By Ricky Ihsan
As a diplomat, I am in many ways no different from other civil servants. Because I am a Muslim, I wake up at around 4:45 am and start the day with the Subuh prayers, but after that I am in the rat race to beat the rush hour, which begins at 8:00 am. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is in Central Jakarta but most of us live outside the city limits. We can’t afford the high cost of urban real estate.
At the office, I go through a daily grind of replying to emailed enquiries and requests for assistance, drafting remarks and speeches on matter related to my responsibility—global disarmament. I follow the online news on this issue, and if I find anything noteworthy, I report it to my direct boss, who will report it to his own boss, and so forth. If any decisions are taken on the issue, it will eventually trickle down to my level.
Almost everyday I attend two or three meetings with colleagues, counterparts from other ministries or foreign diplomats accredited to Jakarta. My only breaks are for lunch and the daily prayers. After every meeting I have to write a report for assessment and disposition by the bosses.
As we come closer to the end of office hours, we are gripped by a common dread: there could be a call for any of us to do an urgent task with a deadline early the following morning. Or else a draft has to be submitted in a few hours. My colleagues and I have come to accept that as an occupational hazard. No one complains.
So we rarely leave the office until well past Maghrib prayers, to make sure we are not suddenly pulled back to do a rush job while we are already on the way home. Thus we can’t avoid the evening rush from the city to the suburbs.
That’s the daily grind we go through, unless we are hosting regional or international conferences, or welcoming visiting dignitaries, or flying to conferences abroad, or attending to an emergency situation—such as a sudden outbreak of armed conflict—that requires our sustained attention for at least several days.
Oh, the Pandemic
What about the Covid-19 pandemic? Things have gotten a little different because of it. Only 30 to 40 percent of the staff is allowed to be at the office at any time, while the rest work from home (WFH). But the routine is essentially the same, using our online E-office platform. Zoom meetings replace in-person interactions. Well, we don’t have to dress up as rigorously and we don’t have to worry about the ennui of Jakarta’s infamous traffic jams. But the bosses are bound to have less compunction about giving rush assignments at unholy hours.
Don’t get me wrong: the work may be tedious, but the bottom line is that it’s a great honor. Not everyone has the opportunity to serve our country the way we do. Not everyone gets the chance to represent Indonesia in international forums. It is also a great responsibility. We are conscious of the constitutional mandate that Indonesia must contribute to the shaping of a better world of social justice in which the Indonesian people can live in security and prosperity.
Hence, we diplomats are essentially civil servants specializing in the conduct of foreign policy. We help our people who need particular forms of help: people looking for job opportunities that can be provided by foreign investors, migrant workers abroad in need of protection, those who are caught in the middle of armed conflicts or natural disasters abroad who need immediate evacuation. We build bridges between Indonesian businessmen and their counterparts abroad. We facilitate their interaction.
We try to prevent all sorts of armed conflict not only between Indonesia and any other nation, but also between and among other nations. We try to help persecuted people like the Palestinians in the Middle East and the Rohingya here in Southeast Asia. Why? Because it’s our constitutional mandate to contribute to the shaping of a better world of social justice.
In October 1991, Indonesia helped bring about the Paris Agreements that led to the rebirth of the modern Kingdom of Cambodia. And in September 1996 Indonesia mediated the signing of a Final Peace Agreement between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). These were historic events. But before they took place, there were at lower levels ordinary diplomats who drafted letters and conference interventions and attended small meetings that also helped bring about these historic events.
Like Foot Soldiers
Some go as far as calling us “the unsung heroes” of Indonesian foreign policy. But in the final analysis we are civil servants with a certain specialization. In a sense we are like the guerilla fighters who battled the colonial forces in the Bandung Sea of Fire battle of 1946 or the offensive that liberated Yogyakarta from an Oriental invader in mid-1942. Nobody knows the names of the individual fighters but their commanders became legendary.
There are now some 4000 Indonesian diplomats in service. Few will ever reach the top of the career ladder. But all of us will always have the sense of having contributed to something that the eye can see.
Do we ever make mistakes? A lot. It’s part of being human. But mistakes can be a step in a learning process that leads to wisdom born of experience. It can also bring about a trauma that can make an official exceedingly risk-averse, lacking in creativity and initiative.
Today, diplomacy is not anymore the sole domain of diplomats; there are other important actors. They include students, professors, white collar and blue collar workers, community leaders and, of course, politicians. Foreign policy used to be conceived by a few in the halls of the Foreign Ministry. But in the new reality, it must reflect the aspirations of the other actors to gain traction. Because in the end, it is the stakeholders that would translate the foreign policy into actionable programs that would create real benefit for the people. That is why consultations with these other actors are held regularly—through virtual meetings these days.
So much has improved in the ministry compared to the time I joined the service in 2004. We no longer have to take turns at using computers and printers. Desks and chairs are abundant. Our personal hand phones work like computers. And our makeshift canteen has evolved into an enjoyable food court to which we can proudly invite our foreign counterparts to a working lunch. We are also better paid now.
But the job remains the same. We are still the eyes, ears, mouthpiece, and the hands of the government on foreign policy issues, at home and abroad. Not everything that we do is important by itself, but in the course of time and through the accretion of the small things that we do, we know that we are contributing—brick by humble brick—to the building of a grand edifice: a better world in which our countrymen can live safely and prosper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pinter Politik.