Read: Kristy Sword-Gusmao's lecture on Herb Feith
01 September 2011
Read the transcript of Her Excellency Kirsty Sword Gusmao's speech at the Melbourne launch event for the new biography From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith on Tuesday 2 August 2011 at Monash University, Melbourne.
Herb Feith was Australia's first official international volunteer in 1951. He was the inspiration for the creation of the Volunteer Graduate Scheme and the Overseas Service Bureau (now AVI), and a great humanitarian.
This special event also featured speeches from Peter Mares and Jemma Purdey, author of From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The Life of Herb Feith.
2011 Annual Herb Feith Foundation Lecture – Kirsty Sword Gusmão
THE LIFE OF HERB FEITH: A PERSONAL REFLECTION FROM TIMOR-LESTE
I am deeply humbled by the request to me to present this lecture, and all the more so given the name that it honours, the man that it remembers. I feel honoured by the presence here this evening of Betty Feith, members of the Feith family and a whole host of close friends and associates. What I intend to share with you this evening is very much a personal reflection on the late Herb Feith, my personal association with him and the mark which he left on me in terms of some of the twists and turns in my life’s journey over the past action-packed 30 years or so. I will also share a snapshot of where Timor-Leste stands today, particularly in the area of education.
As a student of Indonesian here at Monash in the 1980s I was never taught directly by Herb Feith, however as the father of Indonesian Studies in Australia, his figure and example loomed large and it was with awe and admiration that I would occasionally rub shoulders with him in the corridors and classrooms of this university. Together with Jamie Mackay and John Legge, Herb made this University’s Centre of Southeast Asian Studies a world-renowned centre, and I recall vividly the rich array of visitors, issues, debates and scholarly discussions that buzzed around the Centre constantly thanks to a full schedule of seminars, workshops and conferences on the hottest, most debated issues of the day.
At the tender age of four, I learned my first words of Indonesian. My father was a mature-age student of the language here at Monash University, and in the evenings he would return home to teach my brother and me some basic greetings. “Apa kabar?”, “baik baik saja”. When many years later, at Golden Square High School in Bendigo, Indonesian was offered as an elective, I chose the language on the strength of this childhood connection. I was too young to appreciate that there was also geographical logic to the choice, the other options being French and German. Despite being a fairly typically insular Australian country town, Bendigo had developed something of a reputation as a centre for Indonesian language studies, and lessons were frequently supplemented with cooking classes, visits to our classroom by Gamelan orchestras and Balinese dance troupes. My fascination for the country and its culture had its roots there, in country Victoria.
Fast-forward to 1984, and as a fresh-faced high school graduate I found myself enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts degree at Melbourne University. Monash was the place to be for anyone with a serious interest in and passion for Indonesian studies though, and I soon transferred to Monash to escape from the somewhat conservative environment at Melbourne. It was at Monash that I learned finally the colloquial Bahasa Indonesia of everyday Indonesians which would serve me well in the course of the dozens of visits I was to make to the country in the years to come. The regular contact and exchanges with inspiring and dynamic teachers such as David Hill, Krishna Sen and the many visiting scholars and social commentators from Indonesia awakened in me an interest in Indonesian political life. Suharto’s Orde Baru or New Order regime was alive and well back in the 1980s, and it was at Monash that my eyes were opened to the reality of Suharto’s dictatorship, the role of the Indonesian Armed Forces in suppressing dissent, the rape of the environment by unscrupulous logging and mining companies, and of human rights abuses in Aceh, West Papua and East Timor.
I had the very good fortune to come to know Herb more intimately in his role of activist and human rights campaigner in the offices of the ACFOA Human Rights Office in Fitzroy some years later. I have fond memories of Herb curling up for an afternoon nap by a desk in the office where I was working as a volunteer and occasional writer for the magazine, Inside Indonesia. Some years later, in my first paying job as an Administrative Assistant at the Overseas Service Bureau, I came to know of Herb’s work in pioneering the Volunteer Graduate Scheme in Indonesia in the 1950s. Like so many of my colleagues at OSB, I was somewhat in awe of the man who, through his passion for and intimate knowledge of Indonesian society and politics, had succeeded in bringing Indonesia, its culture, language, political environment and development challenges to life for ordinary Australians. His example of foregoing the familiar and the comfortable to work alongside Indonesians, not as a foreign expert but on a completely equal footing and for equal pay, was the beacon for the core values of the OSB or later AVI volunteer program. The AVI program pioneered by Herb made the challenges of developing nations real for ordinary Australian citizens and allowed them a unique and precious opportunity to learn and grow as individuals, professionals and citizens of a lucky country with scant understanding of just how lucky it was and is.
