by Rio Helmi
Though many obituaries have been, and undoubtedly will be, published about Pak Joop Ave, whose career spanned two major political eras of modern Indonesian history and whose contributions to Indonesia were huge, by people far more competent than myself, I feel compelled to pen just a few words about this extraordinary man.
The list of the offices that he held are impressive enough on their own – between 1993 and 1998 he wrapped his official government career as Minister of Tourism, Post and Telecommunications and certainly made great, indelible marks on all of those fields. Indeed he jump-started Indonesian tourism on such a scale, beginning in 1982 with his tenure as Director General of Tourism, that internationally his name became synonomous with the tourism industry in Indonesia. During that period he also served on the PATA board of directors.
Before that he had served as Director General of Protocol and Consular Affairs, Head of the Presidential Household, Consul General in New York in the Sixties, and of course going all the way back to being hired for the first time by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1957. There was much more indeed. Joop’s unfailing interest and love of Indonesian cultures ran deep in his blood, his was no bureaucratic pandering to the politically correct. Witness the many illustrated books on Indonesian culture that he patronised, initiated and even wrote.
Despite this impressive career, the reason I write here about him was more about the personality of the man himself. I got to know him a little whilst working on number of projects with him at the helm. Joop was eclectic and eccentric, and occasionally controversial. There were times when we disagreed. Yet even when I would vocally object to some of the policies he promoted, though he was “boss” and could have just yelled me down, he never failed to explain his reasoning with a logic, however flawed I personally might have thought it to be, that was clearly well thought out. He was always direct and lucid about his reasons, and as ex-journalist Sandra Hamid put it “So open. Very personable.” He never pulled rank for his own sake. That was just one of the things that won my respect.
Another thing was how he was always thinking about ‘the people’. It was just in his blood. Whatever one thought about his flamboyant style, ultimately his motivation was to give Indonesians dignity on the world’s stage, to show the richness of the varied cultures and peoples of his country for what they were, deserving of respect and admiration. He was tireless, even after his retirement, even during the last years of his battle with illness.
Joop liked to push people, not to push them around, but to push them to do better, to go beyond self imposed limits. Though my diplomat parents knew him from the foreign ministry days, we first got acquainted during a book project “Seven Days in the Kingdom” set up by publisher Didier Millet in Thailand in the late Eighties. One day on a bus heading to a publicity event, Joop turned around in the seat in front of me and said “Rio, we should do something like this in Indonesia”. And that started the ball rolling on what was to be a whole chain of events, starting with the book “Indonesia, A Voyage Through the Archipelago”. I worked as Chief Photographer on that book, and Joop pushed me hard, but he also always backed me up. If I needed a favor from some bigwig or government department he would pick up the phone right then and there and shove, pull, or charm whoever it was on the other end until he got what was needed. He was a big man with a big heart.
Joop basically had put me on a bobsled and given it a big shove down the run, but kept an eye out. Over the years, I saw and heard of him doing this to many people who he thought could do more. It was a kind of benign meddling. During the various eulogies last night during his wake at the Kerta Semadi funeral home, this theme came out over and again.
To paraphase Jack Daniels who recounted the story when he questioned Joop on certain honors he bestowed various operators who Jack felt weren’t deserving (including Jack himself), Joop apparently looked him in the eye and more or less said “This will encourage them to do better next time”. I Gede Ardika, who saw Joop as his mentor and himself became Minister of Tourism and Culture during the Gus Dur presidency, told of how Joop berated his Balinese proteges for not thinking more broadly, how Joop instilled in them the idea of “Local go Global”, how Joop insisted that Bali should be a starting point for Indonesian tourism and pushed for the “Bali and Beyond” concept. Jonathan Parapak, ex-chairman of Indosat, told of how Joop pushed for the internet in Indonesia back in the early days when it seemed an impossibility – we wouldn’t be haunting facebook and tweeting our thumbs off without that initial push from Joop.
And lastly was his constant, true love of Bali (Ubud was one of his favorites), so much so that he repeatedly insisted that he was to be cremated on the island and not in his birth place in Central Java. He had a unique take on Bali and thought the world should share his love of it. Once when we clashed over mass tourism and the Garuda Wisnu Kencana park concept, he looked me in the eye and said firmly “Bali belongs to everybody, not just to one group of people”. Though I still struggle with that, something in it rings true. He dared to tread the fine, land mine strewn line between exploitation and preservation exactly because he loved the island and its people so much. He knew that development was inevitable, but unlike others in power truly sought to find solutions that were equitable in a flawed political system, and to empower all Balinese who had potential.
My hat is off. Go in peace Joop Ave.