Thursday, 23 January 2014

Home is Where the Heart Is...

Being stationed away from Pejambon, my diplomat friends and I at the Office of the Special Staff for International Affairs of the President constantly look forward to the opportunity for contacts with our colleagues “back home”.  For work, we’re always in touch with Kemluers, but the truth is that we sometimes crave for non-substantial interactions.  The chit chats, carefree bantering, and inconsequential discussions of life, both as diplomats and civil servants, which most often take place at the glorious Kantin Panas.  Like any social animal, we crave the notion of being part of (to borrow ASEAN’s term) a caring and sharing community.

Sade and his QuAs
So, the arrival of new editions of QuAs magazine is always eagerly anticipated.  Over the years, Kemlu has released numerous publications: journals, analyses, bulletins, and magazines.  But most of these have been public diplomacy approaches, aimed at informing the general public of our foreign policy efforts and achievements.  QuAs is slightly different, focusing mainly on the challenges Kemlu faces in our strive for internal reform.  As such, QuAs is very much a publication about Kemlu, by Kemluers, and for Kemluers.

In its most recent issue, appreciation should be given to efforts in raising an issue that is at the heart of countless discussions at the Ministry: human resources management, or its supposed lack thereof.   For many of us, admitting shortcomings is acceptable, if not, a must.  But for an institution to confess its own shortcomings, now that requires some nerve.  Often, we like to say that we are open to criticisms, especially if they’re “constructive ones”.  But the truth is that criticisms are bitter, and generally unwanted.  This then begs the question: can we get over this bitterness to see a brighter light?

My father, an ex-Kemluer, always told me that the relationship between a worker and his/her job is akin to that between a boy and a girl (note that I have nothing against same-sex relationships).  For the boy, the hardest part in any courtship is actually not the act of winning the girl over (the cutest around).  Yes, it will require a significant amount of charm, intelligence, diligence, and next month’s lunch money.  But many times, the catch happens faster than one expects. Instead, the hardest part is maintaining this relationship, making it last for as long as you imagined it would be.

Tari and her QuAs
At the Ministry, human resource management often begins with an appraisal (more often, appreciation-cum-boasting) of the recruitment process.  On how the process has achieved an ISO.  On the quality of people that made it through the ordeal, and of course, the thousands others that heartbreakingly could not be accommodated.  But unfortunately, such an appraisal many times ends just there. 

A relationship needs to be worked on endlessly.  There are duties and responsibilities; but there are also rights and rewards.  Honour and respect go both ways, and should be demonstrated before they are even demanded.  While a certain degree of comfort must be achieved, one cannot be so overly comfortable that one begins to take things for granted.  And while there may be certain codes and guidelines towards a successful career, there must also be room allowed for personal development.  Human resource management goes beyond recruitment.  That’s only the first, and probably, easiest part.  The rest is more complicated, and occupies a disproportionately large part of any person’s career.

At the beginning our careers, we at the Ministry are made to believe that we are “la crème de la crème” of the country’s workforce.  We are forced to assume that the fate of 242 billion people depends on us.  Well, telling your girlfriend that she is pretty is heartwarming.  Sometimes it could even land you a score.  But it can be tiring, and after years of it, she would want more than just being a pretty partner to you.  She would probably want material goods and spiritual fulfillment.  And most importantly, she would want a sense of stability that goes beyond words of assurances.  If you expect her to carry and give birth to the most precious things in your life, you better be willing to also put in your part of the bargain.

At the same time, there must also be a recognition that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.  The temptations to jump across are innumerable.  But this does not necessarily translate into people jumping over the fence by the hordes.  There are always reasons to stay, some more logical than others. 

Undoubtedly, there is pride in representing your country at the international stage.  There is also pride in wanting to be part of making this country a better place.  If I was an engineer, I’d probably take part in building Indonesia’s largest, most high-tech, energy efficient, eco-friendly and stylish government building.  But when I started university, they told that the international relations program had the best looking girls on campus.  Even now, at a mature age, I’d still make the same decision as when I was only 18.

