I faced my greatest professional challenge in trying to mould a shared sense of commitment among the member countries of ESCAP.
My years of training as a diplomat came in good stead and enabled me to overcome many of the hurdles we faced in trying to develop common objectives among such a diverse diverse region and peoples. But my travels throughout Asia and Pacific and my extensive dealings with the people in the region also revealed a lighter side of the burden.
In early 1974, about six months after assuming the post of Executive Secretary, I receive an official invitation by Foreign Minister Adam Malik to visit Indonesia as a guest of the Indonesian Government. I was accorded an official treatment normally received for visiting foreign dignitaries as everywhere I went I was accompanied by a police escort. During my courtesy call on President Soeharto there were apparently some differences of opinion between the protocol office the Palace and that of the Foreign Ministry. The palace protocol insisted that, being an Indonesian; I should enter the palace from the rear. The Foreign Ministry however insisted since I was an accredited United Nations official and a foreign diplomat I should enter the palace from the front. A diplomatic tussle was narrowly averted when it was ultimately decided that I should enter the palace from the rear and leave the palace from the front. It was a skilled maneuver that bore the hallmark of good diplomacy and good sense. Before my meeting with President Soeharto, I was approach by the official interpreter, Widodo, with the question of which language I was going to use with the President. He was relieved when I told him since I was an Indonesian, I should of course speak to the President in bahasa Indonesia.
Later on in the visit, an official dinner was hosted by Foreign Minister Adam Malik in my honour which included members of the diplomatic corps. We toasted each other in English. Throughout my reply I referred to “Your country, Excellency” without mentioning Indonesia by name much to the amusement of all the guests present since they knew I was an Indonesian too.
My visit to outlying regions required somewhat different diplomatic maneuvering as during one of such visit to Mongolia where I was invited by the chieftain who received me in a nicely decorated tent. A feast of Mongolian food was set out for lunch, and as the guest of honour, I was served a tricolour dish that I had to share with the chieftain. I timidly enquired what the dish was and the chieftain politely explained ”This a desert served to special guest only. The outer ring is horse milk. The middle yellow one is egg yoke, The inner red circle is fresh horse blood” To my host obvious delight I stirred the dish, gulped it down in no time and immediately washed it off with Mongolian vodka, an extremely potent concoction. Throughout the luncheon, we continued to toast each other, accompanied by glassfuls of vodka. By the time I rushed back to my guesthouse I was in a mildly inebriated state.
During my official travel, I was always accompanied by my special assistant H.Rudy Gontha. A typical day would see us visiting various.Government ministries for two or three meetings with high ranking officials. By the end of the day I would sometimes feel so tired that my conservation in English would be interspersed with Dutch expression. On such occasion Mr. Gontha would pinch my arm while whispering, “Sir, those were Dutch words” I would immediately corrected myself and continue again in English to the bewilderment of the officials present.
My ability to speak Dutch was obviously a greatest advantage in the Netherlands. Because I had to attend the annual ECOSOC session in Geneva to present ESCAP’s report, I usually took the opportunity to visit other donor countries in Europe to lobby for more funds. During my visit to the Netherlands, we would invariably begin the discussion in English. After a few minutes I would suggest that we continue in Dutch, since both Mr. Gontha and I speak the language fluently. The officials were delighted that I could speak Dutch. The result was that I was able to obtain more extra-budgetary resources from the Dutch government. As a matter of fact, in my early years in ESCAP, the Netherlands contributed the largest amount in extra- budgetary funds. The Japanese later overtook the Dutch as the biggest contributor.
On one official visit to USSR Mr. Gontha and I had the opportunity ti visit scenic and historic places like Samarkand, Irkuts and the Baikal Lake. We were accompanied throughout the trips by a Russian official from the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs in Moscow. Midway through the visit he came to me with a quizzical expression on his face and said “Sir, I have to make an embarrassing confession. I have studied the Indonesian language and I think I can say that I can speak the language rather fluently. I have been listening to your conversation with Mr. Gontha but I could not understand a word of it.
What Indonesian dialect are you two communicating in. I replied that we both came from the same province and therefore speak the language of our hometown. “Óh he said resignedly. That is why I could not follow your conversation”. He had no idea that Mr. Gontha and I were actually conversing in Dutch.
