An Afternoon with the Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia

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A word that springs to mind when meeting His Excellency Miles Kupa, the Australian High Commissioner, is unflappable. Having now worked for the Australian Foreign Service for the better part of thirty years, it is perhaps inevitable that Kupa would have become a man difficult to faze – his first posting in the top job was in Saddam’s Iraq during the Iran war, an experience he describes politely as “Difficult,” before cheerily adding, “but there was great camaraderie!”

That said, the cocktail of careful rationality, open mindedness, and calm responses that Kupa possesses could be partly genetic. Born to a Danish mother and a Czech father, his diplomat Dad decided to move the family to Australia when Kupa was just a toddler to escape the communist regime of his homeland, and Kupa grew up with a natural interest in international affairs and a first-hand insight into the realities of the diplomatic service.

Although destined to follow have to work harder to in his father’s footsteps, get beyond [Australian] Kupa was a youngster of stereotypes,” he says various interests. His degree – but thankfully the was in the arts – he spent his task has been more student years on the stage in university productions or slaving over the university newspaper – and it was only after considering careers as a civil engineer and a journalist that he settled on the foreign service. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” he says to explain his reticence, “but I sat the exams and was fortunate to pass.”

He was obviously well-suited to the role, and he admits delightedly that “the reality was even better than I expected!” A last minute rearrangement in his first overseas posting was no call for consternation either: “I spent months learning French,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “and then ended up in Bangkok!” He made it to Paris some years later, but only once Thailand had got under his skin, and it is a place he still returns to regularly. “There is a rich, deep culture in Thailand,” he says, “and it is so interesting to delve into.” While subsequent postings took Kupa to such varied destinations as Egypt and Europe, it is Asia that has become something of a recurring theme. He spent time in the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia before he arrived in Malaysia over two years ago, and he has never stopped marvelling at the places and people, the cultural differences, and the diversity of this region. “I am constantly in learning mode,” he explains. “The more you learn, the more you realise how much more there is to learn.”

This learning process forms part of what he admits is one of the most demanding aspects of the role: getting past the picture-postcard surface to access the real heart of the nation. “The challenge is to try to understand the country – the culture, the arts, the politics, the economy – and to find a way to operate within it.” Sometimes this can be very difficult – “when you don’t have a connection you straightforward in Malaysia due to the fair knowledge base most local people have on Australia. A healthy amount of Malaysian tourists head down under, and Australia is one of the top locations for education, with 20,000 Malaysians currently studying there and a further 15,000 studying at Malaysian campuses of Australian universities. “Here in Malaysia there is an accurate knowledge base,” he explains, “and most people have positive views of the country.”

They are views that Kupa shares, naturally, and despite clearly adoring Southeast Asia and its diversity, he sees Australia as a probable location for his retirement, whenever that day comes. “I still have a home in Canberra,” he explains, “and there are certain things I miss about Australia. The Australian landscape, and the light – it’s so strong there. We have more sky, you see!” he jokes. “I also feel, relatively, there are more opportunities there. Whatever their background, kids have a chance.”

This may become an increasingly pertinent thought in Kupa’s mind as his son Alex, now 14, grows older and starts seeking his own way in the world. For now, however, the threesome – Kupa’s wife is also a diplomat – are enjoying all that life in Malaysia affords them.

“I count myself very fortunate,” says Kupa. “It has been rewarding, both personally and professionally. There have been challenges, but I count myself very privileged.”

Whatever the challenges, it seems unlikely they will perturb the calm Kupa, and as he glides away, back to his work with a pleasant smile and wave, I feel sure that the Malaysia-Australia relationship is in safe, steady hands.

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Source: The Expat January 2013

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