Shortly after arriving in Wellington the new Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand, Antonius Agus Sriyono was introduced to a senior public servant.
“Just call me Tony,” said the casual Kiwi. Fortunately the newcomer had researched his posting well. He’d read about egalitarianism Down Under so wasn’t too nonplussed.
“I’d discovered this culture of informality grew out of the first settlements [in the early 19th century] when immigrants had to build their own houses and do everything themselves whatever job they’d had in their home country,” he said.
“This was the first time I’d encountered such familiarity in my 26 years as a diplomat. Usually it’s deferential, ‘sir’ or ‘excellency’. As a Javanese I know all about protocols. But I replied: ‘OK, just call me Agus’.”
This anecdote might give the impression that the Archipelago’s new man in the South Pacific (his responsibilities include Samoa and Tonga) is so laid back and adaptable that his Embassy is a retirement waiting lounge for burnt-out bureaucrats.
When he got the job his colleagues in Jakarta congratulated Agus on being appointed to a position where the occupations would be golf, fishing and sleeping.
He’s relaxed — but that’s not a synonym for slack. “I play a little golf but only at weekends,” he said.
“I don’t fish and I’m happy with six hours sleep. Everyone has to be here by 9 a.m. and many are still working at night.”
As darkness doesn’t come till after 9 p.m. during summer and Jakarta is six hours behind Wellington, recreation time for staff is going to be in short supply if the 15th ambassador to New Zealand maintains the pace.
His priorities are getting more Indonesian workers into New Zealand (tough because language levels must be high and jobs scarce), more post-graduate students into New Zealand universities (difficult because Australia’s the favored destination) — and the top issue, improving trade.
In this task he faces several hurdles: Indonesia imports almost NZ$ 900 million (US$680 million) worth of goods from New Zealand, mostly primary produce. But the reverse trade, mainly petroleum and paper, is worth only NZ$ 570 million ($430 million).
New Zealand is the international leader in dairy farming and grassland management. Agus said he was keen to get these skills into Indonesia to boost local supplies as the population consumes more milk — as opposed to milk powder. He’s initiating talks with Fonterra, the dairy cooperative that buys and processes most milk in New Zealand, to encourage investment in the Republic.
The second is that many business heavyweights in Indonesia think the New Zealand market with only 4.25 million people is too small to warrant their attention. Agus counters that although consumers are few they’ve got full wallets.
Then there’s the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between New Zealand and Indonesia, which has not been completely signed off despite being approved almost two years ago. The problem, according to Agus, is that Indonesia still subsidizes some forms of agriculture while New Zealand farming is free of government support.
Also caught up in the FTA dispute is the working holiday scheme, which would allow young people
to spend a year in each other’s countries earning, touring and hopefully developing understanding of other cultures.
The scheme already operates between New Zealand and Malaysia, Singapore and China, along with many European countries.
“Smart but poor people who would benefit from using these visas don’t have the money for air fares to go abroad,” Agus said. “We’ve got to find a way to get around this difficulty. I don’t want to see only the rich get such opportunities.”
If there have been any hiccups in Agus’s career they get swiftly swallowed. He was born in Magelang, Central Java in 1957 where his parents were teachers keen for their talented lad to join them at the chalkboard.
But Agus had other ideas. He’d always been a leader, even in school. He went to Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta graduating in international relations. After three years working in public relations for the property development company Ciputra Group he joined Foreign Affairs in 1984.
Donning the dark suit and entering the high priesthood of diplomacy fulfilled a long held ambition to master the refined arts of subtle statespeak.
“I’d always been interested in history,” he said, “I don’t know why — maybe it’s in my genes. I have about 3,000 books in my library. Many are about leadership.
“I tell my staff they must learn to lead, to communicate effectively and clearly in speech and writing. They must mingle with the local people. They must have 1,000 friends — and no enemies. They must separate the personal from the professional.”
He’s had one book published — a text on international relations — and is now a third of the way through writing a book on the Cold War. Apart from English his language skills include Dutch (his first posting was in The Hague and his parents spoke Dutch), French, Portuguese and some Russian.
Agus’s last post before Wellington was Moscow where he was deputy chief of mission for two years.
With his wife Astuti Retno Widiati Sriyono he has three children. One son is a diplomat in Australia, another a journalist with Tempo magazine in Jakarta and a daughter at school in New Zealand.
“I am conscious that Indonesia ranks 111 on the International Corruption Index and that New Zealand is the least corrupt country in the world,” he said. “I have zero tolerance of corruption and that applies to myself.
“One must have integrity. I learned that from my parents, and it was reinforced by the late Ali Alatas [foreign minister under the Soeharto regime]. I worked for him as a private assistant. He was my hero.”
But successful diplomacy requires compromise. Doesn’t that cause difficulties?
“No problem, I’m a Javanese. I’m lucky — I come from the majority ethnic group and the minority religion. [He’s Catholic.]
“All diplomatic actions should be based on inter-cultural understanding of other countries and their history. I’m committed to fixing problems. What I preach is what I do and I try to do my best. I want to be a good listener. [He is.] Every night I pray: ‘God, I put myself in your hands’.
“There have been ups and downs but I’ve never regretted my career choice. Emotionally, rationally and professionally it’s a most satisfying job and I don’t expect this to be my last posting.”