An Afternoon with Dr Guenter Gruber, the German Ambassador

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When taken back to basics, the role of an ambassador is no different from the role of any person trying to establish a relationship: a willingness to tolerate differences is the key. It is clear within half an hour of meeting His Excellency Dr Guenter Gruber, the German Ambassador, that he doesn’t merely tolerate differences, he revels in them, because his own life has been anything but ordinary.

Gruber’s childhood, spent in post-War Germany, was humble in the most honest application of the word. “My mother had suffered through two world wars, ” he remembers, “and our home, Munich, had been two-thirds destroyed by the war. People had nothing.” The small flat he grew up in – now the home of his adult son – was shared with four other families. “We had no money, I had to work straightaway,” he explains, “but we were happy.”

Fast forward 50-odd years and life is very different: Dr Gruber’s office overlooks KL’s Twin Towers and his weekly schedule involves rubbing shoulders with royalty. Humility was not surrendered on the journey, however, and while Gruber marvels at the satisfaction he gets from his job; his interests and pleasures remain those with no price tag. He loves to play sports, he always eats at local stalls – “Jalan Alor is our favourite place” he says – and he is fiercely proud of his country. “Munich is the best city in the world,” he declares, “and I adore Europe; I am a dedicated European.” While many of the world’s northern inhabitants are wringing their hands at the state of the economy, Dr Gruber’s outlook is reassuringly upbeat. “The way Europe has gone from strength to strength in my lifetime is just wonderful,” he beams. “We have peace, which is the most important thing.”

European pride was offset with an early eagerness to experience different cultures, and the young Gruber set off to explore Asia at the first opportunity. “I went overland the first time,” he remembers, “through Afghanistan and Turkey. I just wanted to get beyond Europe, and Asia was the furthest I could go.” His intrepid travels took him all around Southeast Asia in the late 60s, passing through a Malaysia that’s very different to the one he enjoys today. “It was so different,” he remembers. “Outside the cities there was nobody. All along the east coast were just villages, with local people doing their handicrafts and living in the traditional way.”

Having had a tantalising taste of different countries and cultures, Dr Gruber sought out, in a naïve fog, a job in the Foreign Service, and he freely admits that the reality was something of a shock. “Suddenly I was a civil servant; it seemed rather boring and it really wasn’t easy!” He persevered, fell in love with the job, and eventually found himself, along with his diplomat wife, back in his beloved Southeast Asia.

His work took him first to Jakarta in 1986, and then Singapore and beyond – New York, New Zealand, and Sydney – before the move to Malaysia came in 2008. He has now been here four years, but his enthusiasm has not dimmed. He remains determined to bring out the best in his new home by utilising the successes of his native land, especially in terms of being green.

“Germany is undoubtedly a leader in terms of environmental issues,” he stresses, “and so I have a lot to bring to help educate Malaysia.” He laments the excessive waste that he sees all around him, and strives to set the example. “I always take my own plastic bags, I take the stairs, I cycle to work; little things.” Changing social behaviours will take some time, he admits, but he works hard to speak to students and try to influence the generation of tomorrow. “A lot of developing countries look to Malaysia for global solutions” he explains, “so setting an example is very important.”

With such passion for his cause and a delight for Asian life, and I wonder if – or when – the self-confessed patriot will find himself back in Europe. “Germany is my home, I will always go back there,” he says firmly, “but we live in a world where we don’t have to make choices anymore. We can spend part of the year in one place, and part of it in another; we are global citizens! I don’t worry about it, my life will be fantastic whatever it is.”

The young German boy has come a long way from his cramped early years, and while his optimism about the present suggests an ability to appreciate the differences his life has emerged through, he is clearly conscious of the importance of making a difference for the world beyond himself. “The question I always ask,” he concludes, “is ‘what is your legacy?’ Whatever you do in life, it is what you leave behind that matters.”

Source: The Expat October 2012

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