Dennis Ignatius: The greatest UNGA speech ever

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The MAGA (Make Anwar Great Always) brigade is getting to be a real embarrassment to Malaysia, perhaps even to the PM himself.

It seems like every time you access the news these days, somebody somewhere is unabashedly extolling the virtues of our larger-than-life prime minister. Politicians, columnists and otherwise normally sane people appear to be falling over themselves to glorify him.

Since taking office less than a year ago, the MAGA (Make Anwar Great Always) brigade has highlighted his great “spiritual depth and breadth”, claimed that he possesses the “attributes of a great soul” and declared him to be a “true light”. Others gushed that all the other prime ministers who went before him were but “pygmies” in comparison to the great man or hailed him as a renaissance man, a great scholar and philosopher and a religious leader to boot. And just recently, one academic – and an Indonesian one at that – described him as “greater than Sukarno”.

Taken together, the MAGA brigade would have us believe that we have a prime minister who is a unique combination of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and Sukarno; a philosopher-prince, a preacher-politician, a stateman-strategist, a reformer-renaissance man all rolled into one.

And, since greatness these days is incomplete without a biopic, we have “Anwar: The Untold Story” – never mind that the real story of Anwar is as yet untold and will have to await history’s verdict.

Such is the eagerness to glorify the man that the MAGA brigade appears to be constantly on the lookout for new opportunities to wax lyrical about him. No surprise then that they quickly seized upon his recent UNGA speech.

Foreign Minister Zambry Kadir set the ball rolling when he announced that many world leaders were “eagerly” awaiting the prime minister’s speech. Others, including former DAP MP Kasthuri Patto, quickly joined the parade. Patto said she “watched in awe” as the PM courageously took on the big powers and spoke with such “courage, conviction, passion and spirit” that it “broke the spell” of Malaysia’s decline on the world stage.

The prize for the most cringe-worthy piece, however, must undoubtedly go to her DAP colleague Howard Lee – the MP for Ipoh Timor who also sits on the Parliamentary Special Select Committee for Foreign Affairs and International Trade. He was so effusive in his praise that he almost used up all the fawning adjectives to be found in Roget’s Thesaurus.

“Few Malaysian speeches,” he raved, “have resonated with such profound eloquence and gravitas.” Calling it a “magnum opus of a speech,” he said that “such audacity, combined with an articulate tone of statesmanship, depth and familiarity, is emblematic of [Anwar’s] foreign policy worldview.” He also threw in terms like “a singular masterpiece by the grandmaster”, a “treasure trove of implied messaging”, “intense” and “definitely fruitful in riling up a frenzy of excitement” and “priceless”.

In all my many years in the foreign service, I have never come across a more mindless, obsequious and grovelling response to a prime minister’s speech. Clearly, all these people are too easily impressed or eager to impress or just haven’t read too many UNGA speeches.

Each year, up to 193 world leaders congregate in New York to deliver their respective “great” speeches. Other than fawning followers at home or members of delegation who feel very pleased with themselves for being given an all-expenses paid trip to the Big Apple (courtesy of their respective taxpayers), no one else really cares about these speeches.

UNGA speeches are simply occasions for political grandstanding. Smaller countries will invariably complain about the veto powers of the Permanent Five. Muslim countries will inveigh against Islamophobia and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. ASEAN countries will condemn Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. And, of course, everyone will stress the importance of tackling climate change.

How they actually structure their own policies when they get home is a different matter. The same countries who are very vocal about Islamophobia in the West, for example, will have nothing to say about the well-documented persecution of Uighur Muslims in China.

If anything, Anwar did a better job delivering his speech than Zahid Hamidi whose performance at the podium in 2016 was disastrous. And thankfully, he didn’t speak in the national language like Ismail Sabri; nothing wrong with the national language but in the UNGA context it’s a meaningless gesture. Of course, at home, Ismail was hailed as having “revived the glory days of Bahasa Melayu.”

As speeches go then, it was all very much routine by UNGA standards; nothing earth-shattering, certainly nothing worthy of the kind of vacuous veneration that Howard Lee and others lavished upon it.

Honestly, the MAGA brigade is getting to be a real embarrassment to Malaysia, perhaps even to the PM himself. It’s time to stop all this toadying behaviour. Instead of hand-kissing the PM they ought to be holding his feet to the fire to ensure that he lives up to his promises, that he delivers on all those urgently needed reforms. – Dennis Ignatius