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An Interview with H.E. Rob Swartbol, Ambassador of The Netherlands to Indonesia

NOW! PEOPLE | 9 April 2018

With the increasing reliance on the EU as the economic interface with Indonesia and ASEAN, and initiatives by the Indonesian government that could possibly provide a huge opportunity for the Dutch maritime industry, the decades-long relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia is getting stronger.

NOW! Jakarta spoke to H.E. Rob Swartbol about this long relationship and the many opportunities for bilateral cooperation that can be realised.

H.E. Rob Swartbol,  Ambassador of The Netherlands to Indonesia. Photo by Raditya Fadilla/NOW!JAKARTA

What is the single largest issue on the table now between Indonesia and Holland?  Is it diplomatic, economic or cultural?

Actually there are two issues we have been engaged with. The first is the case of the missing naval wrecks in the Java sea. One and a half years ago we found they were gone, apparently as a result of an illegal salvaging operation, presumably because of the value of the scrap metal. That itself is not good but the main concern is the remains of the 900 men who were on board, both Dutch and Indonesian, whose graves were these vessels.

This has been a huge story in the Dutch press with speculation that the Indonesian government must have known about it and the bodies were dumped in a cemetery. The Dutch Parliament wanted to know how this was possible. Some Dutch media were vocal in their demands. It was a serious challenge.

We had dozens of meetings and the Indonesian Government lent huge support in trying to assess what happened. We had forensic teams and expended a lot of energy but so far we have nothing, no conclusion, nothing found. The Indonesian authorities are still investigating the case.

The second issue is palm oil. The perception in Indonesia is that Europe wants to ban the import of palm oil totally, which is not the case. On the other hand the efforts of Indonesia to enhance the sutainability of the production of palm oil is not always recognized in Europe. So, we are working very hard to de-mystify the issue. We need to establish whatever the facts and the rumors really are and work towards creating and maintaining a credible and sustainable value chain. But of course palm oil is very important to the Indonesian economy so we need to tone down the arguments and keep to the truth. I think we will get there.

With the increasing reliance on the EU as the economic interface with Indonesia and ASEAN, has that changed the focus for the individual country ambassadors?

It has, but only on certain issues. The EU is and has always been, since 1957 Treaty of Rome, the prime negotiator for trade agreements. Happily the EU continues to do the heavy lifting on behalf of Member States in the negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). It is also leads on certain issues like terrorism, but for trade and investment, it is up to the member states. We have a big trade section in the embassy working on these issues. But we do try to get all the EU Ambassadors united on specific issues which isn’t always easy.

The great maritime vision of President Jokowi presumably provided a huge opportunity for the Dutch maritime industry. What is the Dutch realization of these opportunities?

The vision is certainly there and we understand it. Indonesia is a marine power house but to go from vision to policy to implementation is complicated and it will still take a while till he can see the vision in bricks and mortar.

We are working on a number of initiatives with the government especially in port development and innovative ship design and building, both for naval vessels and fishing boats.

An important aspect for Indonesia is the provision of vocational training for mid-career port managers and others. The Shipping and Transport College Rotterdam has their own course already here. And incidentally we also have training in horticultural which we are very good at.

But as far as the marine aspect goes, the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development Project is still very much alive and we have a project office here (JV with Korea) and we continue to work on canals in Jakarta and Surabaya.

You hosted a Strategic Partnership Meeting for more than 40 participants on SDG’s. Who were participants and what was the outcome?

In Holland we have a new program which partners with at least 25 NGO’s to discuss food security, gender and reproductive rights, human rights, etc. We see all over the world that the political space for NGO’s is shrinking and we are trying to keep their interests on the table.

We have had significant discussions on SDG Goals especially Food Security (using the right crops, etc.), Human Rights and Access to Justice, and I believe the Indonesian Government is trying an agenda we just believe these things are important, including  family health, women’s right to choose, etc. and engage in discussions to further these interests where possible.

In some sectors women are doing very well but others need attention: for example women’s right to be sexually active and avoiding child marriages.

