In conjunction with the recent launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on embassies and embassy experiences.

There’s nothing like seeing what life is like without a fully functioning embassy to make you realise that embassies still matter. 

They matter first and foremost because of the unique channel of communication between governments that they represent. Second, because embassies provide a vantage point for the sending country’s own skilled nationals to observe events in the host country on a long-term basis, and interpret them from the perspective of the national interests of the sending country, something that no other institution can do. Diplomats are regularly rotated to prevent 'localitis' setting in. Their first priority is the national interest of their home country.

These roles were completely stymied in Malaysia for almost a year in 1991. At the time, I was coming to the end of my posting at the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, as head of the political and economic section, when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed simply turned off the diplomatic tap. 

The Australian mission was one of the largest and most well-informed of the foreign embassies based in Kuala Lumpur, commensurate with our wide range of interests and regional weight. I’d served there for three years, together with my husband Denis, also a diplomat, who was deputy head of mission at the time. When the freeze took place, we were asked to stay on for another year. I learned more about diplomacy in that 12 months than in the previous three years combined.

Overnight, the mission’s senior Malaysian contacts dried up. We went from having virtually immediate access to ministers and senior civil service, defence, aid and immigration functionaries to finding doors suddenly shut and phonecalls not returned.

Mahathir, who had long had issues with Australia, had decided to turn his back on this country. As we discovered rather quickly, he had instructed his senior advisors to have nothing to do with Australia or its most senior representatives, and not to divulge the reason why.

In due course we discovered through local contacts that, somewhat incredibly, the immediate trigger had been Mahathir’s dissatisfaction with an ABC television series, Embassy. It was set in a fictional Australian embassy overseas. While situated in a fictional host country, it was apparent on a fictional map displayed prominenlty during the show that this was a Muslim country south of Thailand and north of Singapore. The subject matter included Muslim fundamentalism, stonings, violence, hanging of drug offenders, even a love affair between an embassy staff member and the fictional Prime Minister. Mahathir saw it as a government-backed insult to his country.

For months, as the Embassy soapie ran its course, our programs and interests — ranging from defence cooperation, trade issues, aid delivery, education, consular and immigration matters — all ground to a halt. Certain lower-level operational matters proceeded, but the critical high-level contact froze.

At the time, there was a frenzy of media attention and speculation. In the end, it was a meeting between Hawke and Mahathir in October 1991, backed by patient, careful work on the ground, using the long-term valued local contacts who had continued, quietly, to talk to us, that eventually led to greater understanding, and ultimately the re-establishment of normal relations.

Today, 20 years later, the role of embassies is even more important. With the constant chatter, not only of the traditional media, but of the various kinds of social media, instantly conveyed over the net, and where all views are equal, the need for a direct, inter-governmental link, along with the analysis and interpretation of developments by informed long-term resident diplomats who understand Australian interests, is more important than ever.

Just to finish, when Sam Roggeveen initially asked me about this subject, I kept thinking of the words of the first ambassador I worked for, as a young junior diplomat in Nairobi in 1977, when I was railing about having to go to boring cocktail parties. 'Denise,' he said, 'always remember that a 90-minute cocktail party means 30 three minute records of conversation'. Overstatement, sure. But relationships are what it is all about.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user jurek d.