I can’t even begin to tell you what an exciting and dynamic place the office of AVI in Fitzroy was. Even from the confines of a role in Administration, there was daily exposure to debates and discussion on every aspect of the challenges facing developing nations, and most often through the intimate prism of the experiences of current and returning volunteers. I had the pleasure to come to know Herb’s son, David Feith who, if memory serves me correctly, was working on the India program back then. The films, regular lunch-time talks and office chat amongst field officers was a true education for me. I could not have imagined then how significant that environment was in leading me to where I am today, nor how very well it prepared me to participate in the rebuilding of the country I now call home.
When I decided to live and work in Indonesia in 1992, my aim was not only to work more intensively for East Timor, but also to deepen my understanding of Indonesia and Indonesians. The three and a half years I spent in Jakarta changed my life, not only because during that time I met the man who is now my husband, but also because over that period I established deep and abiding friendships with ordinary Indonesians who welcomed me into their homes and their lives. And the experience of engaging with the concerns of those people I met every day – civil servants, bus drivers NGO workers and bank tellers – and of immersing myself in their culture caused me to reflect on my own roots, on what it was to be an Australian. Perhaps in much the same way Herb Feith would have done some 40 years earlier. I began to examine some of the values and beliefs which underpinned my worldview and my attitudes to what I saw around me. It was this process as much as the causes I adopted whilst in Indonesia which was life-changing.
The interest in East Timor which had been ignited through my studies at Monash University was nurtured at AVI, one of a number of Australian NGOs which quietly but persistently advocated for the right to self-determination of the East Timorese people. It was at AVI that I met Abel Guterres, a smiling bus driver and fervent independence campaigner. The wonderful Bill Armstrong, AVI’s then-CEO, perhaps foreseeing or at the very least believing that one day the charismatic Abel would become independent East Timor’s Ambassador to Australia, offered Abel use of AVI office space and facilities to conduct his important lobbying work. Making use of my Indonesian language skills, I was able to help Abel and other members of the clandestine resistance movement, to translate reports from inside occupied East Timor and to help make public the tales of appalling human rights abuses which these documents told. My conscience was pricked. As Australians and as neighbours, it seemed to me that we had a duty to speak out in defence of a martyred people. My love for Indonesia was neither diminished nor compromised by my growing awareness of conditions inside East Timor. My first few visits to Indonesia in the mid 1980s had taught me that the enemy of East Timor – oppression and military abuse of power – was also the scourge of Indonesian society.
A couple of years into my three-and-a-half year stint in Indonesia, I was approached by AVI to become the organisation’s Liaison Officer. It was a pretty dreadful job really involving moving requests for approvals of volunteer placements from the desk of one bureaucrat to another, and enduring long hours spent sweltering in government offices and city buses.
It was tough, too, juggling an unofficial role as East Timor independence activist and staff member of Australia’s official volunteer-sending agency. Throughout the period of my stay in Jakarta in the early 1990s, I became more intimately engaged in the East Timorese struggle through my association with and work for Xanana. I was his English teacher, translator and link to the outside world, thanks to the access to email (still a rarity back then) I enjoyed. It was not an easy existence straddling the worlds of expatriate worker and private secretary to one of the regime’s most maligned public enemies! I recall visiting the Australian Embassy in the course of my AVI duties in 1994 and being lectured by one of the staff there on East Timor’s fate. “Timor-Timur is about as likely to gain its independence as is Tasmania to secede from mainland Australia”, he proclaimed.
Throughout thoese years, Herb was a regular visitor to Jakarta. He always had time and a sympathetic ear for my tales of woe and risk-taking and his advice was always considered and thoughtful. He never once told me to give up what I was doing, however. He cared deeply about the fate of East Timorese students in Indonesia, many of whom were victims of persecution by the Indonesian authorities. He wrote letters to Xanana through me in which he urged Xanana to continue to pursue non-violence and dialogue with Indonesia as a means of reaching a solution. Being the visionary and strategic thinker that he was, he presented to Xanana too his latest ideas on how an independent Timor-Leste might look and the stages it might move through in becoming a sovereign nation.