Andy and his QuAs
The problem is that for the most part of Kemlu’s history (at least my history with Kemlu, and that’s like 38 years), we have been taught that the reason to make a living as a diplomat is “the glory of servitude”, or in plain Indonesian: pengabdian.  In a boy-girl relationship, that translates into “love”. But who lives just on love these days; don’t be naïve.

The heart needs nourishment.  It doesn’t feed on promises of better things; it needs things to actually get better.  It doesn’t need glory, because glorious moments are always born out of pain; even when glory is achieved, the pain never really heals.  And it doesn’t thrive on servitude, because a life of servitude is often bundled with anger, resentment, and contempt.  Home is where the heart is, and to make a home, you require more than just a door and four walls.

And so, for most boys, it’s not enough to say that your girlfriend is pretty.  And for most girls, maybe handsomeness is not the only attribute worth looking for in a boy.  If this was the case, I would’ve been out of luck all my life.  There are always more handsome guys out there.  But if you value your partner more than just for their looks, then those other handsome guys out there probably wouldn’t mean a thing.  And this should be one of the ways that Kemlu and its workers could try in addressing the human resource management problem at hand; by giving the workers more reasons to stay, not taking things for granted, and stop thinking that a job in Kemlu is God’s sent.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Three Years and Three Days

Book Review

Jacqueline Kent, Take Your Best Shot : The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard
ISBN: 9780143570561

What if Labour was in power…?

Ow come on, admit it.  With all the recent problems besieging Indonesia-Australia relations, it is difficult not to be asking this question.  Of course, as officials, we are not supposed to show any preference towards one government or another.  That would be “intruding on domestic politics”, a taboo in diplomacy.  Then again, for ages, western diplomats have officially indicated their preference for which South American, Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian leaders should be in power.  And many times, they were even willing to go to war over this.

Book cover
I’m only human, and being human means having doubts, and of course, having preferences.  I remember once writing in an essay on political theory: “contendo ergo sum”, I compare therefore I am.  And when I look at how difficult relations have become between Indonesia and Australia, I can’t help but imagine how things would be if it wasn’t the Coalition government now in Canberra making the calls on Australian foreign policy towards Indonesia.

It was with these thoughts in my mind that I read Jacqueline Kent’s Take Your Best Shot: The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard in three (or was it four) sittings.

Yes, Julia Gillard.  I know most people would probably associate recent images of the ALP with Kevin Rudd. However, I’ve always felt a certain admiration for the smart, sharp-looking Ms. Gillard.  Ok, Rudd speaks Chinese, and that certainly makes him cool.  But somehow Gillard would be the person I’d chose as my boss (if I could ever choose bosses).

There’s a personal memory that will always remind me of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister.  On December 20, 2011, just as I watched Ms. Gillard meet President SBY (less than 10 meters away from me) for the first ever Indonesia-Australia Annual Leaders Meeting in Bali, my pregnant wife called me and told me that her water just broke.  It was a moment in my life.    And sure enough, 20 hours later, Gaia Veronika was born.  I had thought of naming her Julia, but Gaia sounded close enough to Julia, I figured.

Anyways, back to the book, Kent has previously written a biography of Julia.  And so, early in the book, she admitted the possibility of a certain bias, as she pictures Ms. Gillard as Cate Blanchett’s Queen Elizabeth in that 1998 Oscar winning movie.  I didn’t mind this at all, because I think there has been just too much bias against Ms. Gillard throughout her leadership of the Australian government.

Kent writes that Ms. Gillard was frequently criticized for being a “nuts-and-bolts legislator, a fixer of problems, rather than a prime minister with large vision”.  Many times, visionary leaders are well loved by the people.  But there are also moments when the people do get tired of big words, and wish that leaders would just get down to work. 

