The quiet achiever: Retno Marsudi

There is a new gang running things in Indonesia. One of its more notable members is Retno Marsudi – the country’s first female foreign minister

Daniel Besant
December 4, 2014
The quiet achiever: Retno Marsudi
Born in Semarang, Central Java, in 1962, Retno Marsudi graduated from Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, in 1985 and went on to study European Union law at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. After graduation she worked as an official trade secretary for Indonesia before being appointed as the country’s ambassador to Norway and Iceland in 2005. Marsudi was then recalled to Jakarta where she negotiated trade deals for her country. Her most recent post was in the Netherlands as Indonesia’s ambassador to the country. Illustration by Victor Blanco

The election of Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo as Indonesia’s president has caught the imagination of many at home and abroad. As with any regime change, expectancy hangs in the air. When selecting his cabinet, Jokowi chose carefully, going as far as consulting the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission) and the PPATK (Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre) to ensure the whiff of corruption did not emanate from appointees.

In the final analysis, many thought Jokowi’s choices did not meet the high expectations of the electorate. In particular, eyebrows were raised over the human rights record of Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and the fact that Puan Maharani, co-ordinating minister for human development and culture, is the daughter of graft-tainted former President Megawati Soekarnoputri. 

Further facial contortions greeted Retno Marsudi’s appointment as foreign minister. The first woman to hold the post has no reports of financial impropriety or rights abuses connected to her, but the appointment of a relative unknown was something of a surprise.

However, there may be more to her than meets the eye. Before taking up her new post, Marsudi was Indonesia’s ambassador to the Netherlands, and it was there that she might have caught Jokowi’s attention. During her time in The Hague, she did much to boost trade, even bringing over renowned Indonesian chef William Wongso to push the country’s cuisine.

“Jokowi wants the foreign ministry to be more active in promoting trade,” said Andreas Harsano, Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s not only about diplomacy and politics, but also about trade and creative industries.” 

As foreign minister of an archipelagic nation with a host of maritime issues, it is likely Marsudi will be spending more time on the phone to Canberra and Beijing than leading trade delegations. Indeed, Jokowi himself has laid out a five-point Maritime Vision for the country. Policies include rebuilding Indonesia’s maritime culture, maintaining and managing marine resources and prioritising the development of maritime infrastructure. 

“Indonesia invites other nations to cooperate in the maritime field and eliminate the source of conflicts at sea, such as illegal fishing, violations of sovereignty, territorial disputes, piracy and marine pollution,” read the government statement.

With last month’s G20 summit providing Marsudi’s introduction to the world stage, it seems she is very much on-message so far. In an interview with the Jakarta Post she discussed engaging with Japan and China at the summit, as well as discussing maritime issues with leaders including Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Nonetheless, it is the issue of conflicting claims in the South China Sea that is the true sack of diplomatic hot potatoes. Early indications are that Marsudi will be aiming to keep her country from burning its fingers. “The border claims should be resolved by the respective countries, but what Indonesia wants is that we should all prioritise settlement on a peaceful basis to maintain stability in the region,” she told the Jakarta Post. “We cannot afford to have a region that is insecure for economic development.”

Domestically, however, it is the fact that she is a woman that is perhaps most significant. “Indonesia has seen a rise in discrimination against women,” said Harsano. “It’s great that a woman has been made foreign minister. It will send a clear message to the Indonesian audience.” 

“Minority report” – Indonesian politics has thrown up some surprises of late, not least the election of Jakarta’s new governor. Meet the Chinese Christian who will step into Joko Widodo’s rather sizeable shoes

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