Invariably our meetings would end with Herb encircling my head in that peculiar embrace familiar to all his friends, and ending with a kiss planted fairly and squarely in the middle of the forehead.
I was convinced that I had achieved the pinnacle of my career within Australian Volunteers International when, in 1994, I was tasked with obtaining a work permit for Herb and Betty Feith who were coming back to Indonesia as volunteers at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta and Andalas University in Padang. Happily, I managed to get the paperwork through the corridors of the Ministry of Education and out the other end of the system at the Sekretariat Negara before I had to make a rapid exit from Indonesia in early 1996. The Intel or Intelligence Services hadn’t taken kindly to the fact of my having assisted a group of young East Timorese and Indonesian activists to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the invasion by occupying the Dutch and Russian Embassies in Jakarta. I would have loved nothing more dearly than to have visited Herb and Betty in Yogyakarta and to witness with my own eyes the great regard and esteem in which I know he was held by his students in the Politics Department of Gajah Mada. Sadly that was not to be – to my great distress and horror, I returned to Melbourne in 1996 to find that I had joined the ranks of many of my more outspoken friends and colleagues on the dreaded daftar hitam or black-list.
In 1998, it was in the offices of AVI, wearing by then my new hat as Program Officer for the Thailand and Burma Border program, that we sat with our radios tuned to the ABC News and listened to the momentous news of President Suharto’s resignation. The whoops and cheers must have been audible to shoppers and diners the length of Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, and the champagne flowed all afternoon. I had been temporarily reassigned to the Indonesia Program in the weeks leading up to Suharto’s demise to assist with the evacuation and relocation of AVIs who had become unwittingly caught up in the turmoil and frenzy of the reformasi period. Little did I know then, less than 12 months later I would be packing up my bags and moving to Jakarta once again – this time as member of a small support team which would assist Xanana Gusmao to navigate the delicate process of negotiations towards the long-awaited act of self-determination – the Popular Consultation of 1999.
While Herb and scores of other of our most steadfast friends in the Australian and international community were defending, often physically and directly, the East Timorese as they cast their votes in August 1999, I was working alongside Xanana in Jakarta in his prison-house in Salemba. My work involved everything from playing chess with the prison guards to keep them sweet, to fielding requests for interviews from local and international journalists, interpreting and note-taking at meetings with representatives of the UN, the Indonesian government and military, members of the East Timorese community and pro-autonomy groups including militias. For the second time in less than 5 years, I found myself soon after being evacuated out of Indonesia to Australia, only this time it was with Xanana by my side. The announcement of the results of the Popular Consultation in favour of independence and Australia’s leadership of the peacekeeping intervention had provoked a tide of anti-Australian and anti-East Timorese sentiment.
I am not sure that anyone in the world will have enjoyed such a well-rounded AVI experience as I – for a number of years from 2000 onwards, I was supported by AVI as a volunteer assisting Xanana in his role of President of the National Council of Timorese Resistance. My volunteer salary was Xanana’s and my only source of income right up until the time I fell pregnant with our second son, Kay Olok, in late 2001. To talk you through the exciting, exhausting, challenging roller-coaster ride which was that period in our life in newly independent Timor-Leste would take me until Friday. Keeping the focus on our relationship with Indonesia, just let me tell you that in July 2002 Xanana and I made our first official visit to Jakarta as President and First Lady of Timor-Leste. East Timorese flags fluttered alongside red and white Indonesian ones down the main Jalan Sudirman drag, and I can still remember erupting into peals of gleeful laughter when I caught sight of the portrait of myself and Xanana hanging at the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout. The irony was just too much to bear – when I had been forced to flee the country in early 1996, I had been aware that my photograph was on display in every Indonesian airport to facilitate my arrest. Now here I was with my likeness being presented in the most public display of welcome and celebration imaginable! What a difference a few years and a regime change can make.