The book is not meticulously detailed, but provides an excellent overview of the challenges that Ms. Gillard faced throughout her three years and three days stay at the top of the Australian government.  It talks about her battles with other legislators on issues such as climate change, finance and education.  It highlights her success in a passing a sleuth of clean energy bills, achieving something that great politicians like John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull and even Kevin Rudd couldn’t do, especially not with a minority government.

The book also goes into an issue that often pits Australia against its northern neighbours: asylum seekers.  Remaining conservative on this issue (unlike Mr. Rudd and his ideal of a “big Australia”), Ms. Gillard put forward the need for border management and a sustainable immigration policy.  At the same time, she showed interest in the possibility of working towards a regional solution to the problem. 

Of course, the book looks into two issues that seem to highlight Ms. Gillard’s term in office: her supposed inability to convey the successes of her government to the public, and her protracted battle with Kevin Rudd.

On her cold, Elizabethan public image, Kent argues that Julia is actually an eloquent speaker, who narrates in a logical and systematic way.  However, her problem is that she prefers to make these speeches at the Parliament, and not in front of the media cameras. Her government had to explain complex policies to a generally resistant public, while at the same time faced the challenges of an Opposition leader who was skilled in crafting “slogans” and a media unskilled in reporting nuance.  This kinda reminds me of Indonesia today.

And on dealing with Kevin Rudd, Kent describes the removal of Mr. Rudd was as swift as the Iraqi invasion.  However, like that invasion, it was followed by a long period of unpredictability and instability.  While Ms. Gillard is portrayed by Kent in a generously favourable manner, the undertone was obvious: the implosion of the ALP leadership.  Like that really popular REM song, “Everybody hurts…”

As I finished the book, I felt my honest respect towards Ms. Gillard confirmed.  Apparently, being a female Prime Minister is not easy, even in a country as democratic and egalitarian as Australia. And more so, because she didn’t feel the need to ensure a legacy by smiling pretty to the media.  Because, like she said, “chasing popularity would be the death of purpose”.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Making a Choice

Book Review

Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power
ISBN: 9781863956093

Recently, the growing rivalry between China and Japan has dominated discussions on Asia-Pacific affairs.  There was China’s announcement on ADIZ, which was then countered by Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.  With both sides claiming that they are presently experiencing one of the lowest points of their bilateral relations, we in Southeast Asia can only hope that there would be some breakthroughs to bring back confidence and stability to the regional outlook.

Hardcover version
But somehow the growing tensions between China and Japan seem only a reflection of the bigger rivalry existing in the Asia-Pacific (or in the world as a whole): the China-US rivalry.  Yes, Japan is vying for greater influence in international affairs.  And yes, Japan is one of the strongest economies in the world.  But Japan is a US ally, whose security is dependent on this North American hegemon.  And so, when we talk about the China-Japan rivalry within the context of regional peace and security, then it is rather obvious that the US’ hands are deep in this melee.

Many academic and journalistic works have been written, discussed, and undergone criticisms on the US-China rivalry.  Naturally, some are more enlightened than others.  But all of them have been meaningful additions to the pool of knowledge on the study of contemporary Asia-Pacific regional studies.  As a life-long student, I can only appreciate these academic and journalistic works, one of which can be found in The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power.

Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, argues that there are more than two choices for the US in its dealing with the Chinese.  Of course, the first two choices are commonly known: to confront the Chinese (as a means to preserve American dominance over the region) OR to allow China’s rise to dominance in the region (while hoping that China will not have any tendency to cause conflict, particularly with the US). 

In this fantastic book, White elaborates on a third choice for the US, and that is to share power with China.  He argues that both China and the US have every capacity to deny leadership to the other.  However, for one of them to single-handedly, truly dominate the Asia-Pacific, that would almost be impossible. As a result, the idea of the US maintaining uncontested leadership in the region is as illusory as the fear that China will one day be at the top of the Asia-Pacific, alone and unchallenged.

