When I took up the appointment in 2007 I wasn’t given any specific objectives, other than maintaining the good relations that have marked our 50 years presence in Wellington, and improving Indonesia’s profile.
I decided the embassy had to be active, like a corporation out to make a profit. I demanded and got more funds and have spent a lot of time using my position to push Indonesian manufacturers to lift their game by expanding into export markets.
That hasn’t been easy. Once they heard that New Zealand (NZ) has only around 4 million people some companies didn’t see the need to make the effort.
One food additive manufacturer told me that he could sell more products in Bogor, so why bother?
So I decided to do things the other way around and take NZ businesspeople to Indonesia. That’s yielded results. We now have NZ retailers importing outdoor furniture, shoes, clothes and other consumer products from Indonesia.
In some cases our goods, like women’s clothing, are more expensive than those sourced from China. But I’ve been able to show that Indonesian materials are higher quality, and that counts when selling to the Western world.
NZ exports huge quantities of dairy foods to Indonesia and around the world, and does so very efficiently. But any Tom and Jerry can produce milk.
The art is to find the niche markets for products like gourmet cheeses and milks. There are millions of Indonesians like me who are prepared to pay for high quality foods.
There’s still a long way to go, but bilateral trade has expanded enormously. It was worth NZ$1.2 billion (Rp 7.8 trillion) in 2006. Now it’s almost doubled to NZ$2.2 billion (Rp 14.2 trillion).
There’s a great deal of goodwill towards Indonesia in NZ. It hasn’t always been that way. Indonesia’s profile as a nation ruled undemocratically by the authoritarian government of former president Soeharto was not well received by Kiwis.
When I first went to Wellington I didn’t realize the level of egalitarianism in NZ, and the dislike of nepotism, bribery and corruption.
It’s critical that Indonesian diplomats and official visitors go out of their way to mix with Kiwis and get to understand ordinary people, and not just government officials.
New Zealanders can be frank and direct, but that’s OK. You know exactly what they think. They are friendly and discrimination and racism is almost non-existent.
In attempts to establish pathways to ASEAN, some NZ prime ministers visited the Republic during the Soeharto administration and former president Soeharto came to NZ in 1972. But the real breakthrough came when the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) visited NZ in 2000.
Kiwis warmed to his humanity and liberalism. They said: “This blind guy can be a president? We had no idea Indonesia was so different.” They became aware that the authoritarian era had passed and Indonesia had become the most democratic nation in Asia.
Then came the tragedy of the 2004 tsunami. Kiwis are emotional and sentimental people and responded with great generosity. People in the streets were collecting money for the victims.
In 2005 President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono came to Wellington and two years later former prime minister Helen Clark made a serious trip to our country, despite Australian travel warnings.
At this stage official relations between Indonesia and NZ are at their warmest. Sadly, many businesses are failing to seize the openings these visits have created, particularly with education follow-ups.
NZ must capture the opportunities in education. Indonesian students seeking to study abroad provide a big market.
NZ schools and universities say they want overseas students but to be frank they’re not doing enough to attract Indonesians. Maybe it’s the Commonwealth syndrome where efforts are concentrated on countries like Malaysia and Singapore, when Indonesia is NZ’s nearest ASEAN neighbor.
Or perhaps it’s because to most Kiwis, Asia is China and huge efforts have been put into developing contacts and trade with that country.
There are 20,000 Indonesians studying in Australia. That figure is 50 times larger than the number of Indonesians in NZ schools and universities.
However we have already helped develop school and teacher exchange programs and these are progressing well.
Look at the long-term benefits of building contacts and networks in international relations through education.
Vice President Boediono, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and the President’s youngest son Edhie Baskoro have all been educated in Australia.
Yet NZ has a very high standard of education, providing students with a clean environment and costs are relatively lower. This isn’t just an academic observation. My children attended schools in Wellington and one daughter will return to study economics at university this year.
The other good news is that more Kiwis are visiting Indonesia. Garuda is planning to reopen its NZ service and should have flights to Auckland from Jakarta and Denpasar via Brisbane early next year.
Another area I’ve been keen to promote is the earth sciences. NZ is a leader in geothermal energy and can help us a lot.
Like Indonesia NZ is on the Ring of Fire and subject to earthquakes. The country experiences more than 14,000 tremors every year. NZ has been developing new technology to help soften the impact of big quakes and strengthen public buildings.
We organized a conference in Jakarta two years ago that was attended by a large number of Kiwi scientists explaining how they do things. Also present was the NZ Minister of Civil Defense and our Minister of Foreign Affairs.
A similar workshop in Yogyakarta was conducted a year later. As a result a new Geo Sciences Center will be opened at the University of Gadjah Mada.
Against these positives have been the problems of perception. Some still see Indonesia as a nation of extremists. Just when I think I’ve convinced people otherwise there’s been another bombing and I’ve had to start all over again.
The converse is that NZ is thought to be a part of Australia. There should be a NZ – RI Friendship Association. Similar organizations have been established by Germany and Japan in Jakarta. USINDO (United States-Indonesia Society) is another excellent model.
I don’t know whether I’ll go back to politics or teaching, but I’d really like to continue with the diplomatic service. We’ll see.
The writer is the Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand.