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The death of reforms in the foreign ministry

  • Djoko Susilo

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, August 19, 2014 | 09:50 am

The Foreign Ministry celebrates on Tuesday its 69th birthday, making it as old as the Indonesian state. Established just two days after the declaration of independence, it was clear evidence that our founding fathers considered the diplomatic front essential for our struggle out of colonialism.

From its inception in 1945, until early 2000, the ministry had faced problems, especially in supporting Indonesia'€™s diplomacy abroad. It took the courage of Hassan Wirajuda when he was appointed foreign minister in 2004 to reform and overhaul it.

Hassan initiated, developed and executed reforms within the ministry, which unfortunately ended with Minister Marty Natalegawa: no more foreign policy breakfasts, no more prestigious foreign policy lectures and no more regular meetings with prominent community and ministry leaders.

When I was in the foreign relations committee of the legislature, I was intrigued by the reforms proposed and executed by then minister Hassan. As a career diplomat, Hassan knew very well the ministry'€™s mechanisms as well as those of the embassies. Previously, the Foreign Ministry was like a kingdom with the minister isolated in his office like a king.

Ambassadors were also isolated, while the running of the embassy was in the hands of the administrative chiefs who were not career diplomats but enjoyed the same diplomatic immunity and controlled the embassies'€™ purse strings. Many diplomats complained over the lack of funds for their programs, but at the end of the year, some administrative staffers could collect considerable '€œdividends'€.

Before the reforms, diplomats hardly knew how much money there was for programs relating to their postings.

They could not be expected to give sufficient protection to Indonesian citizens in their accredited countries, as getting by with their monthly pay alone was difficult, such as in Europe where they were paid in US dollars. It was worse in other non-Euro currency countries like Switzerland.

Many young diplomats, including Marty, became '€œHassan Wirayudha'€™s golden boys'€.

When I arrived in Bern in early 2010, US$1 was equivalent to 1.14 Swiss francs, but a year later $1 was only 0.70 Swiss francs. So with the same amount of benefits in US dollars we actually got 40 percent less purchasing power in Swiss francs. When I met Marty at Zurich airport, I reported staff difficulties in paying rents, utilities and so on.

Marty looked shocked when I said I would send home all the diplomats'€™ families and he reminded me that overseas postings was a state duty for them. I argued that with such a large drop in purchasing power we could not live in Switzerland with our families.

The reforms by former minister Hassan stressed structural changes within the ministry and embassies, while training and promotion became based on merit and competency, rather than on seniority.

As a result, many young diplomats, including Marty, became '€œHassan Wirayudha'€™s golden boys'€. Marty was promoted rapidly as the ministry spokesperson.

He was then appointed as a director general for ASEAN Affairs, as ambassador to the United Kingdom, as ambassador to the UN in New York and finally replaced Hassan himself as minister.

So naturally Marty faced high expectations that he would continue all the ministry'€™s reforms. Yet the organization has become obsolete and irrelevant. The new diplomats selected from thousands of applicants every year from the best graduates of the best universities soon became frustrated.

First, there is no clear career development path. Many feel discrimination, especially in the financial department and internal affairs (BPKRT). Some of them even protested in social media. Second, there is no strong support for diplomats to carry out their programs. The embassies almost ceased their trade and cultural promotions because of budget cuts under Minister Marty.

President-elect Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo wants Indonesian diplomats abroad, especially the ambassadors, to be sales persons for Indonesian products. It'€™s a noble program, but the problems are not with the capabilities of the embassies and the ambassadors with all their diplomatic staff, the problem lies with the leadership of Marty, who has a serious communication problem with the ministry'€™s top officials and with most of the ambassadors.

In 2012, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instructed that all Indonesian ambassadors should send him five-page long quarterly reports through the ministry. It worked only for a few months.

The President also instructed that all ambassadors work harder to promote Indonesian trade, tourism and investment to his or her accredited country and nothing happened '€” owing to the budget cuts.

Ironically when Hassan stepped down as foreign minister, the ministry'€™s annual budget was about $560 million and now after five years the budget is below $500 million. Marty ordered the opening of more embassies and consulates, which meant more budget cuts for other embassies and consulates abroad.

It is impossible to draw more investments and tourists without more promotion. Take the embassy in Bern, where I was ambassador from 2010 to 2014: Although Indonesia has had bilateral relations with the Swiss Confederation since long time ago, it was only in 2013 that the embassy was able to participate in the country'€™s biggest trade and tourism promotion in Basel, the MUBA.

It took 60 years to do a major trade and tourism promotion in Switzerland and I believe that more than half of the 130 Indonesian embassies and consulates abroad have never held a major exhibition to promote Indonesia.

Assigning ambassadors abroad as salespeople is a very good idea, but I do not believe it will succeed if Marty remains foreign minister.

Jokowi should replace him with a professional, whether a career diplomat or an academician, who will commit to continue the reforms previously laid out by former minister Hassan.

Jokowi should also begin a '€œmental revolution'€ within the ministry to avoid further frustration and disorientation among members of Indonesia'€™s diplomatic corps.

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The writer is a former ambassador to Switzerland and a former lawmaker.

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