Department of Foreign Affairs

Eduardo Malaya, PH envoy to the Hague, isn’t done dreaming

Sofia Tomacruz
Eduardo Malaya, PH envoy to the Hague, isn’t done dreaming

NEW AMBASSADOR. J. Eduardo Malaya presents his credentials as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of the Philippines to the Kingdom of the Netherlands to His Majesty King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands on April 7, 2021.

Philippine embassy in the Hague, Netherlands

A diplomat for over three decades, the Philippines’ new ambassador to the Hague is described as a scholar and a workhorse

Eduardo Malaya has been with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for over three decades, but when he speaks about streamlining paperwork or the possibility of new agreements for the Philippines, he straightens in his chair, his eyes light up, and he leans closer. 

Appearing on a screen no taller than six inches, Malaya can hardly contain his excitement about work. “I had dreamt of going to the Hague. I thought that if there was one post that I should go [to] as a diplomat, a lawyer, it should be the Hague because it is considered as the legal capital of the world,” he says. 

Malaya talks about international law like it’s a way of life – producing concrete results for people, far from the perception of it being abstract. “It has direct beneficial impact not only to the legal system, but to specific individuals and to specific corporations,” he says. 

The conviction in his statement is partly a product of the fact that Malaya has built a career in law, just as much as diplomacy and foreign affairs. Before deciding to enter the foreign service in 1986, Malaya had been intent on becoming a practicing lawyer, until his father, the late Iriga regional trial court Judge Angel S. Malaya, advised him to explore other paths.

Malaya heeded his father’s words, except that one way or another he always found his way back to the legal aspects of his practice at the DFA. He would search for legal conventions the country could join or lead the agency’s treaties and legals affairs office. 

Malaya’s latest post at the Hague has always felt possible because, growing up, he’d been steeped in the laws of the Philippines and other countries.

He grew up watching his father hunched over a typewriter, drafting decisions on cases of the day. Years later, as a diplomat, Malaya’s version of this involved crafting key deals between the Philippines and its partners abroad. 

As he heads to what would be his 10th role – and counting – as a diplomat, Malaya is optimistic about new opportunities to strengthen the Philippines’ presence in the Hague and its relations with the Netherlands. 

“The Hague, I think, is one place where one can see what are the better practices in the fields of law and be able to see which ones would be applicable and adaptable to the Philippines,” he says. 

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has called Malaya a “natural” for the position, and a scholar “with plenty to contribute to the Netherlands’s dominion of international law.”

The Hague feels almost like a culmination of Malaya’s decades as a diplomat-lawyer, and his newest role the latest product of decades of following his curiosities.

But Malaya is nowhere near done. He enumerates ideas he plans to explore as an ambassador, like improving family support for Filipino children of cross-border families and learning the Dutch’s world-renowned methods of water management, to name a few. 

“I think the law, and including international law, in fact, have not only a big role but positive relevance to the lives of people,” he says. 

Dad’s dream

In the year before the EDSA People Power Revolution, a young Ed Malaya decided to take the Foreign Service Exam upon the invitation of a law school classmate. 

Malaya said he took the exam on a lark and as a response to a challenge since his classmate already had all the materials needed for the test. He also considered it because his father discouraged him from following in his footsteps as a judge.

“He had seen most of the facets of law” at the time, Malaya said. 

Malaya passed the exam, and went on to become part of the Philippines’ first batch of foreign service officers (FSOs) under then-president Corazon Aquino. 

Malaya had been imbued with a sense of idealism, standing among crowds that staked out in the streets in rallies culminating with the EDSA People Power in 1986. It did not take much to convince the young lawyer to follow through and join the DFA.

Malaya described the decision to become part of the first foreign service batch after the Marcos dictatorship as clear and compelling. 

“It was a time of hope, time of renewed confidence in the country,” Malaya says. The decision to join the DFA was “a response to a call to service, and to try to build a better country, better society.”

That memory has stuck with Malaya and has influenced his nearly four decades of service so far. It has also served as a foundation for his work philosophy and fresh outlook, which he has brought to several posts in the foreign service, where an officer can be rotated and assigned a new position almost every three years.  

“I’ve mentioned to our people, every now and then, that wherever one is assigned to, try to see if you can leave the place better than what you saw it when you first came in. In whatever one’s capacity, there is, in fact, some opportunity to do something, to do some good,” Malaya says.

Institution-building

For Malaya, being one of the first FSOs in the DFA as the country returned to democracy also meant placing a premium on strengthening the Philippines’ foreign policy and creating opportunities for Filipinos at home and abroad. 

Malaya has authored at least nine books on a broad range of topics, ranging from inaugural presidential addresses, diplomacy carried out by Philippine ambassadors, Philippine treaties, and the country’s defense cooperations. 

How does he find time? The output has simply become part of his method in tackling negotiations he’s been involved with in the DFA.

“My approach is to learn about the subject, deeply conduct research if needed, and examine the nuances of that particular subject matter, then I would soon realize that, wow, I have learned quite a bit,” he says.

“I thought, before I forget the subject matter, I should write about it in a form that is shareable to others, so that those who would be dealing with the subject…may have an easier time and not come in cold,” Malaya adds.

This was basically the process he followed as part of the negotiations for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the United States, and twice as assistant secretary for the DFA’s Office of Treaties and Legal Affairs (OTLA). 

As part of OTLA, Malaya set out to find ways to bring international law closer to Filipinos. “It is probably only at the DFA where one would have the opportunity not only to study international law, but in fact to do international law on a daily basis,” he says. 

During his first stint as OTLA chief, from 2009 to 2011, Malaya scanned a number of institutions the Philippines could join, with the goal of obtaining membership in a group that could make international law more relevant to the public.

