DIGITAL ARTICLE | COMMENTARIES by: Duncan Graham
Before losing base support and plunging to earth, Dr Dino Patti Djalal was Indonesia’s highflier.
The cosmopolitan ambassador to the US with a professional wife and three little kids sparkled as the new face of the world’s third largest democracy, a welcome offset to the image of past authoritarian rule.
The republic ranked as a middle power emerging from a chaotic turn-of-the-century revolution but Djalal pushed the positives.
Not through bellicosity but by promoting the archipelago’s rich culture and the policy of its sixth president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), 2to have a million friends and zero enemies.2
Appointed to the most coveted job in foreign affairs at just 45 after a six-year apprenticeship as presidential spokesman, Djalal knew citizens back home were bored by their overseas reps’ talkfests on arcane topics. So he played showman and in 2011 staged the world’s largest angklung performance at the Washington Memorial.
With more than 5,000 people rattling the bamboo tubes to the tune of We Are the World, the diplomat startled – and probably annoyed – his staid US colleagues, but delighted compatriots.
“This recognises our multiculturalism,” he said at the time,
Another initiative was to encourage talented Indonesians who had prospered abroad to help recover their nation’s mana, as they say in New Zealand, meaning honor, respect and status. Much had been trashed during 32 years of despotic rule under second president and army general Soeharto.
In 2012 Djalal set up the world’s first Congress of Indonesian Diasporas in Los Angeles, recognising citizens who had quit their nation to better their lives.
In an elite profession where maintaining stern-faced reticence has been as essential as multilingualism, Djalal was a self-promoter, adding authorship to his CV. Among his nine titles is Nationalism Unggul: Bukan Hanya Slogan (Excellence in Nationalism is More Than a Slogan.)
This pocketbook is more snack than meal, a gallery of selfies with past world leaders, lightened with some self-deprecation:
“I used to be a frog until Rosa kissed me.” (Rosa is his wife and a dentist.)
His maxims don’t strain the brain:
“The worst thing that can happen to 21st century Indonesians is to live in a strong democracy with weak ideals, or to live in a rich country with poor people, or to achieve progress but lose our soul.”
Djalal started life as the son of Soeharto-era diplomat Hasyim Djalal and well up the pyramid.
First degrees in Canada, then a doctorate from the left-leaning London School of Economics. He spent 27 years in government service and was a confidante of the last president; the final assault on the summit just needed the clouds to lift.
Then Djalal made the wrong call. Too sure of his ability and appeal he made a pitch to be a candidate for the 2014 Presidential election.
Joko Widodo, the former Governor of Jakarta and one-time furniture trader with no military background or family ties to the oligarchy but backed by another party, became president.
His priorities were local. He appointed the little-known Ambassador to the Netherlands, Retno Marsudi, as Foreign Minister.
Although Djalal claimed he never joined SBY’s Democratic Party, like Icarus he’d flown too close to the sun of party politics. The wax on his wings melted and he fell far.
“The experience was a cold shower,” Djalal told Strategic Review in his Jakarta-based NGO where he’s trying to develop a new persona. “I got a sudden sense of my limitations, of what could be done.”
Too young to retire to a golf course and too energetic to settle into an academic life, Djalal faced a dilemma: how to get back into foreign affairs when the big game is played by governments on track 1?
How about track 2, the unofficial “backdoor diplomacy” used by NGOs, companies and altruistic individuals? Unable to threaten sanctions or bombs their only tools are trust and words.
He also had to move at speed. Fame perishes fast – “former” is a giveaway adjective in the top line of a resume. In 2012 he’d won a Marketeer of the Year award. Two years later the last product on the shelf was himself.
Djalal opened the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) at a Jakarta suburban address so drab he cooked up excuses to meet contacts elsewhere.
The shame-days have gone. A supporter offered space in a South Jakarta high-rise with a towering Salvador Dali bronze Homage to Newton in the marble lobby – grand enough to comfort VIPs.
Officially opened by Marsudi in May, the FPCI’s School of Diplomacy offers modules in speech writing and public speaking, workshops on geopolitics, global trends and other issues parked under the international relations umbrella.
“I used my own money,” Djalal said. Like pensioned generals he hangs on to his previous title. When it was suggested the FPCI might have a hidden financier he kept his diplomatic cool: “There are no big entrepreneurs behind me – I’m beholden to no-one.
“This is a non-profit, non political and non religious foundation. The rent is about Rp 2 billion (USD 142,000) a year and staff wages a similar amount. We get our money from our courses, workshops and sponsors. We can create space and do things that governments can’t do. I’m far more effective now than before.
“Our mission is to promote peace and bring foreign policy to the public. That means finding out how to talk to ordinary people about these issues. They may not seem interested but that changes when, for example, the price of imports rise.
“We want to develop understanding between nations. Our youth exchange program with China should help reduce Sinophobia.”
The Institute’s researchers have set up overseas study tours including one to North Korea, returning just before the North and South leaders’ Panmunjom summit in April.
The next ambition is to run backgrounders in Indonesian current affairs for incoming diplomats.
Djalal claims more than 6,000 came to one of his events; many participants are students of international relations. There are 18 FPCI chapters on tertiary campuses. The mailing list has 40,000 subscribers. He says there’s nothing quite like the FPCI anywhere in the world.
If true this reflects either his entrepreneurial skills – or reveals great gaps in the universities where low pay and lower prestige deter top talents.
Djalal was in Perth last month. Freed of diplomatic gags he talked bluntly.
“I’m dying to kill the idea that Australia has a hidden agenda on Papua. I think that’s rubbish. (NGOs in Australasia, though not governments, have been supporting independence.)
“Australia should not be part of ASEAN which is geographically apart, though China is now working to redefine Southeast Asia.
“Australia is supposed to understand Indonesia best because it’s next door but in fact only a very small group understands us, while we don’t understand you. There are stereotypes on both sides that need to change.”