Thursday 02 Apr 2020 | 17:47 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Apr 2020 | 17:47 | SYDNEY

The late Ali Alatas

16 December 2008 08:25

Rawdon Dalrymple was Ambassador to Indonesia from 1981 to 1985. He is a Visiting Fellow in Government and International  Relations at the University of Sydney.

Graeme Dobell’s post on Ali Alatas gives an account of the late Indonesian Foreign Minister’s methods and achievements which could hardly be bettered in a short format. Dobell shows that Alatas did make a difference to Indonesia’s stance in the region, to the development of regional cooperation and to Indonesia’s relations with Australia.

Hamish Macdonald, on the other hand, writing earlier in the Sydney Morning Herald, deals with the limitations under which Alatas labored and which made it harder for him to shape foreign policy in a environment where the military had a bigger say in political and strategic matters than he could hope to have.

It is true that Alatas was not on comfortable terms with the most powerful military figures. I can think of one at least who probably despised him. But Dobell is right in arguing that, despite that, Alatas was able to move policy in the direction he recommended on some very important issues.

President Soeharto, who understood maneuvering and indirection better than anyone else, must have been able to see the advantage to Indonesia’s standing and to his own regional stature of the policy lines Alatas explained to him. Ali Alatas was a very adroit operator and Soeharto had observed him for a long time before appointing him Foreign Minister in 1988.

Ali Alatas spent several years as the principal assistant to Adam Malik, who was Foreign Minister and then Vice President. Malik’s two closest assistants were Alatas and Kim Adhyatman, a Chinese Indonesian who had first made his name as a student leader. Alatas and Adhyatman were close friends and were bound by mutual trust as well as loyalty to Malik.

Alatas and Adhyatman also had in common that neither was ethnically Indonesian (that is, not ‘native’ in the Dutch colonial classification). Alatas was an Arab, which was much less of a barrier than being ethnically Chinese (a Chinese Indonesian could not then or even now become Foreign Minister).

But Alatas certainly encountered some prejudice. I recall going to his house one night perhaps ten years ago and having some difficulty finding it. I asked some men sitting around a front gate, talking and smoking. One of the others asked the man I had addressed who it was I was seeking. The reply was ‘Orang Arab itu’, which just means ‘that Arab person’, but it struck me at the time, since I had known the man for more than twenty years, that I’d never appreciated ordinary Jakarta people saw him as foreign, or anyway not like one of themselves.

Alatas  made a good base  for himself through the years with Malik and then as a diplomat of much greater international savvy and polish than most of his colleagues. His Dutch education and literary skills showed. It was a very useful skill to be able to joke and converse with ease and total fluency in at least four languages. He was proud of the international standing he achieved and he served his country well.