I was impressed by the open and friendly treatment in many of my visits. I recalled one trip to Australia, where I was received by Prime Minister Cough Whitlam in Sydney. To my surprise he invited me to join him for a talk while in the midst of a cabinet meeting. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, with the prime minister and some ministers sitting on the sofa, while the rest sat on the carpet.
I was even invited the ministers’ luncheon during which they discussed official business among themselves. During another visit to Canberra which happened to coincide with Commonwealth Games, we met with Foreign minister Andrew Peacock. I jokingly remarked Australia’s rival, New Zealand had accumulated more gold medals than Australia. To which Mr. Peacock replied, “ It does not matter.
The price of gold is decreasing anyway
One of my goals in office was to bring the South Pacific islands into the mainstream of ESCAP’s activities. As part of this commitment I made several visits to the area to familiarize myself with the islands specific concerns. As with all my trips. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the local culture, eating local food and even learning a little about the local language. The languages of South Pacific islands seemed easy to pronounce, sine phonetically they were similar to the Indonesian language. And so I would delight in pronouncing the words such as totorua or waiorau. In Nuku’Alofa, the capital of Tonga, we stayed at the main hotel whose local name I quite proudly pronounced as “dah-tay-lee-na not knowing what it really meant. Whereupon Mr. Gontha remarked, “Sir I believe the word is pronounced ‘Dateline” in English”.
The linguistic similarities between some of the languages of the Pacific and Asia were pointed out to me by the King of Tonga, who remarked on the common origins of words such as sky (langit), moon (bulan) and stars (bintang).
The job apparently was not without risks. On one occasion the Mekong Committee meeting was held in Vientiane, Laos. In those days you had to travel by an overnight train from Bangkok to the border town of Nongkai. Arriving early the next morning from the railway station we took a short drive through the picturesque countryside to a Thai restaurant located along the banks of the Mekong river, where we ordered a hearty and tasty breakfast. From the restaurant we could see very clearly the Laotian side of the river. At the time there used to occur for one reason or another sporadic episodes of shooting between the Thai and Laotian sides. After breakfast we boarded a ferry to take us across the river to Laos. I must confess I felt rather uneasy scanning the Laotian side of the river and fell into deep silence. Mr. Gontha brought me back to realty when he said “I know what you are thinking. You are pondering what we should do if both sides of the river should open fire on each other while we are still at midstream’ “Indeed I replied those were my thoughts.’ To which Mr. Gontha answered matter of factly “Either jump in the river or duck”.
Throughout my tenure at ESCAP I invariably had to make regular visits to the United Nations headquarters in New York. During one of such visit, my port of entry was Honolulu, Hawaii where all United Stated bound passengers are required to embark and undergo immigration formalities. As I approach the immigration counter, I presented my United Nations passport to the immigration officer in charge who happened to be an American of China’s descent. She looked at the passport and to my horror, asked in incredulous tone ”What kind of passport is this “ I replied that it is an United Nations passport. She shot back “Yeah, but from what country” I calmly answered “From all over the world. It is an United Nations passport” She insisted that she had never seen such a passport before, and made a move as if she wanted to put the passport aside. By now is was rather piqued and so I tried to explain that the United Nations headquarter is I New York, in the United States of America, and those passport in question was issued from the United Nations headquarters She remained unconvinced and appeared quite suspicious of the passport’s origins. Fortunately a man identifying himself as a State Department official stepped forward and informed the immigration officer that my passport was indeed valid, where upon she grudgingly returned it while grumbling “I still don’t know what kind a passport this is”.
Aside from the more humorous episodes of my years at ESCAP, there were some serious moments that reinforced my belief in the increased interdependence of our global community. For no matter where my travels took me from Australia to Afghanistan, from Iran to Indonesia, from Tongo to Thailand, all shared common universal concern. In one of my visits to an ESCAP sponsored integrated rural development project in the Philippines, I had the occasion to interview a number of Philippines villagers. They were very grateful for the attention the outside world had given to their plights and promised their full participation in the project. I returned to Bangkok with renewed faith that this project had indeed addressed the real problems of the people, making me even more determined to strengthen ESCAP’ concrete involvement in he problems of the people.
It was always mindful of my role as the leading international civil servant in the Asia an Pacific region, and tried to bring my duties and responsibilities to bear with the concerns and needs of the region. In recognition of this commitment to fostering closer regional ties, I was very honoured to have received an Honorary degree of Doctor of Political scene from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea in 1978.