From Indonesia with love

Much in London has changed since Dr Rizal Sukma was a student at the LSE in the 1990s. “Back then I knew London’s Underground very well, and now I find myself in a chauffeur-driven car!” laughs Indonesia’s new Ambassador.

Most of his favourite student haunts have been taken over by coffee chains, “but that’s good for our coffee exports,” he adds brightly.

The cranes dotting the London skyline are also a new feature, reminding Sukma of Jakarta. Infrastructure development is a priority for Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi) particularly port development to link up the vast Indonesian archipelago, explains the Ambassador. “We call it ‘Building Indonesia from the Periphery’ because the economy is too concentrated in Java. Britain has excellent expertise in ports and logistics and there are many opportunities for cooperation,” he adds.

Improved connectivity can also be achieved through the digital economy, which is another area where the UK and Indonesia can work together, he says. During President Jokowi’s official visit in April he visited Tech City. “He was inspired,” says the Ambassador. “The UK is now one of the five priority countries where we would like to have deeper cooperation in the creative industries and creative economy, in areas such fashion, film, IT, gaming…”

Reinventing the relationship
The growth opportunities are huge, he says. “This year the digital economy in Indonesia generated $30bn and we believe that by 2020 we can generate more than £100bn. Indonesians love their smart phones and our young generation is one of the biggest users of social media in the world.”

Since taking power, President Jokowi – a self-made businessman – has introduced a dozen Economic Reform Packages in an effort to reduce Indonesia’s dependence on commodities and to improve the business climate. These include the simplification of business regulations and the opening up of some sectors on Indonesia’s so-called ‘Negative Investment List’ to international competition. There are a number of new sectors where the UK could capitalise, says he Ambassador, including telecommunications, the film industry, transport infrastructure, e-commerce and of course, tourism. “Infrastructure development takes a long time but in the meantime we can sell our sun and sea,” he smiles.

The sun and sea are also key to increasing Indonesia’s renewable energy sector, such as wave, solar or geothermal energy and is another area of potential UK-Indonesian cooperation, explains Sukma.

But if the Ambassador (a former teacher) had to produce a report card for UK-Indonesian economic ties, it would probably read ‘could do better’. The UK is the seventh largest investor in Indonesia and bilateral trade is “relatively small” at £2.6bn, he says. “We have a trade surplus of 400m but the biggest chunk of that is still oil and gas so we need to work harder.”

Commenting on Britain’s recent vote to leave the EU, the Ambassador feels Brexit may encourage a stronger focus on Asia and the Pacific, but he urges Britain to look beyond its traditional Commonwealth partners. “The challenge is how the UK brings its historical ties with Asia into a contemporary relationship. That is the job of our embassy and the ministry: to put Indonesia on the British radar.”

With his deep knowledge of Britain, his expertise as Executive Director of Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and as an architect of President Jokowi’s foreign policy, Sukma is just the man for the job.

Indonesia can be a reliable partner to Britain, he says: it’s the world’s third largest democracy and the world’s largest majority Muslim democracy; it is a fast-growing emerging market with a vast territory spanning the busiest shipping routes; and it is a dependable ‘middle power’ that aims to play a greater role in improving UN-led peacekeeping, climate change, global public health and security cooperation against terrorism.

As a middle power, Indonesia also plays a balancing role in a region of complex rivalries among giant powers, says the Ambassador. “The immediate priority is how to ensure strategic autonomy for Southeast Asia because we don’t want to go back to the 1970s where we became a theatre for the major powers in their competition for influence. Ensuring the unity among the ASEAN nations is the biggest challenge we have faced since the end of the Cold War.”

But Indonesia can be more than a strategic partner for Britain; the Ambassador wants to encourage friendship between the two nations through culture – food, tourism and education ties. The student population, now at 3,000, has grown exponentially since he was a student.

Britain rocks
Indonesians have already fallen for Britain’s soft power, says the Ambassador, recalling a trip Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made as London Mayor where he cycled the streets of Jakarta with Jokowi. “He saw all the Man U T-shirts and the retailers like Debenhams and M&S. He was so amazed he wrote an article in The Telegraph, titled: ‘Indonesia adores the Brits so why aren’t we trading more here?’”

Even President Jokowi has professed his love of British hard rock music. Ambassador Sukma has the ear of the President as well as his taste in music. “I love Queen, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin…”

Clearly if the Brits opened up to Indonesia, they’d find, to quote a Zeppelin hit, A Whole Lotta Love…

Embassy Editor Elizabeth Stewart interviewed the Indonesian Ambassador on 15 July and revised on 11 November