Laughing up business
Hollering into a handphone in a restaurant or openly reading e-mails during an important presentation seem to be required skills for businessmen in Indonesia.
Women generally find brashness unnecessary to polish their credentials. So does Western Australia’s outgoing (in both senses) Jakarta-based Trade Director.
“It’s behavior I really dislike,” he said. “I don’t own an iPad or a BlackBerry. That’s a fruit. I’m a Newbery.”
If Martin Newbery had used that corny one-liner when he walked out of Soekarno-Hatta seven years ago he’d have risked ridicule as an eccentric wonder from Down Under.
Whoever prefers graciousness above gadgetry? Add the bleached thatch indicating a preference for beach over fairway, and a suspect image might have set.
But his eclectic CV embraced bureaucracy and business, a rare combo. He’d learned the language and felt at ease in kampong and corporate tower.
As a young Australian public servant he’d surfed Bali. Then he tried Java and found heaven. He switched to air-freighting fresh fruit into Indonesia, then ran seven prawn trawlers crewed by Indonesians, a job that required tact and toughness.
While talking to The Jakarta Post he politely but firmly flicked away a major Indonesian government department wanting to attend a seminar, but dictating terms. “My show, my rules,” he said.
Staying upright on a twisting board, speed skimming just ahead of towering waves yet having fun, is an apt metaphor for surfing the rips of Indonesian business culture where getting dumped is an everyday hazard.
“Investors should consider my five P principles,” Newbery said. “Be Patient, be Present and Persevere.
“It’s no good trying to trade using e-mails from a distance. Establish trust. That means personal contact. It takes time.
“Then there’s Payment. It’s important to understand and accept the way Indonesians do business and run their accounts. Sometimes people agree too fast without understanding the detail.”
And the final P? Newbery’s colorful phrase risks misinterpretation by those stumped by Australian slang. Best translate as ‘having a good time’.
“Never get down to business without first having a laugh,” he said. “Indonesians have a great sense of humor. It’s one of many factors that make this country and its people such a delight.
“I don’t accept we’re clumsy when dealing with other cultures. That’s not the right word. Sometimes ill-prepared and vulnerable, too fearful and hung up on things like drinking and eating pork. We should just be ourselves.
“I’m a proud Australian (he has convict ancestors) and very proud that we’re friendly, respectful and keen to learn. We have so much in common with Indonesians and can work together to improve people’s lives.
“There are still misconceptions and an element that has a poor attitude, but that’s diminishing. I take a positive view.”
At the end of November and days before he left, Newbery was in Surabaya witnessing re-endorsement of the 23-year old sister-state agreement between East Java and Western Australia, the only State that maintains a continuous full-time presence in Indonesia.
Earlier Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a new Asian Century policy to reposition Australian culture and business in their real geographical location, far from Europe.
“This is what I’ve been saying all along,” said Newbery who’s been involved with Indonesia for more than three decades. “For too long we’ve been overflying this country to concentrate on trade elsewhere.
“Investors have taken the view that the Indonesian market is a little bit too difficult, or tricky. It has its characteristics, but it’s not too hard to adjust.”
Newbery, turning 60 and still surfing, said he’s quitting to spend more time with his three children in New South Wales, and because “I’m growing tired and need a year off.
“I might start the day talking milk, then move to beef, followed by mining services, shift to oil and gas and finish the day discussing seed potatoes. In future I’ll be working as an independent advisor on single issues.”
Foremost will be attempts to get Indonesians eating tempe (soy bean cake) using lupins. He’ll be helping the 115,000 strong cottage industries adjust to the new resource and improve processing techniques.
“Overall I’m pleased with what’s been achieved,” Newbery said. “The low point was banning live cattle exports. That should have been handled better, though the Embassy team did a great job.”
Last year the Australian media exposed cruel practices in Indonesian abattoirs. Canberra responded to public outrage by banning exports. When they resumed Jakarta imposed quotas.
Newbery suggested a crisis could have been avoided through both sides agreeing to improve facilities and techniques.
“It was a matter of bad practices that had gone unchecked, not different attitudes towards animal welfare,” he said. “No ban, just a firm action plan.
“Indonesia has become too self-protective. Food security is good, but the way it’s being done is too tough and complex.
“We’re the most efficient cattle breeders and Indonesia the most efficient cattle feeders – we can work together and create a meat export industry. We’re not stealing customers; we’re supplementing your production to meet demand.”
Newbery’s role hasn’t been confined to boardrooms. He’s helped premier soccer squad Perth Glory and several basket ball teams play in the Republic.
Going the other way have been santri (religious students) looking at agricultural colleges. “When people meet people, business falls out of the encounter,” he said.
The WA government closed its Surabaya office after it was trashed during the East Timor 1999 referendum protests and moved it to Kuningan.
Newbery said it should shift back to Surabaya “if for no other reason than it’s so time wasting trying to mover around Jakarta.” His position will be temporarily filled by agri-business advisor Kellie-Jane Pritchard.
Deputy Premier Dr Kim Hames said Newbery had been a “fantastic representative” for the State. NGO special needs schools activist Trisha Henderson praised Newbery for holding governments to their aid commitments.
“I’ll be back, particularly during southern winters,” said the phone phobic who prefers eye contact to iPad. “Indonesia’s my second home.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 10 December 2012)