The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


STAYING IN THE SADDLE © Duncan Graham 2007

It looked like the start of a rough ride for any Indonesian ambassador, particularly a novice on his first posting to a Western country.

The headline in the New Zealand capital daily read: Plug Pulled on Musical. The story alleged that pressure from the Indonesian embassy had resulted in a composition titled Papua Merdeka (Free Papua) being dropped from the official program of an international music festival.

But Amris Hassan, Indonesia's ambassador to NZ, Samoa and Tonga didn't seem to be thrown at encountering a potentially dangerous diplomatic hurdle so early in his new career.

Pragmatically the accomplished horseman noted that the story was a single column piece on page six of Wellington's The Dominion Post and hadn't been followed up by any radio or TV stations.

Also the allegedly offensive mixed-media presentation by Australian activist and composer Martin Wesley-Smith, critical of Indonesia's handling of conflict in the province, had been shown a day later than scheduled at the same venue.

"It might have been a different situation in Australia – maybe page one," Hassan reflected as he composed a denial. "Here in NZ relationships with my country are in good shape. But I can't influence the media any more than President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono can in democratic Indonesia.

"The NZ media by contrast with Australia isn't so interested in issues of conflict and hasn't been so negative. The problem is getting the NZ press to recognize us. Sometimes there's only one story a month about Indonesia."

Hassan took office last December after a nine-month drought with no ambassador. The Wellington job should be a posting worth fighting for – the city is a crucible of cultures and the timber-clad embassy an old-world delight. But it's been more like an airport waiting room with four ambassadors in the past five years.

Hassan flicked questions about the diplomatic revolving door across to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta, but said he intended to remain in NZ and create some stability.

"I admit the constant changes have been a problem. The process of ambassadorial appointments is a long and tedious process through parliament," he said. "However I understand the way things work."

So he should. Before taking up his present job Hassan, 48, was a member of the House of Representatives in Megawati Soekarnoputri's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). In the parliament he was deputy chair of the commission on defence, foreign relations and information, with a reputation for moderation and balance.

Before entering politics he lectured on international relations at the University of Indonesia for 14 years. He was educated at the American University of Cairo and got a masters degree in Britain.

His father, Professor Fuad Hassan was also a diplomat and Minister for Culture and Education in Soeharto's New Order government.

Hassan claimed his background and experience provided the contacts necessary to by-pass bureaucrats and get things done. And that seems to be the case with some early first wins.

These include resumption of the defence forces' cooperation program that had been frozen since the 1999 East Timor independence referendum, rising trade favoring Indonesia, and an increase in Indonesian students and workers in NZ. These wins despite operating on a budget and agenda designed by his predecessors.

"However I'm still not happy because up to 80 per cent of that trade is oil and gas and you don't need an embassy to sell petroleum products," he said. "I want to see more Indonesian manufactured goods on sale here – particularly footwear and furniture.

"NZ education standards are good and relatively affordable when compared to the US and Europe. There are two NZ schools in Jakarta. Many Indonesians are now apprehensive about going to America and Australia. I think NZ can fill that vacuum. It's no longer looking just to the Pacific."

Not so easy – with the journey handicapped by geographical ignorance rather than a history of conflict and suspicion. Hassan said he's found many Kiwis remain Eurocentric and seem to think that Indonesia is somehow linked to India.

Indonesian business people were overlooking the chances of selling NZ meat and wine to Indonesia's growing middle classes and exploring a big niche market, he said.

Then there are the transport problems. Garuda has pulled out of its NZ service and freight tonnages are too small to warrant a direct shipping service. This means all containers have to go through Australia or Singapore.

There are only 3,000 Indonesians in NZ, a nation with a population of four million. There are almost three times as many Malaysians in the country – probably because both nations are members of the Commonwealth.

Apart from real or imagined attempted bans on musical compositions about Papua, there are few serious issues of conflict between Indonesia and NZ. A few sailors and tourists decide to tear up their work contracts and visas and disappear into NZ's multicultural crowd where ID cards are not required and jobs are almost everywhere.

This is a problem – but Indonesians aren't the most serious offenders. There are no illegal fishers, and if there are any buxom drug mules rotting in Indonesian jails they're not getting top media coverage. There are human rights activists in NZ hustling the Papua issue, but they don't have the profile of Aussie activists.

"I've been asked why we haven't signed a treaty like the one negotiated in Lombok last year between Indonesia and Australia," Hassan said.

"We don't need one. That just assumes there are problems."

Hassan said he wants to see more NZ journalists going to Indonesia on exchange programs, more Islamic scholars visiting NZ to talk about religious tolerance and the new democracy – anything positive to encourage Kiwis to recognize the crowded islands to the north of their big empty neighbor.

Other plans include developing sister-city relationships and maybe having an Indonesian film festival. This last task shouldn't be too difficult. Hassan's wife is film producer Afi Shamara. Her most famous work is the 2003 metrosexual comedy hit Arisan. Other films are Ca Bau Kan (A Courtesan) and Biola Tak Berdawi (The Stringless Violin).

If Hassan can stay in the saddle, ride the rodeo of Jakarta politics and last his full term he should do well in NZ. He's affable, open and handsome, with language skills so high he can even decode Kiwi vowels.

He's already been photographed on horseback in a thick wooly jumper, the uniform of the bush. Stand by for pix of him wearing a beanie at a rugby international and barracking for the All Blacks

Relishing the outdoor life is a quality Kiwis respect. Intellectuals are fine – but only if they can also tramp the mountains, sail the estuaries and ride the bloodstock.

"I'll do what I can, but it has to be both ways," he said. "We must both have higher profiles."

So what's been the best job – academic, politician or diplomat?

"There were fewer burdens in Parliament and it was easier to make headlines," he said. Maybe he'd already forgotten about Aussie composers with a political agenda.

First published in The Jakarta Post 24 Feb 2007)


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