Before Andre Omer Siregar started selling Indonesia as a 23-year veteran of the country’s diplomatic corps, he spent two years marketing the Asian equivalent of Procter & Gamble‘s Pert shampoo: Rejoice.
It was a short stint in the private sector for a young man with deep diplomatic roots, but the current Indonesian consul general in Houston learned much about how American multinationals outsmart competitors and make their products known.
“The values that I learned in Procter & Gamble really solidified my learning about the corporate culture,” Mr. Siregar told Global Atlanta in a Consular Conversations luncheon interview. “There’s always a way that Americans have this marketing mix, so I brought that in my career.”
Mr. Siregar, who has an MBA in addition to his diplomatic training and is now working on a Ph.D., sees an allegory there in the way Indonesia builds its profile in the U.S. broadly and in the 10 Southern states (including Georgia) where he represents the world’s fourth most populous country.
With 260 million people, Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, a diverse developing country of 17,000 islands and more than 700 tribes at the center of one of the world’s most dynamic economic regions: Southeast Asia.
Economically, the country faces a number of seemingly incompatible mandates: It’s a huge archipelago at risk of climate change but also a mining juggernaut, supplying tin, nickel and other minerals to the world. On the energy front, it’s embracing coal and growing its fossil fuel production while also pivoting (some would argue too slowly for a “climate superpower”) to cleaner sources. Religiously, it’s majority-Muslim but known as a bridge between the West and the rest of the Islamic world.
Indonesia is also unknown to many American investors, but it’s also a darling of private-equity firms, minting new tech unicorns seemingly by the week like established super-app Gojek and upstart e-commerce giant Bukalapak, which provide an astounding level of convenience to a very young, mobile-savvy population, even in places like Jakarta, the capital city known for epic traffic jams.
“It’s become a lifestyle,” he said of the way that digital services have changed daily life. “We Indonesians, we love our convenience.”
In a discussion before a live audience at WIN – Taste of Bali restaurant in Atlanta, sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC, Mr. Siregar noted that the gap in understanding exists on both sides, and that “quiet but very significant” members of the Indonesian diaspora here are helping bridge it, along with new modes of communication via social media and digital messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
Despite 75 years of diplomatic relations and 40-plus years of the consulate’s presence in Houston, it’s still unclear to many decision-makers back home in Jakarta that the southern part of the U.S. is an economic force to be reckoned with, as most of the focus tends to rest on places like Washington, Los Angeles and New York.
“What’s very quietly not spoken at the minister level is that our region contributes a third of Indonesia-U.S. trade, about $8 billion — and during the COVID times, it’s actually increased,” he said. “I see in Georgia there’s so much potential” from agriculture to the movie industry.
Mr. Siregar was in Atlanta in part for the Global Atlanta Consular Conversations luncheon but also to attend the Travel & Adventure Show, at which Indonesia was poised to promote itself as a growing destination.
While COVID-19 slammed the country hard in recent months, internal vaccination rates have improved, and the latest wave has subsided to the point that the tourist and conference hub of Bali is now open to vaccinated foreign travelers. International flights are expected to resume shortly.
Resuming flights and enabling investors to experience Indonesia will be key to the country’s ambitious plans for post-COVID growth. Indonesia plans to triple the size of its $3 trillion economy to more than $10 trillion in the next 25 years, and it will have a chance to showcase its bona fides in upcoming international forums like next year’s G-20 and the 2023 summit of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, of which Jakarta is the secretariat.
Mr. Siregar noted that even as the economic might of China grows in the region, Indonesia maintains strong ties with the United States, partially due to the stability that it provides on a maritime-security basis.
“When it comes to U.S.-China, Indonesia has always been the middle guy. We can persuade China, and we’re very close to the U.S. even on the Indo-Pacific front,” he said, noting that further economic collaboration would help solidify the U.S. position in Indonesia.
Tax and labor reforms, along with a single-window approach to keep Indonesian localities from competing with one anther for large foreign deals, are designed to make that process simpler.
One collaboration taking an initiative to build mRNA manufacturing capacity in Indonesia using U.S. technology and knowhow so it can be an exporter of life-saving vaccines on the coronavirus and other diseases to the rest of the region. Indonesia is also playing a growing role in satellite technology, an area that might be ripe for collaboration with Georgia universities.
Mr. Siregar added one tip for Georgia: To get the state on the radar from the perspective of Asian decision-makers, try to get on the agenda as a host city for upcoming forums of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, which the U.S. is hoping to host in 2023.
Before arriving in Houston about a year ago, Mr. Siregar was coordinator for high-level dialogue on Indo-Pacific cooperation in Jakarta in 2019. He also served as director for regional cooperation in the foreign ministry for Asia-Pacific and Africa affairs, with 34 regional organizations under his watch.
From 2014-18, he served as consul general in the Australian city of Darwin and prior to that was an interpreter for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, interpreting for three U.S. presidents.
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