Of course, in his roles as both President and now Prime Minister, my husband has placed a great deal of emphasis upon fostering the closest possible relations with Indonesia. He has been criticized by some for that. Were he alive today, I feel certain that Herb would have participated actively in the debate surrounding the tensions between reconciliation and calls for justice for the perpetrators of war crimes in Timor-Leste.
So where are we today? In 2012, Timor-Leste celebrates ten years of life as an independent and sovereign nation. A great deal has been achieved in terms of establishment of all of the key institutions of state – a judiciary, education and health systems, national defence and police forces, a diplomatic service, to name just a few. Small improvements in standards of living and income have been recorded, and the recently launched Strategic Development Plan for 2011-2030 lays out a strategic vision for the nation’s development across all sectors over the next 20 years.
Ten years is a short time within which to overturn the legacy of the period of Indonesian occupation and indeed in which to build a nation from scratch. We have much still to learn as a state and as a civil society. As Xanana has said repeatedly over the years, we need to reinvent our notion of patriotism and service to our people who are amongst the poorest in our region. My Alola Foundation has contributed significantly to improving the access of girl children to education and to reducing our maternal and infant mortality rate, one of the highest in the world. I am extremely proud of all of Alola’s vast achievements in the areas of economic empowerment, education, advocacy and maternal and child health and of the fact that the organization is 100% managed and led by East Timorese.
In my capacity as Goodwill Ambassador for Education and Chair of the Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO, I have turned my attention to the education sector and some of the huge challenges we face in meeting our EFA or Education For All goals of free, quality education for all our youngest citizens. Close to 80% of our private and public infrastructure, including schools, was destroyed in the violence of 1999. Rebuilding schools and equipping them with modern facilities has been a priority of successive governments since independence. We now need to focus on creating policy frameworks that support the removal of all barriers to education. Whilst rates of enrolment in basic education are high at 90%, large numbers of students, up to 70%, drop out before completing year 9. There are a whole host of reasons for the high drop-out and grade repetition rates, including poverty, problems of transportation, low educational standards of parents, particularly in rural areas, early marriage and pressures to enter employment. Nevertheless, language of instruction is also a significant factor contributing to quality of learning. Portuguese and Tetum, our two official languages, are presently used as the languages of instruction in classrooms, in spite of the fact that neither language is the mother tongue for possibly the majority of students. Some 32 other local languages are spoken in homes across the country. Together with our Language in Education Working Group and with specialist advice from Professor Joe Lo Bianco from Melbourne University, I have helped to develop a Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education policy for Timor-Leste, and I am pleased to say that we are now in the early phases of implementation of the same. I feel certain that the use of mother tongues at the pre-school and early primary levels of education will improve children’s ability to learn to read and write, help them in their acquisition of the official languages and also ensure that the brilliant kaleidoscope of our local languages is enriched and preserved.
In reading Herb’s biography, a wonderful book lovingly authored by Jemma Purdey, and in undertaking the reading and reflection for this lecture, I have been reminded of the abiding influence on my work and personal philosophy of Herb Feith and the values that he imparted through all of his endeavours, including his pioneering of the AVI program. In all of the immense challenges and steep learning curves I have faced over the past 20 years or so, and including in my most important role as mother of three boisterous little boys, I have been guided by the egalitarianism, modesty, earthiness and humanity which were Herb’s trademark. They are not qualities that sit particularly comfortably in the East Timorese context, particularly that of a political elite which is quite stratified, but I hold fast to them just the same. It sends our household staff into a feint, but I insist that my boys wash the dishes and do chores, I dispensed with personal security three years ago to give the boys and me a more normal, anonymous daily existence, and when I travel to Jakarta I end up confined to my hotel room because I can’t bear to be whisked from one location to another in a police motorcade, with sirens blaring and lights flashing. From the sweltering interior of the sardine can-packed bis kota of my Jakarta days in the 1990’s I used to curse those damned VIPs who would bring the already bottle necked traffic to a complete standstill. It makes me shudder to think that I have now become one myself!
The world lost a “Gandhi”, a great scholar, a husband, father, friend and grandfather in 2001, but Herb Feith lives on in all of us in a variety of special ways. Thank you, Jemma, for your wonderful and affectionate tribute to Herb’s life and for allowing me this occasion to offer my own.
Obrigadu, terima kasih !
Read more about AVI's history and Herb Feith's contribution to Australian international volunteering