalance of the state, the morality or lack thereof of vigilante acts, the indifference of a foreign embassy with regards to one of their own but most importantly, the vagaries that is life for a migrant worker.

Any other writer would have just focused on one topic but not Dennis. For this former diplomat, nuance is important. It would be easy just to assign blame to one party and move on. It would be easy for the reader and definitely for the writer. The writer gets to preach and the reader get a good dose of confirmation bias. This incident tells us something about our country and for Dennis, what it tells us is that there is something very wrong with us.

Back up a moment. In the foreword to this book, Dennis writes – “I still remember that day (4th September 1972) when I walked through the palm-lined road to Wisma Putra to report for duty. My heart was bursting with pride – at last I was going to get the opportunity to serve my country, to live my dream, to help write in some small way the future history of our nation.”

Civil servants from the old school look upon service as a calling. Those were the days when serving your country meant something. It meant sacrifice, but more importantly, a willingness to understand the faults of your country and how to correct those faults. In the foreword, Dennis makes it clear that the country going down a dark path by successive regimes was initially ignored by him as an anomaly.

Then a pattern formed and the diplomat understood the folly of patience and inaction. Most former civil servants can relate to that. So what did Dennis do? He began to write. As the country got deeper into the mess, Dennis found that avenues for public discontent were shrinking.

Malaysiakini readers know of him through his comments pieces which not only earned the wrath of the former Umno state but hate mails from former civil servants who disagreed with his position. All these attacks were always upon his character and not on the points he raised. Former establishment types pointed to the fact that Dennis served under regimes that were the cause of this country’s mess. I can relate to that. I, too, served under regimes that brought this country to...

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