There is Cold War-like belief among many Americans that countries in the Asia-Pacific could somehow be wooed into siding with them.  “An aggressive and hegemonic China would not be good for the region”, they would say, “Thus, justifying any effort to limit China’s power.”  However, the truth is that many countries in the region view the world from a more complex set of lenses, and not just the black-and-white perspective offered by the Americans. White explains that unlike the situation with the Soviets, many Asia-Pacific countries “have much to gain from China economically, and little to fear politically”.

Kindle version
Indeed, many Americans may think that preventing China from disrupting the regional order is beneficial not only in securing their own interests, but also those of the entire region (how noble..!).  However, as White argues, the Chinese see “a parallel, but opposite symmetry”.  They believe that China is seeking to remedy the long injustices that have been dealt to them, especially by foreign powers, both western and Asian.  Therefore, any power that intends to preserve the status quo regional order is in fact perpetuating these injustices.  Not only for the Chinese, but also for the other Asia-Pacific countries that have not entirely benefitted from the US’s regional dominance.

What White proposes is a new concert of Asia, which is loosely modeled on the Concert of Europe that existed between 1815 and 1914.  Admittedly, the Concert of Europe was not perfect.  There was still conflict during those times, including the war for German unification.  Worse of all, the regional order then ended in a devastating bang: the First World War.  However, as a whole, conflicts among Great Powers were avoided because each Great Power recognized that they must not seek dominance over the entire region.  And most importantly, during that period, Europe experienced a massive growth in the economic, social, and political fields.

The Asian version of this concert would have four “Great Powers” as the prime movers of the region: the US, China, Japan, and India.  Then there would be “middle powers” such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia (surprisingly, White didn’t mention anything about Australia) completing the hierarchy of power.  White goes on to argue that Indonesia, if it continues to grow the way it has, has every potential to end up as an additional “true” Great Power some time down the line. 

The rules of this concert sound simple:

First, each power must accept the legitimacy of the other power’s political system.  In other words, for the Americans, no more trying to cause (or make appear as though there are) domestic instabilities in China. 
Second, by agreeing to disagree, each power must be willing to make concessions in order to achieve resolutions through peaceful negotiations.
Third, each power must allow the others to build up their armaments, and allow the use of them if there are forces challenging their status as a “great power”.
And fourth, the powers must be able to develop a “code of conduct” that would “govern” their interactions with one another.

Of course, this perspective is far from perfect.  In fact, it has many holes.  For one, as an Indonesian, I would yell out: “Where’s Indonesia in all of this?”  Indonesia may not have the many of capacities owned by the Chinese or the Americans.  But we are the largest country and economy in Southeast Asia, and a leader in ASEAN.  In fact, I’ll yell out again: “What will happen to ASEAN and its regional architecture then?”

In this regard, White may have not sold me entirely on his idea.  But one thing that I do appreciate is his willingness to go outside of the box and propose an alternative to the rut that we are presently in.  I feel that there must be more than two choices to deal with China.  Choices other than confronting China head-on OR appeasing China’s rise to regional dominance.  There must be.  And while the argument proposed in this book may not be entirely convincing, it does present us with some food for thought, and importantly, stimuli for future thinking on the topic of China-US rivalry.

Personally, I believe that Indonesia is a middle power, for now, and maybe even in the long run.  However, that should not relegate its participation in the region (or even the “Concert of Asia”) to insignificance.  Maybe there should be analyses of what a middle power status could truly mean in a “Concert of Asia”.  On what counts as a middle power.  Maybe then I would be more willing to explore further this proposal. 

Time may not be on our side, as White says.  If China’s power keep on growing the way it is doing now, then its economy would be bigger than the US’ and its military more capable of keeping up with the Americans’.  Therefore, it is in the US’ interests to negotiate a new relationship with China, before the power balance further shift in China’s way.  In this regard, the urgency of this process is also in the interest of other countries in the region, including Indonesia.