Sizeably Significant: Mr Paul Bekkers

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Although small in size, the Netherlands looms large internationally in terms of its economic significance.

“The Netherlands is a small country with a population of only 16 million people, but it’s the second biggest exporter of agricultural products globally,” says Mr. Paul Bekkers, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Malaysia.

He proceeds to elaborate on the strong commercial ties between the Netherlands and Malaysia: “We are the largest export destination for Malaysia in the EU and the biggest importer of palm oil – partly for other countries in the EU – and certified Malaysian timber in Europe. “

The economic presence of the Netherlands can be felt everywhere in Malaysia, with over 200 Dutch companies based here. This impressive portfolio includes shipping giant TNT and Shell (which just inked a landmark deal with Petronas to jointly invest US$12 billion over 30 years to recover oil off Malaysia’s Sarawak and Sabah coasts and Dutch products – are available ubiquitously.

For such a small country (only 41,543 km2 – roughly the size of Pahang), the Netherlands certainly packs a powerful economic punch.

Mr. Bekkers – unlike his country – is large in size, towering over me when I meet him at the Netherlands Embassy on Jalan Ampang. But – like the Netherlands – he is large in stature and significance. “As and Ambassador, I view myself as an entrepreneur, selling a different sort of product. Our mission is to foster long-term relations between the Netherlands and Malaysia and this works two ways: we showcase what the Netherlands offers here in Malaysia, and also promote Malaysia to people in the Netherlands,” explains the 50-year-old ambassador in his office, which overlooks the spectacular KL skyline.

Mr. Bekkers has been posted here for over two years and sees Malaysia as “a business-oriented country”, illustrating his point with an amusing comparison: “In Turkey, where I was stationed previously, if I was talking to a businessman within five minutes he would be talking about politics. But in Malaysia, if I am talking to a politician within five minutes he is talking about business!”

Mr. Bekkers describes being an ambassador as “the perfect job” which is “different every day” and one that combines “economic and trade work with cultural and political work.”

On the cultural front, the Netherlands Embassy made a huge splash by bringing, with the generous sponsorship of TNT, the stunning World Press Photo exhibition to Malaysia this year. “I am very glad we are able to bring this unique exhibition to the people of Malaysia,” he says.

“The rationale behind exhibiting the World Press Photo collection here was to show that the Netherlands promotes international cultural relations and the arts, and that we are open to different ways of thinking and seeing. There were over 108,000 entrants to the competition from around the world,” Mr. Bekkers comments.


Politically, the Netherlands Embassy is constantly involved in discussions with the Malaysian government and private sector. “We are engaged with the palm oil and timber industries,” he explains, “and we strive to promote conservationism, sustainability and biodiversity.”

Mr. Bekkers believes that as ambassador it is possible to “make a difference” and it was this idealism that initially inspired him to enter the foreign service. When he was 18, he spent a year in the USA on an exchange programme, met an amazing array of people from all over the world and discovered that they, despite their cultural differences, had an affinity.

“This experience triggered the idea for me that we are all – on some basic and fundamental level – the same. I knew from that time that I wanted to be a diplomat and I am grateful that I have been given that privilege,” he reflects. Since entering the foreign ministry 24 years ago, Mr. Bekkers has been posted to Ghana (where he married his then girlfriend), South Africa (where all of his three teenage children were born) and Turkey.

In between these assignments – typically consisting of four years – abroad, Mr. Bekkers has been based in the Netherlands, where he has served as a “roving ambassador” working for the government’s Development Corporation to try to improve the health and living conditions of others and promote peace around the world.

Malaysia is Mr. Bekkers first posting as an official, overseas ambassador and he is bullish about the country, its Transformation Programme and overall prospects. Mr. Bekkers also loves the lifestyle here. “Malaysia is very accommodating to foreigners. I like the weather and I like all of the green here in Kuala Lumpur. I also like being exposed to all of the different cultures and religions here,” he says.

Following the protocol, Mr. Bekkers might return to the Netherlands at the end of his four year tenure in Malaysia. “They usually don’t permit extensions. But I would extend here if I could,” he adds.

No matter who succeeds Mr. Bekkers as ambassador, the Netherlands will surely continue to have a prominent presence here in Malaysia, and is Mr. Bekkers sizeable influence and sterling efforts at promoting his country will outlast him.

Source: The Expat April 2012 Issue

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