The Jakarta Post
The scent of shredded pandanus leaves was in the air and the soothing sounds of gamelan were playing on her desktop. That rainy Monday afternoon, Retno L.P. Marsudi sat down in her cozy office on the second floor of the Foreign Affairs Ministry building on Jl. Pejambon in Central Jakarta.
“I’m a real Javanese woman — hence the pandanus fragrance and the music,” said Retno, who will leave for The Hague on Thursday to assume the position of Indonesian Ambassador to the Netherlands.
“I’ve packed up all the paintings that used to decorate this office. That’s why the office is looking rather dull now. I’m going to bring them with me to The Hague,” she said.
It is hard not to be in awe of Retno. At 50, she has a thriving diplomatic career, a loving family and a healthy routine that involves praying, swimming and jogging. She maintains her body, mind and soul with ease while tackling international issues “24 hours a day and seven days a week”.
“I jog about five kilometers every day. On the weekend, I will swim right after my jogging routine. I can swim one hour nonstop,” she enthused, adding that she also often trades her power suit for comfortable sports attire when transiting at foreign airports.
“I actually will leave an airport for one hour of exercise during transit. Jogging is also the first thing I do when I arrive in a foreign city. It helps me adapt better with the new environment, and is a very effective way to kill the jet lag,” she explained.
Living a hectic life is nothing new for Retno. Since her first day working at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 1986, she understood clearly that she wasn’t going to have a nine-to-five job.
“It is a very demanding job in terms of working hours. Considering the time differences between Jakarta and offices in other parts of the world, everyone working at the Ministry must stay alert at any given time,” she said.
Retno said that she wouldn’t be able to stay on top of her game if it wasn’t for the sincere understanding provided by her family. She said that her architect husband and two adult sons — one works for the Boston Consulting Group and the other is in medical school at Gadjah Mada University — are everything to her.
“I have never been a person who forgets her roots,” said Retno, adding, “I’m quite lucky to have a family that can act as my reality check — they keep me grounded. They are all amazingly kind people.”
But other than her family, she also credited the well-implemented gender mainstreaming policy at the Foreign Affairs Ministry as a major factor in her success. In 2005, Retno wrote an article about the increasing number of new women diplomats in The Jakarta Post.
“In 2004, out of the 98 new diplomats, 47 were women. This figure is almost the same in the year 2005, in which 48 out of 97 diplomats were women. The trend remains until today. These figures are a definite indication of the improving quality of women diplomats and the success of gender mainstreaming in our Ministry,” she said.
Born in 1962, Retno said she grew up in an environment that appreciated core Javanese values. One of the values that she still holds dearly is eling, a Javanese word best described as wise, alert and humble. Staying true to the concept of eling has kept her grounded, which isn’t always easy if you are a successful, globe-trotting young diplomat.
The Hague is not a foreign place for Retno. In 1997, Retno was sent to the Indonesian Embassy there to work as a first secretary in the economics department. In a relatively short period of time she catapulted to the head of the economics department — a position she held until 2001.
“I was asked to come back to Jakarta in 2001. My duty in Jakarta was to tackle environmental issues at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. 2001 was indeed the turning point in my career, as I was soon promoted as the Director for Europe and America at the Foreign Affairs Ministry,” she explained.
Two years later, Retno scored the coveted position of Western European Director. And in 2005, she was dispatched to Oslo to head the Indonesian Embassy for Norway and Iceland.
“I was 42 or 43 years old at that time — a relatively young age for an ambassador. But before I completed my term in Oslo, I was called back to Jakarta to become the General Director for America and Europe at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. I have to say that I have been very blessed in terms of my career,” she said.
Now, almost 15 years after her first assignment in The Hague, she is going back as the head of the Indonesian Embassy. By far, this is the most monumental point in Retno’s career.
“With bilateral trade amounting to up to US$5 billion annually, the Netherlands is one of Indonesia’s biggest allies in the world. Therefore, the embassy in The Hague is one of the most important foreign representatives for Indonesia. It is a huge responsibility for me, but I’m forever grateful for the opportunity and trust,” she said.
“As mandated by the President, diplomacy that concerns economic growth will be the focus of Indonesian diplomats in the Netherlands,” said Retno.
Asked to comment on the shift of economic and political power from Europe and America to Asia, Retno suggested that Indonesia maintains its stable engagement with both Europe and America.
“Sure, the crisis in America and Europe hasn’t shown any significant improvement. But we should maintain our engagement with them. I believe that the intensification of our engagement with Asia doesn’t have to come at the expense of our relationship with Europe and America. I believe that behind every hurdle there’s opportunity,” she said, diplomatically.
Is there any diplomat from whom she has learned a lesson or two?
“There are a lot of people from whom I learn. Pak Sabam Siagian, former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post who became the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, I learned about accuracy and aptitude in disseminating information. I learned that critical analysis is needed when reporting a situation that happened more than a day earlier,” she said.
“I learned to be a gracious diplomat from Pak Ali Alatas. I learned to keep my head cool when facing problems from Pak Hassan Wirajuda. I also learned what it means to fight for national interests from Pak Arizal Effendi,” she shared.
But as a female diplomat, Retno reckoned that there are some instinctive qualities that give her the upper hand in executing her job.
“It is easy to conclude that diplomacy is ideally suited for men. However, there are critical components in diplomacy that women are born with. These components include loyalty, empathy, prudence and meticulousness,” she said.
Good luck in the new post, Ibu Retno!