By SGN | 1 June 2021
Going Where New Opportunities Are in Bloom
A “day in the life” of the Ambassador involves discussions with colleagues as well as our Indonesian interlocutors, preparing reports and inputs for our ‘consumers’ in HQ; and expanding our network of contacts and friends in Indonesia.
We also regularly engage the Singaporean community in Indonesia. All of this underpins one of the most important responsibilities for our team in Indonesia – to strengthen mutual understanding and cooperation between the Governments, businesses and peoples of Singapore and Indonesia.
I have had the privilege of serving at the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta twice in my foreign service career – the first time, as a much younger Foreign Service Officer (FSO) on his first overseas assignment, from 1995-2000; and in my current assignment, from 2012 to the present.
Therefore, one responsibility I have is to share the lessons and takeaways from these years in Indonesia with the rest of the team; and in that process, to also tap my colleagues’ own insights and experiences, to improve our collective understanding of Indonesia and the bilateral relationship.
I believe that these shared insights and lessons we gain must provide a solid foundation for the teams that succeed us in the years to come, to do even better in understanding Indonesia and in advancing Singapore’s core interests in this important bilateral relationship.
Tell us a little more about your team at Jakarta Mission
We have a team of over 30 colleagues at Jakarta Mission, comprising Home-Based Staff (i.e. officers posted from Singapore) and Locally-Recruited Staff (LRS). Most of us are from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), but we also have colleagues from our security and economic agencies. The team in Jakarta is one of our larger Overseas Missions, given our deep, longstanding and extensive relationship with Indonesia, a close neighbour.
All of us at Jakarta Mission, as well as our Missions in Batam and Medan, may be considered to be Singapore’s ‘front-line’ in our relationship with Indonesia. Together, we work to strengthen Singapore’s core interests in our relationship with Indonesia in a range of areas, at the Government-to-Government, Business-to-Business and People-to-People levels. In addition, it is our responsibility to assist Singaporeans in Indonesia who might require consular assistance.
When it comes to building relationships, meeting face-to-face is crucial. This is especially so in Indonesia, where business meetings often occur over meals. How did you and your team adapt to these day-to-day working challenges brought on by the pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to the way we live, work, and play. Diplomacy is no exception.
There is no good substitute for face-to-face interaction in diplomacy, since we must continue to build and enhance important relationships. Very often, even a series of virtual meetings might not be as effective in networking and engagement as an in-person meal or two. Therefore, without taking unnecessary risks to health and safety, my colleagues and I have continued with our face-to-face engagements in Indonesia, as far as possible.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 looks set to be with us for some time, and my colleagues and I continue to try and adjust our approach, without compromising the extent and quality of our engagements, as far as possible. For example, during the fasting month of Ramadan in May 2020, we organised a virtual bukber (Indonesian for ‘breaking fast’) with the children of a local orphanage, Yayasan Benih Kebajikan Nusantara Alhasyim.
We have also organised virtual handover ceremonies with Indonesian recipients of COVID-19-related contributions from the Singapore Government. In addition, my tech-savvy colleagues have taken to hosting ‘virtual meals’ for their contacts, including using meal delivery services to send food to their contacts and then eating together while they exchange views on various issues over video conference.
Flexibility – carrying on in the face of sudden and drastic changes – is an important quality that all FSOs must develop. For sure, COVID-19 has had a major impact on how we operate, but this has also forced the team to come up with innovative ways to carry on with our work, with no compromise in terms of quality. This is what we will continue to strive to do.
The pandemic has underscored how important it is to be part of a strong global network. How have Indonesia and Singapore supported each other in this difficult time?
Singapore and Indonesia are not just neighbours, but close friends and partners. We cooperate closely in a range of areas spanning defence and security; trade and investments; and tourism and education. We are stakeholders in each other’s continued stability and success. A successful and prosperous Indonesia will be good for Singapore as well as the region. Correspondingly, there are niche areas in which Singapore continues to be relevant and constructive for Indonesia’s development.
All of this is a reality that we share, which COVID-19 has not changed. On the contrary, COVID-19 has actually demonstrated the depth and extent of this shared reality.
