The newly arrived Ambassador from the Kingdom of The Netherlands and his charming wife welcomed NOW! Jakarta publisher Alistair Speirs to their residence for a friendly discussion.
What made you embark on a diplomatic career? Was this a “calling“ or a professional ambition?
I was born and raised in Bogor, and ever since I left Indonesia for the Netherlands at age 8 I knew that I wanted to go back there or in any case to go abroad to work when I grew up. At university I studied human geography and water management and did not think about the diplomatic service at all, but the calling was to go abroad and I did so as a student doing an internship in Bandung. Back in the Netherlands I found a job as a PhD candidate at Delft University (water management). From there, I applied to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and much to my surprise they wanted me and I started my life as diplomat . After postings in Vietnam, Rwanda, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and several postings at Headquarters, my posting in Jakarta is for me a dream come true, returning to the land of my childhood.
How did you end up being born in Bogor?
My parents came to Indonesia in 1952, arriving on an empty ship since the trend was very much in the opposite direction! My father was a linguist specializing in Malay, and to a certain extent Sanskrit and Javanese. He had finished his studies in the early 50’s and found a job as a Bible translator at the Netherlands Bible Society. At that time Sukarno’s government wanted to spread the quite new, unifying language of Bahasa Indonesia to all ethnic and religious groups including the Christian minority and endorsed the Indonesian Bible Society to translate the Bible to Bahasa Indonesia.
I do remember that in the sixties Indonesia was still a poor country sometimes even running out of rice, and at a given point people had to resort to eating bulgur in desperation.
As a sociolinguist, my father dedicated years to research the ‘Lenong’, the traditional folk theatre of the Betawi which was almost extinct in those years. Much later, at Leiden university, he did his PhD on Bahasa Betawi and also wrote an etymological dictionary of Bahasa Indonesia which I often use
What have been the highlights of your career so far? And the worst times? Rwanda may have been tough?
In fact Rwanda was a very special country, far from its image as a place of genocide. We found the people very friendly both professionally and socially, and overall had a very good time. It was a good posting with young children and the people were very welcoming.
As a country Rwanda has limited natural resources so has to rely on its people, therefore it invested heavily in education and digital infrastructure It has one of the highest percentages of women in parliament and was the first country in the world to ban single use plastic bags (already in 2004). We were very impressed.
Our first posting abroad was in Hanoi where we arrived in January 1995 when it had just introduced its economic reform and renovation policy, where we found a country with relatively limited Western influence and –in Hanoi- hardly any cars and motorbikes! We were amazed by the rapid social and economic changes which took place since then. But again this was a very positive experience.
(For Madame) What are the challenges of being an Ambassador’s wife? And the benefits?
A major challenge to being an Ambassador’s wife actually is the same for any ‘trailing spouse’: we have to say goodbye and start a new life and build a new social network, find friends, and discover meaningful pastimes every time we move to a new country. Unlike the working spouse who immediately lands in a network through his/her work, for the trailing spouse this is often not the case. Of course this is always personal and context dependent. Especially in Indonesia, to my very brief experience, the settling-in process for ambassadors’ spouses seems easier because of active existing networks. On the other hand, sometimes people tend to keep more distance.
Another serious challenge for those who would like to pursue this, is combining a ‘trailing life’ with personal career ambitions. Often, spouses are not allowed to work. This time round we have decided that for the time being I will spend a considerable time in the Netherlands for career reasons, whilst spending as much time as possible in this beautiful country with its smiling people.
On the up-side, being a diplomat’s wife has greatly enriched my life, as I have had the privilege to live in several countries, experience many different cultures, see wonderful cultural and natural heritage sights and make friends all over the world. Experiences I greatly cherish.
Has being ambassador made you more optimistic about the future of the world, or less?
As ambassadors we are so privileged, we can easily get in contact with the decision makers of a country, the cultural leaders, the journalists and the business community. We are supposed to have good networks. We get to know about the country with some inside knowledge. But it also makes you humble, the more you know, the more you understand what you don’t know!
As diplomats we are part of a much bigger piece of machinery and, although changes never go easily it is encouraging to see that with ambition, patience and with the help of many, eventually we can make change happen.
Are you optimistic about the future of Indonesia? How is the relationship with the Netherlands today?
My way of looking at Indonesia is centered around the three periods where I lived in Indonesia. What I see is a country which has gone through a major political and economic transition. I see a generation that is confident and showing leadership, backed by a President who is putting a strong emphasis on human resources development and education. The young have become vocal and knowledgeable, many now speak English, and I’m fascinated by the public discussions about social and political issues in the media, including the social media.
The relations between the Netherlands and Indonesia are excellent. We were very grateful for the personal reception by the President of our Prime Minister Mark Rutte in October, which reflected the close partnership between the two countries, with a focus on economic cooperation, education and culture. This was well illustrated by a photograph in a newspaper of the two, both dressed in batik, titled ‘Batik Brothers’.
(For Madame) What do you want to achieve while you are in Indonesia? Do you have particular areas where you want to help?
If I can contribute anything, I would be very happy if I could help to create a little more awareness on environmental issues. It would be pretentious to think I can achieve anything big, but I believe even small steps in topics such as waste management and energy usage can make a difference. As a judge , it would also be a privilege if I could contribute somewhat in the area of access to justice.
As a city planner and water management expert what do you think of Jakarta City’s plans to become a ‘Smart City’?
I was happily surprised to see the changes the city has made with huge investments in infrastructure. Many people are genuinely proud of the MRT (but few people seem to know about the new train to the airport!). I don’t feel I am a real expert in city planning but I don’t need to be to see the investments going on for infrastructure and traffic to make the city really work. There are a few obvious challenges though, in particular on Jakarta’s energy transition, waste and water management.
What are your plans for the next twelve months?
The most important thing is that we are going to have an official state visit by the King and Queen of the Netherlands in March 2020 on the invitation of the Indonesian President. This is the first state visit since 25 years and reflects the good relations between the two countries.
The visit will be forward looking, focused on the future and will include a major delegation of business people, the media and four Ministers, and I want that to be a success. The focus will be on economic, cultural and scientific aspects.
We are the biggest EU investor here, the second largest EU trading partner and the second biggest European destination for students to go to university, and we have a very active cultural centre in Jakarta, the Erasmushuis. I hope the state visit will create strong ties for the future building upon a special historical background.
Thank you, H.E. Lambert Grijns, Ambassador of The Netherlands to Indonesia and Mme. Margot Kokke.
This article is originally from paper. Read NOW!Jakarta Magazine January 2020 issue “In with the New”. Available at selected bookstores or SUBSCRIBE here.