AN INTERVIEW WITH H. E. MR. ROB SWARTBOL, AMBASSADOR OF HOLLAND TO INDONESIA
Entering the second year of his posting in Indonesia, Dutch Ambassador Rob Swartbol still maintains a passion not only for his highly significant role but also for Indonesia itself, a country (and people) whom he has very much come to love.
He is a forward-thinking, thoroughly modern Ambassador who endeavours to move away from what he calls “old fashioned diplomacy” and towards a more collaborative way of doing things, on a large, political scale and within the embassy itself. NOW! Jakarta had the pleasure of chatting with this down-to-earth man about the very special Dutch-Indonesian relationship today, what the countries share and how they can learn and grow from each other.
Indonesia seems to be moving in a very different direction than modern, tolerant, broad-thinking Holland. How will this affect the Indonesia – Holland relationship? Do you anticipate any conflicts of interest?
Well, societies are not stagnant entities, there will always be discussions within them about values and perceptions of certain issues. Holland is known as an open, modern society; in fact some people have this image of Holland that everything is possible (which is simply not true!). Lots of things are debated in Holland, and some of these discussions centre around the same topics as here; drugs and religion for example.
It’s true that sometimes our countries’ values differ but there are still many values that we share; such as democracy, position on women, freedom of religion etc.
While there are a few areas where we do not entirely agree, we know what these issues are and we discuss them with respect for each other’s point of view – this is how I’d like to do diplomacy too.
What about the recent developments with regards to the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender communities in Indonesia?
There are cultural and religious reasons why this is a sensitive issue here, just as there are cultural reasons that we look at the lesbian, gay and transgender communities in a different way in Holland. I’m not here to submit my Western views upon the Indonesians but if necessary we do try to explain our position and then we can see how we work together.
What lessons can Holland learn from Indonesia do you think?
The diversity in religion here; the way Indonesians have found a way to live together—that’s something we can learn from Indonesia. We have a growing Muslim population which is relatively new; by that I mean a couple of decades. We’re still figuring it out because some people have the view that if you live in Holland you should live exactly as the Dutch do, but of course it doesn’t work like that. There are important points to resolve; how do you accept each other? How do you integrate?
How have Dutch companies been affected by the “slowing down” of the economy?
Although it’s true that we have seen a slowing down of the economy, the growth is still about 5 percent.
We have a lot of Dutch companies active here. Firstly, we have companies in fast-moving consumer goods – food, daily use products and so on. As the purchasing power of a sector of Indonesians is less than it was, these companies are having to work a little bit harder to increase their market share.
Secondly, there is a group of Dutch companies in infrastructure. They are mostly involved in designing and building ports, building hospitals, energy, power stations etc. and these companies are doing quite well actually. They work with the government here and the government owned enterprises were a little less funded than originally thought so initially there was a bit of a struggle but now a lot of money has become available for infrastructure. We are also involved in commercial activities like dredging; it’s well known that in terms of maritime infrastructure and water management, our companies are the biggest in the world and these companies are doing very well.
Thirdly, Dutch companies are very involved in the creative industries; that’s dance, 3D printing, film-making and so on. This is a booming market; in fact I’m sure that the creative industries are the biggest sector for the future of Indonesia.
So overall we are satisfied. The trade could be a little bit better with Indonesia. But there are a lot of investments here by Dutch companies.
What are the main areas you and your team are concentrating on? Commercial or diplomatic? What are this year’s priorities?
We cover a lot of sectors including culture, political issues, consular issues and economic affairs.
Firstly, in terms of the economy, we are working on getting the economic investment climate a bit better and reducing or getting rid of “red tapism”. It’s true that with the reform packages, there have been a lot of positive steps taken but there is still more to be done on this issue. It is the role of the embassy to make the enabling environment as positive as possible and we are concentrating on a couple of sectors in particular, for example agriculture and water.
On the political field, we work a lot with the Indonesian government and ministries on the reform of Indonesian laws. Most of the laws are based on Dutch laws because of our history and Indonesia is now in the process of reforming these now old-fashioned laws. But of course as they are based on the Dutch laws they would also like to have our expertise as we reformed ours a while ago. So we’ve had delegations from parliament, universities, and ministries working on what’s called “The Rule of Law”. They visited Holland to see how we did it but also to note where we made mistakes! This is a significant ongoing project.
Culturally, we’re trying to look more and more towards the demands here in Indonesia. We’re asking “What’s happening here?” “How can we work with Indonesia?” I always like to have a two-way street because out of experience we know that this is more sustainable if there is reception to what you are doing.
Internally, we are trying to change the attitude of diplomacy; I call it the “inside out” process, we want to engage with the community, go out there, talk to people, interact through social media. We want to take away that almost “mythical” idea of what an embassy actually does because 95 percent of people don’t know!
Erasmus Huis is always hosting events and exhibitions. Is this helping Indonesians to understand Holland?
I hope so! We certainly have a lot of exhibitions! This is something we do because we think it opens up the eyes of the Indonesians to the rest of the world; we showcase Dutch music, dancers, artists, choreographers and sometimes artists which are not directly related to Holland. I’d like Erasmuis Huis to be a place where people can engage. Whenever we have dancers or performers putting on a show or exhibition, we encourage them to work with Indonesian artists; the artists can learn from each other and that radiates with the audience too. We want to convey how Indonesia relates to and can interact with the rest of the world, this is our vision.
Tell us about your last year in Indonesia. What have been the best – and worst – moments?
I really like living in Indonesia and not just because there are nice islands! The main reason we enjoy it here is because of the people. We are fortunate to have a lot of Indonesian friends already.
On a positive note, we have welcomed the Mayor of Rotterdam on an official visit and Pak Ahok has also made the trip to Rotterdam, Jakarta’s twin city. For me personally, working with my team has been amazing; I want to change a lot so they are working hard!
Sadly, this year I suffered a loss in my family which was very hard indeed. But there have also been many high points. We visited Bali and Lombok earlier this year as a family, together with my two sons who study in Europe. Other than that I’ve enjoying many social occasions with friends here and have been playing sports – diplomats are not so different from normal people you know! (laughs).