Foreign affairs (the political version, not dalliances abroad) is seldom a synonym for fun.
The standard photo has a line of suits trying – and failing – to look human.Their media statements, labelled ‘communique’ to maintain the mystique, are triumphs of euphemism, so bland they make laundry lists sound like Hamlet.
Few would bother to read unless they got paid well for the pain.
Yet in Jakarta this month about 5,000 early post-teens gave up a full Saturday, packing a plush central city auditorium. They came to hear ambassadors and academics parade their theories on why governments do bizarre and sometimes awful things in the indefinable ‘national interest’.
A Dangerous Drift? Ideas to fix a Broken World was labelled the World’s Largest Foreign Policy Conference. Who knows – does anyone keep tabs? More important is that it was free and a wild success.
The man responsible for putting diplomacy on Indonesia’s entertainment pages is Dr Dino Patti Djalal, 53, the Republic’s former ambassador to Washington.
Veteran journalist and Tempo weekly editor Bambang Harymurti was among many in the crowd amazed that so many stayed till 7 pm when the norm is to drift off to coffee after the first break and never reappear.
One reason is because speakers were pushed to use real words instead of acronyms, put up solutions rather than recycle problems, and be brief and punchy. Most were. Another is that the line-up included ‘artists’ meaning TV stars, film actors – and Alya Nurshabrina.
The 22-year old model and ‘beauty queen’ (as labelled by the unreformed local press) is best known as Miss Indonesia 2018, less famous for studying international relations at university and heading a student delegation to Harvard. So she’d earned her place on a panel titled: The Return of the Angels: How the Millennials see the World and what they want to see fixed.
Asking kids – and adults listening? Revolutionary.
Close to half the Indonesian population of 260 million is under 30. The young tend to turn off politics – or the religious smears and brutal accusatory way the dark arts are conducted – but are besotted by ‘celebrities’.
Another well-baited hook was to run the millennials session late and then follow with an on-stage Battle of the Brains, a general knowledge contest involving teams of ambassadors, CEOs and the ‘angels’.
This even got the grey-hairs who’ve spent their lives maintaining tight lips to fracture the rictus and let laughs loose.
Djalal is well-known in Indonesia for using entrepreneurial flair to enliven statecraft.
His father, Hasyim Djalal, 84 and in the audience, was a former ambassador to the UN, Canada and Germany. His second son’s first degrees were in Canada, then a doctorate from the London School of Economics.
The young Djalal spent 27 years in government service and was a confidante of the last president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who made him ambassador to the US.
In that job he staged the world’s biggest angklung performance at the Washington Memorial with more than 5,000 participants. The traditional bamboo-tube onomatopoeia-named instruments are rattled to produce a jangling melody.
He ran in the New York Marathon, and in Los Angeles got the Indonesian diaspora together to help the homeland. In between he probably sparked a few trade deals but these failed to ignite the media.
Then the well-educated Djalal forgot the story of Icarus. The showman turned candidate got too close to the Jakarta sun while trying to fly into the 2014 presidential election.
Down to earth and ego badly bruised, he remained keen to stay in foreign affairs. The problem is that the big game’s played by governments. So he started the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), to expand Indonesians’ understanding of the world and defeat xenophobia.
The NGO runs workshops, seminars, overseas tours and this year’s Dangerous Drift? conference with 20 breakout sessions, including the heavies like climate change, multi-lateralism and terrorism – and the A-team.
Our man Gary Quinlan was there along with ambassadors from the US, Russia, Japan, India, Canada and the EU. They ran a ‘diplomacy clinic’ to help students’ research. Where else could undergrads get such insights?
Most sessions were in English, lively and challenging. There were flash videos, up-beat singers and enough energy to power the show if the lights had fused.
The only damper was a 30 minute wait for the opener, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, a former Army commander who then ranted about the need for discipline. Indonesian VIPs often stage late arrivals, supposedly to enhance their status.
Note to the gentleman: Your nation is now a robust democracy; leaders are respected but no longer held in trembling awe.
“Our mission is to promote peace and bring foreign policy to the public,” Djalal said in an earlier interview. “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”.
A moving moment in the conference came when the North Korean and South Korean ambassadors to Indonesia, An Kwan-il and Kim Chang-beom accepted the FPCI’s Courage for Peace Award on behalf of their leaders.
The men shook hands, hugged and then spoke to the crowd in English; the kids went wild. Will they be a generation that never knows war?
Try that in Australia. We’d probably call it a stunt. In Jakarta it felt real.
Duncan Graham is a journalist based in Java, Indonesia.