An Afternoon with the Dutch Ambassador to Malaysia

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Most people shy away from conflict. But for HE Harry Molenaar, the thought of being a part of change is an exhilarating one. The Dutch Ambassador to Malaysia has had a stellar career that has taken him to Mandela-ruled South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda, and war-torn Iraq, before arriving in Kuala Lumpur eight months ago.

“It’s so different to being in Iraq,” he says, of his life in the Malaysian capital. “In Baghdad, I had security details and bodyguards and lived in a safe house equipped with an anti-mortar roof. I had a room on top of my office, and shared a bathroom with my deputy. So it was quite a cultural shock to be able to move freely around KL! “

Citing a keen interest in the political environment of these so-called “hardship” posts, Molenaar is quick to point out the gain from working in these situations. “You really learn to respect people who are rebuilding their lives, and gain a wealth of knowledge when it comes to international diplomacy,” he stresses. “Being able to witness change and development is extraordinary, so I’m lucky to have been part of history in that manner.”

Hailing from the administrative capital of his home nation, The Hague, Molenaar’s interest in cultures of the world took hold from a young age. “When I was in primary school, about 80% of my classmates were of Indonesian descent. So at birthday parties, we learnt to appreciate dishes like rendang and gado-gado,” he says. “In fact, Indonesian food is my favourite. Every time I head home, I make a beeline for the Indonesian restaurants in The Hague!”

Contributing to his global outlook was his keen interest in international news and politics. Interestingly enough, Molenaar chose to pursue a law degree at university, one that he completed but realised halfway through wasn’t his calling in life. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to become a lawyer!” he laughs. “At the end of my studies, there was an ad in one of the university publications for jobs in the Foreign Service. There were about 1,000 people applying for 15 spots so I didn’t think I would get in. Surprisingly, I did and here I am today!”

Having served in the former Sovietruled Georgia at the height of the Rose Revolution, as well as arriving in South Africa after the first democratic elections, Molenaar says his time in Foreign Service has been well spent: “There is a lot of fulfilment that comes out of a country’s development, and the journey taken is absolutely fascinating. As a diplomat, I feel very privileged to have served in these parts of the world.”

Despite his positive outlook on both work and life, Molenaar admits there are moments that are tougher to handle. “I was in Rwanda in 1998, and although it was four years after the genocide the country experienced, the scars still ran deep,” he recalls. “Daily life was fairly normal, but when you spoke to people, it was clear some were still quite traumatised by it all. You leave these posts having a whole new level of admiration for the ordinary person.”

His stint as a diplomat has seen him rub shoulders with the crème de la crème of the world’s population, as well as the ordinary (and extraordinary) folk in many nations. But when pressed about the highlight of his career, Molenaar answers almost immediately. “It has to be meeting Nelson Mandela twice during my posting in South Africa,” he says, full of admiration.

“Mandela immediately filled the room with his presence. He really was an outstanding personality. For someone who was locked up for so many years, to not bear a grudge against those who put him there, and successfully reconcile an entire nation, is a testament to how amazing this man was. He essentially brought a country together.”

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Although his Kuala Lumpur posting will be his last one before retirement, Molenaar is keen to bolster the already successful relationship between The Netherlands and Malaysia. “We have a solid economic relationship with Malaysia, and we are the largest EU investors here,” he explains. “We have also seen growth in small- and medium-sized companies here. That is the most enjoyable part of my job – bringing people together and helping to establish them here.”

With so many diverse postings, what advice does he have for aspiring diplomats wanting to follow in his footsteps? “It is attractive to live in a different place, but you need to be able to adapt, and to do it quickly. The first six months is usually a steep learning curve, but it’s best to hit the ground running,” he states. “Have an open mind and be both positive and flexible. That way you’re likely to make the best out of any situation.”

Invaluable advice for life in general, I’d say.

Source: The Expat Magazine July 2014

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