He landed on efforts to pursue the Philippines’ membership at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which was completed in 2011, when the country acceded to the International Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes. Before that, the idea first broached by DFA officials had been limited to discussions and was slow to move forward. 

Malaya’s moves soon proved fruitful as the Philippines filed its historic case against China at the PCA in the Hague in 2013. Years later in 2016, the Philippines went on to win its landmark case against the regional giant.

“With us as a member already, of course, the secretariat of the PCA facilitated the assumption of and conduct of the case. So, really, international law can work! Not only for countries but also for people,” Malaya says. 

Since then, the 2016 arbitral award has gained support from a growing number of countries and continues to be a basis for reasserting the Philippines’ rights in the West Philippine Sea, where China continues to aggressively assert its claims.

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Big moves

Before his appointment as the Philippines’ envoy to the Netherlands, Malaya also served as the DFA’s undersecretary for administration. 

Malaya admits he did not aspire for the role but, after receiving the appointment, he took his own advice and remembered what he told younger FSOs at the DFA: “Look at it as an opportunity to do some good.” 

Big changes took place in Malaya’s watch, among the most significant of which involved the reorganization of the DFA in 2020. As the pandemic upturned the agency’s work, Malaya says additional work felt by much of the agency, coupled with changing geopolitics accelerated by the pandemic, made it evident that offices could be made more strategic. 

From having only one undersecretary for policy, the DFA now has two – one for bilateral and ASEAN affairs and one for multilateral affairs.

Before two undersecretaries were assigned to policy, having only one meant an appointed official had to attend several senior officials meetings in ASEAN and other fora, as well as some 50 formal bilateral meetings between the Philippines and its partners. 

Malaya says spreading the load between two undersecretaries would allow for more “strategic thinking,” and keep the Philippines at par with other foreign services around the world. 

The reorganization at the DFA likewise involved formally establishing an Office of Civilian Security to cover matters on non-traditional security issues, like counterterrorism, transnational crimes, health security, domestic security, and support for peace processes in the Philippines, among others. 

Malaya says changes in the agency’s reorganization also involved lengthening the time of service at the DFA’s home office in the Philippines from two to three years. The change is aimed at providing more time for FSOs to initiate and complete projects or negotiations. Again, it aligns the DFA’s practices to those of other foreign ministries abroad.

“It’s really important to have stability. There is a lot that still needs to be done here,” Malaya says. 

Changes to the DFA’s setup done during Malaya’s term have been difficult to implement without amendments to the Foreign Service Act, but Malaya credits the support of Locsin, who approved the new moves in the agency. 

“One should be creative in an approach and see what can already be done at our level, an, if not, by getting approvals from the Office of the President,” he says.

PH AMBASSADOR. File photo of J. Eduardo Malaya as Philippine ambassador to Malaysia, taken on March 31. 2017.
Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur
Challenging role

Despite difficulties in the DFA’s work spurred by the pandemic, Malaya says his toughest role remained to be when he was the country’s ambassador to Malaysia from 2011 to 2017. 

While the Philippines and Malaysia had made progress in its ties, tensions over Sabah flared up when followers of self-proclaimed Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram III engaged in a standoff with Malaysian troops over a village in Sabah. 

Malaya stays tight-lipped about the incident, only describing it as a “tough time” and one “we will have to allow enough historians to write more about.”

Apart from the incident, Malaya faced significant hurdles in crafting ways to attend to Filipinos living on the island. He recalls the situation of Filipino children, in particular, during one of his first visits to Sabah, saying the lack of educational opportunities was among the most pressing concerns they faced. Given their undocumented status, the children did not have access to the local public schools.

Having a public school teacher for a mother, Malaya considered it necessary that programs were formed for Filipino children in Sabah. With support from the embassy, the Filipino community set up alternative learning centers in about two years that catered to nearly 1,400 children. 

They continue to operate to this day. 

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“To me, it was a big deal, because this has direct impact on children in the future…. When I entered the foreign service, never did I think that I would be working on education issues. But we did,” he says. 

The effort culminated in a memorandum of understanding on educational cooperation signed by the Philippines and Malaysia during the state visit of then-president Benigno Aquino III in 2013.

“It goes back to the refrain, look at wherever you may be as an opportunity to do some good,” Malaya says. “A lot of people in Manila aren’t seeing this problem that we have of our Filipino children in Sabah. We [are]… so should be able to do something.”

More work to be done

Malaya’s post in Malaysia embodied what he views as the “burden and opportunity” placed on the Philippines’ ambassadors when they are tasked to represent the country. 

The burden, he says, is because an ambassador will be responsible for everything that happens to the country’s relations with its host country and Filipino community members. 

“He needs to be accountable for it,” Malaya says. Being proactive “it creates a whole universe of opportunity,” he adds.

“The job of the ambassador can be as boring as one can make it to be, but it can also be as dynamic as one’s imagination and creativity can go. It depends on the fellow and his sense of what the occasion calls for,” Malaya says.

As he takes his place in the Hague, Malaya will once again be tested to carry the responsibilities of representing the country and advancing the Philippines’ presence at the legal capital. 

Though his arrival to the Hague has been delayed by the pandemic, Malaya has been active since he arrived in early April. He has presented his credentials to King Willem-Alexander of Netherlands, met business groups involved in land development projects of the new Manila International Airport, along with members of the Filipino community and Dutch government.

Malaya will have his work cut out for him as obstacles are already being laid out for the country. In the first half of 2021, the International Criminal Court at the Hague is expected to release a decision on whether to open a formal phase of the investigation into the drug war case against the Duterte government. 

Malaya plans to tackle the issue the same way he has approached other challenges in his career: “Prepare, read, and try to be proactive so that we can properly anticipate developments.” – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.