Despite the unprecedented disruptions caused by COVID-19, Singapore was Indonesia’s largest foreign investor in 2020. Our investments in Indonesia increased by approximately 50% from USD 6.5 billion in 2019 to USD 9.8 billion in 2020. In March 2021, the Singapore-Indonesia Bilateral Investment Treaty entered into force, signifying the confidence of the business community to tap Singapore as a launch-pad for their long-term investments in Indonesia.
We have also built on existing models of cooperation to pursue growth in fast-emerging sectors such as the digital economy. In March 2021, Nongsa Digital Town was launched as an expansion of Nongsa Digital Park in Batam (established in 2018), for Singapore and Indonesia to cooperate closely in riding the global ‘digital wave’. As DPM Heng Swee Keat put it during his virtual meeting with Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto in March 2021, Singapore and Indonesia are constantly working on “building bridges” between our two countries, within ASEAN, and globally.
COVID-19 has affected the ease with which Singapore and Indonesia can engage in bilateral exchanges and cooperation. But our two countries have shown that we are up to the challenge, able and willing to work beyond these constraints to move the bilateral relationship forward. As we have succeeded in doing, in decades past.
With the two nations being neighbours, it is not uncommon for Indonesians to work, live, or pursue higher education in Singapore before returning to Indonesia. Could you tell us a little more about how Jakarta Mission engages Singapore university alumni in Indonesia?
In recent years, we have engaged the Singapore university alumni in Indonesia through networking events and seminars, as well as in collaboration with Singapore Global Network (SGN).
For example, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and Indonesia in 2017, Jakarta Mission hosted an Alumni Evening for 130 Indonesian alumni of Singapore’s educational institutions and training programmes. We also participated in a virtual gathering organised by SGN for the leaders of Singapore-affiliated networks in Indonesia in July 2020, as well as SGN’s ‘Coffee Connections’ series of virtual events.
Coffee Connections is a virtual speaker sharing and speed networking event that connects those interested in growing meaningful relationships in Southeast Asia. Join the Singapore Global Network here to join our next Coffee Connections and be updated on other events and opportunities.
We look forward to stepping up our engagement of the alumni chapters this year, through virtual and in-person events where possible.
Any advice for Singaporeans when it comes to building a stronger relationship with our Indonesian friends, whether in a personal or professional capacity?
Indonesians in general are warm and friendly, with a strong desire to be good ‘hosts’, both to guests at their homes, as well as foreigners who visit or live in Indonesia. Indonesians are also keen to learn more about others, which until the onset of COVID-19, had been evident from the growing number of Indonesians who travel abroad for leisure.
Indonesians enjoy visiting Singapore, beyond business or work-related reasons, almost as their ‘home’ away from home. Our tourism figures attest to this – in 2019, Indonesia was the second-largest source of visitor arrivals for Singapore, with 3.11 million tourists; while Singapore was the third-largest source of visitor arrivals for Indonesia, with 1.93 million tourists. Many Indonesians know more than I do about where to get hold of the best cuisine or bargains in Singapore, and have been kind enough to share this useful local knowledge with me!
A common lament my colleagues and I hear from our Indonesian friends and acquaintances is how much they now miss visiting Singapore, due to the travel restrictions arising from COVID-19. I am confident that when normal travel resumes, the flow of people-to-people travel between the two countries will rebound with a ‘vengeance’, to make up for lost time, so to speak.
In my years spent in Indonesia, I continue to learn more and appreciate the depth and extent of Indonesia’s diversity. Therefore, my hope is that Singaporeans, especially our younger Singaporeans, will take the time to understand better the history, language, culture, trends, challenges and opportunities of this important neighbour and longstanding partner. In doing so, we should avoid sweeping generalisations.
I have also come to believe that like people everywhere, Singaporeans and Indonesians can continue to build a strong and meaningful relationship that is based on mutual respect and trust. This will enable us to manage any complications that inevitably arise when there are differences. The positives that we share surpass any complications or difficulties that we might face in this relationship.
Before we go, a more personal question – how do you unwind?
Work at the Embassy often has a 24/7 flow to it; working on weekends and public holidays is almost a given. But this is not a problem. On the contrary, it is part of a learning process that has helped me to appreciate the importance of planning and using my time prudently through the course of a day or week.
What is precious to me is time spent with family – my wife and our two ‘canine companions’. Not to mention a good run on the treadmill, and at least 30 minutes a day for leisure reading, to cleanse and freshen the mind.