What are your hopes for 2018 local and regional elections and the Presidential elections next year?

Obviously I hope the elections will be free, fair and without incidents. And that the communication and information sharing will be transparent and factual. Just like in the rest of the world, fake news and rumors can trigger sentiments that can influence election outcomes.

Indonesia is stating that that it is easing both the investment regulations and in parallel the employment restrictions for expats.  Are Dutch companies feeling the benefits?

Everybody agrees Indonesia is moving in the right direction especially with the reform packages not exclusively for foreign companies but primarily for its own private sector!

Indonesia’s “Ease of Doing Business Index” number is now 72 on the World Bank List, and while the target of number 40 is feasible other countries are moving as well, so it needs a lot of effort.

As far as expat employment restrictions are concerned it is important that there is recognition that current number of expats is just tiny compared with total domestic labour force, and that their skills are needed. I am sure that positive effects will be felt shortly but there is a lag.

We have to remember that it is not possible for a country to be good at everything, so they should focus on the areas that are good at and take advantage of those countries  who are good at other areas.

You supported the “GirlsnotBrides” movement very strongly including the presence of H.M. Princess Mabel van Oranje with an aim to reduce the number of child marriages. Are you happy with the results so far?

The key objective of this visit was to amplify the progressive voices in Indonesia that speak out against child marriage. This includes female ulama’s and organizations of progressive young women. In this way, the messages of the female ulama’s can be shared with young people who can in return contribute to the implementation and dissemination of the messages to key actors (parents, teachers, government and religious leaders), through social media and other channel. Indonesia is the world’s 4th most populous country, with an estimated population of 237.6 million of which 81.3 million (1/3) are children (CENSUS, 2010). One in nine girls in Indonesia marry before they have reached 18 years old, 1 making Indonesia one of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of highest number of child brides, with as many as 375 girls marrying per day. 2 The Government of Indonesia has indicated its desire to end child marriage, and has a commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target, SDG Goal 5 on Gender Equality, target 5.3 by 2030 eliminate all harmful practices such as child, early and forced marriage.

In April 2017, the Kongres Ulama Perempuan Indonesia (KUPI), the first  female ulama congress in Indonesia and in the world, gathered 700 participants from all over Indonesia and 7 other countries. The congress resulted in three recommendations based on musyawarah keagamaan (religious discussion) one of them is Preventing child marriage is the responsibility of everyone (parents, children/youth, society and state).

We loved the story about a floating farm in Rotterdam. Is there any chance this technology will come to Indonesia?

For your readers who do not know about the floating farm, let me explain a bit. The floating farm is a floating stable at the port of Rotterdam for 40 cows, producing daily fresh dairy products for the people of Rotterdam. The production is on a circular basis with closed cycles of water, energy and feed. These are three different landscapes above other. On the top floor are the meadow and  the stable. The cows can choose if they want to go or not. The second landscape is on the second floor and is the production area for processing the milk to cheese. The lowest landscape layer will be used for producing grass with help of LED lamps.

The floating farm is a public private partnership, a good example of the Dutch triple helix principle. Realized by Beladon, a development company for sustainable floating buildings, courage, the innovation organization of Dutch dairy farming and city farm “Uit uw Eigen Stad”. Involved are several other private companies, Wageningen University ad Research and the Port of Rotterdam.

The floating farm makes efficiently use of the combination water and a big city. Situating it on water you create more space and if situated near the city you are very close to your market. It will be an ideal solution for Indonesia with it abundance of water and big cities.

Key are private investors and city governments who are interested in realizing this concept.

Thank You




1 National Statistics Bureau (BPS), National Population and Family Planning Board (BKKBN), Ministry of Health (Kemenkes – MOH) and ICF International (2013). Demographic Health Survey (DHS) 2012. Jakarta: Indonesia.

2 Susenas, 2016.

 This article is originally from paper. Read NOW!Jakarta Magazine April 2018 issue “Money and Finance”. Available at selected bookstore or SUBSCRIBE here.